There’s a good argument to be made for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as last year’s best game. Perhaps even the best game of this generation so far. CD Projekt Red brought a (dare I say unrivalled) level of craft and production to bring that world to life in a way that few could argue against. Even more impressive is its writing, with incredible multifaceted characters and storylines loaded with twists and turns. Even the side quests were packed with powerful curveballs.
After Wild Hunt’s first expansion Hearts of Stone triumphantly spun its Faustian yarn around the core game’s preexisting city of Oxenfurt, CD Projekt Red’s last hurrah for the series that made their name whisks you away to the duchy of Toussaint- a mountainous, French/ Tuscan renaissance-era-inspired land of knightly chivalry.
Geralt is summoned to Toussaint by duchess Anna Henrietta to solve an evolving string of murders of knights of the realm, victims of brutal slayings by a being known as the Beast of Beauclair. Along the way you’ll cavort with vampires, attend masquerade balls, fight in grand tourneys, and otherwise chase a trail soaked with blood and wine.
Early on in the expansion there’s a clear shift of pace. You’ll often arrive at a scene that is currently unfolding- the immediate aftermath of something awful. Whereas many investigative portions of the base game were archaeology hours or days after the fact, an early mission in Blood and Wine has you rocking up to a small town scant moments after terrible violence. A terrified horse gallops past you in the opposite direction and soldiers lose their grip on their last moments of life, eviscerated. Following such a fresh trail of destruction really gave a sense of urgency to proceedings in a way that poring through crime scenes long after the fact just didn’t.
Since The Witcher has always been about clever subversion, I was expecting a great amount of mockery levelled at Arthurian legend and the chivalric virtues. Yet while this is a promising emergent theme early on, Blood and Wine’s story doesn’t quite pursue that line with the same dogged focus that Hearts of Stone employed with its critical eye on Faust and Pan Twardowski. Still, in true Witcher style, this is a story rife with shocking reveals and intriguing characters. Special praise must go to Regis, a down-to-Earth friend from Geralt’s past whose inclusion will please fans of the books.
The tale that unravels in Blood and Wine is certainly engrossing and a lot of it’s just done right. The absolute highlight for me must be one of the subtler fairy tale nods in the game that has you investigating a spoon-collecting ghoul. It took me a while to see the link to Beauty and the Beast, but it’s there- but with reversed gender roles and a clever heaping of irony. There’s a subtlety there that perfectly encapsulates The Witcher. The resolution of this excellent thread serves to highlight not only the quality of CD Projekt Red’s storytelling, but also their runaway success in realising Geralt as a character.
It’s increasingly obvious in Blood and Wine that Geralt is a fully-fledged person that we’re keeping tabs on rather than a blank slate for us to project ourselves onto. Not only does he have deep history a lot of characters that we’re just meeting, but no matter which way you choose to take each branching questline, your decisions feel right for him. Either way of resolving the problem of the spoon-collecting ghoul reveals aspects of Geralt that would ring true with anyone’s interpretation of him. It’s one of CD Projekt Red’s greatest triumphs.
Along that line, I’m extremely pleased that your Geralt’s romantic choices are honoured in Blood and Wine. Hearts of Stone’s use of Shani as a romantic prospect felt slightly too uncomfortably forced for my liking, since my Geralt was pledged to Triss yet the script called for flirtation with little room for deviation. In this expansion, though, there are occasional yet important references to whichever relationship you pursued back in the core game, if you pursued a relationship at all. It’s a great touch that really helps pay off any serious romantic storylines pursued by the player.
Unfortunately the story’s not perfect. At one point a major antagonist promises calamity should the protagonists fail to deliver something within three days. The scene cuts to black, and the next scene opens with an establishing shot labelled “a few days later”. Why specify three in-story days when you’re going to cut to such a vague time? Why skip forwards at all when you’ve clearly set a bar for Geralt and the player? Even a couple of scenes where the protagonists fruitlessly pursue the set task for three days would be better that that. It’s an incredibly dissonant moment from a team that otherwise has a firm grasp on clear and clever writing. And when the antagonist unavoidably delivers on their awful promise, that completely throws any amount of moral ambiguity surrounding them out the window. The Witcher’s villains are often sympathetic, but any amount of empathy for this individual’s actions is lost in moments in the name of a big set piece. I’m highly suspicious that CD Projekt Red were working under constraints of time or money when they produced this portion of the game, because it sticks out like a sore thumb.
And that’s a shame because Blood and Wine has a frankly obscene amount of production quality and content for an expansion. Toussaint is a massive area roughly equal in size to any of the countries found in the base game, and it’ll take around 30 hours to wrap everything up. There’s dozens of contracts and side quests to play through, with highlights including the navigation of the bank’s bureaucratic system and tracking down the stolen genitals of a famous statue. Sadly too many of these missions are punctuated with bouts of unnecessary brawls and violence, whereas Hearts of Stone’s hour-long wedding scene managed to squeeze in a solitary yet appropriate fight. I just wish CD Projekt had trusted their writing to carry these small nonviolent stories. Still, slight dissonance aside the side content of Blood and Wine is as excellent as it is varied, and makes for a fine excuse to explore Toussaint’s many map markers. You’ll want to replay the story too, since you’ll only experience one of the two possible penultimate missions.
Toussaint itself is a far cry from the war-torn swamps, forests, and towns of Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige. You can almost see how Toussaint’s inhabitants pull the wool over their own eyes as they live out their days working vineyards in idyllic countryside bursting with vibrant colour. There’s even an entirely novel accent invented for the region to really hammer in the feeling of a foreign land.
In terms of progression, the expansion offers a new levelling concept in the form of more powerful Mutations for Geralt to undergo. Levelling points and mutagens can now be traded to unlock Mutations that augment Geralt’s combat, signs, alchemy, or a mix of all three. If base development is more your thing, you quickly gain access to your own villa and vineyard to spruce up to your liking and decorate with mementoes of past adventures.
All in all, Blood and Wine achieves what it set out to be: a victorious conclusion to one of the best games of all time. It’s far from perfect, marred by occasional dissonant writing goofs and a slightly disappointing inability to commit to the implied send-up of Arthurian values. But Blood and Wine is still an exultant beast of an expansion jammed with quality content rife with wit, heart, and soul. A flawed gem is still a gem, and Blood and Wine shines alongside the best of them.