No sour grapes
The final piece of story content for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Blood and Wine once again puts players in the Witcher Gear of Geralt of Rivea, this time on a contract to uncover the cause of a spate of mysterious murders in the duchy of Toussaint. A picturesque region teeming with verdant vineyards, rolling hills, and dark secrets, this sun-soaked setting is a far cry from the dreary bogs of Velen and the imposing ramparts of Novigrad that we’ve previously explored. It’s a more colorful, fairytale land, full of pomp and time honored traditions, where chivalrous knights with impossibly long names speak in flowery prose and the wine is as sacred as holy water.
Oh yeah, and it also just so happens to be host to a pretty serious infestation, too.
It’s an interesting setting, for sure, and the region’s vibrant aesthetics serve as a welcome departure from the locales we’ve previously explored in Wild Hunt and Hearts of Stone. And you’ll want to explore every last corner of this massive new landscape, which is roughly the size of all of the islands of Skellige combined, as you’ll constantly stumble upon new points of interest to investigate and quests to undertake. In fact, there are close to 100 new quests introduced in Blood and Wine, each of which is crafted as painstakingly as those in the core game. From a quirky quest that tasks players with taking an eccentric count on a wild wilderness safari to a lengthy line of quests that has the White Wolf settling a dispute between two rival vineyards, these various vignettes are all entertaining, and do a great job of bringing the rich and storied lore of Toussaint to life. And that’s not even touching on the expansion’s roughly 15-hour main quest, which manages to weave a touching tale of sacrifice and letting go that’s only hamstrung by an antagonist that comes across as a bit more of an overgrown child than a compelling adversary.
Despite the main antagonist being a bit of a letdown, the rest of the characters in Blood and Wine shine like the omnipresent sunflowers that dot Toussaint’s landscape. Early on, Geralt is reunited with an old friend (whose identity I won’t spoil in this review), and he quickly becomes one of the most fascinating characters in The Witcher 3‘s story. Anna Henrietta, the duchess of Toussaint and Geralt’s current employer, is also an exceptionally well crafted player in Blood and Wine‘s story. Though she initially comes across as the consummate royal, she quickly proves that she can get her hands dirty when necessary, much to the chagrin of her loyal subjects. Her fiery personality compliments Geralt’s icy nature well, making the two quite the dynamic duo as they delve into the grim secrets lurking beneath the frolicsome facade of the region. These leading characters are all brought to life with superb voice performances and the high quality writing we’ve come to expect from developer CD Projekt RED over the years.
The combat and character customization systems have been refined a bit this time around. After completing a quest not far into the story, you’ll gain access to new Witcher mutations. These 12 new mutations work to spice up the game’s melees by granting Geralt a slew of new abilities, such as toxic blood that damages enemies who attack you, the ability to easily dismember your foes, and even the the power to freeze and deliver a crushing blow to your enemies, killing them instantly. Overall, these mutations add some welcome depth to the game’s combat system and do a nice job of granting you a bit more freedom during the brawls Geralt finds himself in.
As I mentioned earlier, Wine is an integral part of the story here, and even Geralt himself gets to channel his inner sommelier. Early in the chapter, Geralt is gifted the deed to Corvo Bianco, a vineyard on the outskirts of town. While it’s initially in a state of disrepair, Geralt can invest in the estate to upgrade its facilities. For example, adding a library to the vineyard will grant you an experience bonus when you sleep. Additionally, upgrading the stables will enhance Roach’s stamina, and you can even give your green thumb a workout by cultivating your own garden of herbs and ingredients for alchemy and crafting purposes. Keeping that in mind, sprucing up Geralt’s retirement home is definitely a worthwhile investment, as it’ll save you a lot of time exploring the wild for crafting components.
Mutations aren’t the only welcome addition to Blood and Wine’s combat, either. The DLC also brings with it a wealth of entertaining new boss fights that play out a bit more engagingly than those found in the core game. One of my favorites is an encounter with a rather nasty Shaelmaar in an open-air arena. The battle takes place in a gladiator-style pit, with the beast frequently rolling at you like a scaly, blood-crazed version Sonic The Hedgehog. You have to lure the beast close enough to the walls so that it impacts them, knocking it on its backside so you can dive in and deliver a barrage of blows before it regains its footing. Another entertaining encounter pits Geralt against a cursed Spotted Wight if you fail to lift it of its affliction. The Wight has a bit of an unhealthy obsession with spoons, and will slink and crawl through a sea of flatware on the ground to get the drop on the player. Add to that a number of battles with some rather ferocious bloodsuckers and you’ll find the bosses in Blood and Wine far surpass the rather predictable battles with foes like Imlerith and Eredin from Wild Hunt.
While much of my time spent with Blood and Wine was overwhelmingly positive, there were a few technical headaches that reared their head to put a damper on the experience. Perhaps the most frustrating of these issues is the game’s lengthy load times, which can frequently last upwards of two minutes. While likely unavoidable, they really kill the game’s momentum at times. There were a few occasions where I felt like I spent more time looking at the loading screen than I did fighting the particularly nasty boss who had sent me there, and that’s a shame. Load times aside, I encountered a handful of nagging glitches that forced me to load a previous save. One example was a time I had died during a quest, only for the game to continue to show the quest’s ending cinematic as if I had actually persevered. When the cutscene ended, the enemies who were supposedly slain were still alive and attacking me, but I couldn’t target or attack them, because as far as the game was concerned these enemies were already dead. Another nasty glitch popped up while I was navigating the game’s menu screen, causing me to gobble up all of my consumables because my D-Pad inputs were somehow still causing Geralt to perform in-game actions. None of these technical gaffes were game breaking, but they did cost some valuable time when they occurred. That said, it’s best to save often.
Minor gripes aside, Blood and Wine is a fantastic sendoff for Geralt of Rivia. The scope of this expansion is simply massive, and you’ll find more content crammed into this 30-hour piece of DLC than you would in many full retail releases. Toussaint is a breathtaking region to explore, brought to life with some of the richest lore and most fascinating characters the series has seen yet. The land’s undeniable appeal, combined with smart refinements to the game’s mechanics and a wealth of unforgettable quests to undertake ensure that this is one expansion you’ll want to see through to the end. While we’re sad to know this is the final chapter in the third installment in CD Projekt RED’s Witcher series, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to cap off the Butcher of Blaviken’s latest adventure. That said, don’t hesitate to sink your teeth into Blood and Wine.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) , Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Warner Bros. Games ; Developer: CD Projekt RED ; Players: 1; Released: May 31, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PlayStation 4 review copy of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood and Wine provided by the game’s publisher, Warner Bros. Games.