The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine (DLC) Review
It was around 2009 when I started getting interested in catching up on PC gaming classics, but it was only in 2010 that I built a computer specifically for gaming that could handle the graphically demanding fare that my old laptop was too ancient to run. Among my first purchases for that computer was a little game from a few years beforehand that I had heard good things about called The Witcher, and it blew me away with its atmosphere despite being incredibly glitchy at times. In fact, I was so impressed that I committed the cardinal gaming sin of preordering the second game, and while it was different than the first and had a pretty unforgiving difficulty (which has since been drastically reduced to be friendlier to newcomers), I nevertheless came to love it just as much as the first game. The third game I was less enthusiastic about—yes, it delivers in several ways, but many things were sacrificed in the name of mass-market accessibility, and so I ended up merely liking it. The Hearts of Stone DLC is where I started to see the game come into its own and deliver on the promise that was always there, but never really came through in the base game. Sadly, the bigger expansion that is Blood and Wine reintroduces many of the problems Hearts of Stone fixed and ended up leaving me underwhelmed as the final story in the series. There are some great moments to be found here, don’t get me wrong, but the main story isn’t really anything particularly special and there are some questionable plot developments that don’t make a great deal of sense. At the end of the day, Blood and Wine is enjoyable, but I was yet again struck by the sense that it could have been much better.
Shouldn’t this have more to do with the previous games?
Apart from a single amazing reference to the first game, a minor encounter with Tailles, and more noticeboard postings about Odrin’s antics, Blood and Wine doesn’t connect to earlier games in any meaningful way, instead opting to devolve back into the “remember that time something happened in the Witcher books?” kind of writing that sees characters reminiscing about things that players potentially know nothing about. In fact, Blood and Wine’s entire premise seems designed solely to reintroduce a character from the books. It’s kind of appalling to neglect previous games in favor of yet again reminiscing about the books in the final piece of a game series that’s run for almost a decade now, and doubly so given the huge strides Hearts of Stone made in the opposite direction by including many things that tied back to the first Witcher game. How does it possibly make sense to have the penultimate piece of DLC end up being a better sendoff for the series than the final story?
I’m willing to admit to that being entirely subjective, though, so I’m not holding it against the game. Instead, let’s talk about the expansion’s stakes, or to be more accurate, the lack thereof; Hearts of Stone introduced two clashing characters who were both very dangerous in their own ways and who required extraordinary feats in order to aid and/or undermine, and for me, this caused the central villain of Blood and Wine to come across as strangely pathetic. It’s no secret from the trailers (and even the expansion’s name) that we’re dealing with vampires here, and even when you consider the fact that they can only be permanently killed by other vampires, nothing ever seems truly dangerous compared to the immortal and the enigmatic figure capable of granting immortality who we just dealt with. It’s like writing a story where the characters kill God and then penning a followup where everyone’s being terrorized by large spiders—at a certain point, you’re just undermining yourself by moving from the extraordinary to less remarkable mundanities.
Even if we put something like that aside, the main story suffers from various problems. Take, for example, the aforementioned detail that the villain can only be killed by another vampire. At one point, Geralt outright tells this to Duchess Anna Henrietta, the person who contracted him, only for her to ask no questions in the two out of three endings where he claims to have killed it anyway. One would think she’d have a pretty huge followup question along the lines of “are there more vampires I’m unaware of, or are you simply lying to me about it being dead?” Instead, she seems to conveniently forget what she’s been told. That’s not the only example of less-than-stellar storytelling, either, because one of the characters central to the story only shows up once you’re past the point of no return. This is something like an hour to an hour and a half before the end of the expansion, mind you, so their history and story becomes a pretty laborious info dump that I wish the writers came up with a more natural way of conveying. Other characters are built up as huge threats only to be summarily discarded, with one in particular never even being seen before being killed off. It evokes memories of Jihl Nabaat’s treatment in Final Fantasy XIII, and that’s bad company to be in.
What makes that so much more disappointing is that there’s little justification behind it. Without getting into too much detail, that potentially interesting villain character is killed off for the sole purpose of hinting at the vampiric strength of a completely different character who showed up in a trailer for the base game when it first came out. Her very presence seems to be to justify that trailer having nothing to do with the main game’s story, something that becomes painfully obvious once you realize that the hint is meaningless since she hangs out with other vampires and says not-very-subtle things like “I’ve known them for ages, literally!” It’s shoehorning, pure and simple, and her presence adds little in the first place because she’s only present for two scenes at most (and even then, getting the second scene earns you the “bad” ending, though I actually prefer the bad ending in this game to any of the others for reasons I’ll get into later, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing). There are all kinds of areas where things could be put together better like that. Instead, the main story comes across as a hastily sewn together collection of events that range from mildly interesting to tedious busywork, and really, more than anything, I’m disappointed by how few interesting things actually happen during the main story. Hearts of Stone had a party, an auction, a bank robbery, a riddle, and various supernatural forces you never quite fully grasped the capabilities of. Blood and Wine has a party, but it’s much smaller and shorter than the one in HoS, and you otherwise spend the game fighting things and following glowing trails (which was considered a crime against gaming when Fable 3 did it, but has apparently since become game of the century material if the hype around The Witcher 3 is to be believed). All of the truly interesting material is at the very end of the game, and it’s not only over far too quick, but also broken up by groan-inducing info dumps. This story just wasn’t worth the time I put into it, and it fell far short of my expectations.
The areas and characters and sidequests make up for this, though
If Blood and Wine was only its main story, this would be a negative review, full-stop. I’d use my shame-inducingly thin post layout and everything. Fortunately, it also gives you an entirely new area to explore that’s unlike anything else in the series, and this new area is filled with memorable sidequests featuring interesting characters. In Toussaint, wine is sacred, and so it’s a land covered in vineyards and wine-fueled romanticism that cause the world to be green and full of art. Musicians perform as you walk around, there are artists and winemakers to help, and the whole thing seems like a giant middle finger toward those who accused the base game of being too colorful and “Disney” by embracing an even more colorful place. Toward the end of the main story, you can even find yourself in a land of fairy tales come to life with magic (and subsequently neglected for so long that they’ve become twisted) that’s covered in rainbows and an almost eye-straining amount of color.
I wasn’t sure about the characters at first because of how unlikable they all prove to be—sure, the second game had unlikable characters as well, but that was only because they were focused on pursuing their goals, whereas those in Blood and Wine are almost universally hung up on rank and the notion that Geralt should simply fall in line when ordered to by a superior. This made it that much sweeter when my attempted adherence to their stupid conventions ended up earning me the “bad” ending where pretty much everyone is either dead or miserable, but no one holds it against Geralt. I’ve since gone back and seen the other two possible endings (turns out I was just two dialogue options away from the “good” ending), and I have to say, I prefer the bad ending to any of the others. I think that speaks to the quality of the characters that they moved me to dislike them so much; I’ve seen others with completely different opinions of everyone, so Blood and Wine is one of those rare instances where which ending is “good” and “bad” is subjective.
The sidequests are really what save the expansion, with them flowing effortlessly from moving to amusing without either extreme being jarring. One day you’re helping one of the few genuinely good characters to lift a strange curse, while the next you’re hearing a painter ramble on about his hack painter of a cat who keeps stealing his brushes. Sometimes the most fun I had was simply visiting question marks on the map, destroying monster nests and taking on smaller quests. That became especially helpful when one of the random sidequests unexpectedly granted me Aerondight, the special blade from the first game that can now have its damage permanently increased by defeating enemies in quick succession without getting hit. I haven’t exactly made a secret of the fact that I dislike The Witcher 3’s combat when compared to the flexibility of combat in the second game, but the amount of powerful equipment available in Blood and Wine (crossbows are finally useful!) made its fights far less bothersome and drawn out than those in Hearts of Stone or the base game.
That’s not to say that there were no problems, though
That last statement about the fights being less bothersome should probably carry a giant asterisk because the final boss (the presence of which seems like a step back from the more diplomatic endings available in Hearts of Stone) is incredibly annoying thanks to some strange design decisions. Basically, it has an attack that sends a swarm of bats at you, and I found that this could deplete my HP by 80-90% in a single hit, even with a full Quen shield up. Even weirder, I could swear that it was damaging me during my rolls (which should be impossible since I chose a level-up perk that made me invincible during rolling). This is a huge difficulty spike, but that’s not the biggest problem with this fight. The real problem is that every single cutscene in the fight is unskippable, so if you die at some point, you have to watch the cutscene/s between different boss phases all over again. If, like me, you die around 10 times trying to get a feel for the timing of that annoying bat attack, you have to watch the same cutscene 10 times without ever having the option to skip it. Why any developer still feels it’s appropriate to include unskippable cutscenes is beyond me, but it’s a terrible practice that needs to stop.
Then there were the bugs. Apart from the standard REDengine fare of getting stuck on the environment and floating objects, I also discovered that Geralt would sometimes punch the air after fast traveling, upsetting any nearby guards. Thankfully, the game is designed so that they don’t attack right away, meaning this was more a strange quirk than anything that became a serious problem. That was hardly the only harmless bug I found, either—there were posts on the notice boards written in Polish, enemies who never bothered attacking, and NPCs standing on tables and the like. Sadly, there were also less desirable bugs. I faced several crashes while playing that never displayed any error message, and the endless loading screens that troubled me in the base game made an unwelcome return whenever things didn’t trigger correctly. For example, one quest required dealing with bickering ghosts, and you end up having to take one of the urns to a new resting place in order to separate them. I found both annoying, however, so I opted to grab both out of spite, only to be met with an endless loading screen. It turns out that dialogue was supposed to trigger after picking up the first urn, with the second urn then being unavailable to pick up, and this dialogue simply failed to trigger. My advice—save often and in different slots, just to be safe.
There are also some quest bugs I found. One quest saw Geralt reenacting a cursed play to lure out a vengeful spirit, but when it called for him to drink wine, I burned through about 15 bottles of several different types of wine before drinking pepper vodka (not wine despite it being explicitly called for both in the play and the quest log) finally progressed the quest. There are also some hit detection issues that occur both in combat and during quests, with the most notable being during a tournament you take part in during one of the larger sidequests. Part of the tournament requires participating in a horse race against a timer, with you earning more time by hitting targets with your crossbow and attacking training dummies with your sword. The crossbow I had no problems with (though it seems to be determined by where the reticle is rather than where the bolt actually lands), but I quickly found that my sword would occasionally swing through the training dummies without the game actually registering a hit. This caused me to barely squeak by in this section, and all I can say is that if you can’t implement something well, don’t bother putting it in at all.
The graphics and music are great, as always
Toussaint is a colorful area, and it’s filled with places that are breathtakingly beautiful, especially when compared to the more squalid areas in the base game. Cutscenes emphasize this beauty by paying a great deal of attention to framing, and the character designs and animations do a lot to reflect each character’s personality by giving them distinct styles and identifiable little tics. For example, Anna Henrietta has a very specific gesture she does with her hands when she starts to get demanding or indignant, and her right-hand man Damien has an incredible talent for expressing contempt and incredulity with just his eyes and eyebrows. The music is of an equally high quality as per usual, and though I preferred the new music in Hearts of Stone, Blood and Wine’s new tracks are every bit as good as those in the base game.