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At long last, I have finished The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Which is to say, I’ve finished its second and final story DLC, Blood and Wine. I’ve already written three entire posts about the base game, plus one more about the first story DLC, Hearts of Stone. Blood and Wine is quite a bit larger than Hearts of Stone was, set in an entirely new location: the Duchy of Toussaint. This duchy played host to some important events in Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels on which the Witcher games are based, and it’s a fitting place for protagonist Geralt of Rivia’s story to end. And an ending it surely is. The developers at CD Projekt RED have gone all out for Geralt’s final farewell.
When I wrote about Hearts of Stone, I discussed how it was able to break away from Sapkowski’s books to tell a new story. This highly personal tale made it feel rather different from the base game. Blood and Wine, however, is like another chapter of the base game, for better and for worse. Toussaint is a separate location with its own map, and is (mercifully) not too big, but it’s big enough to run into the same problems I found with quests and levels in the base game. There are quests strewn all over the map, but players are disincentivized to tackle them as they find them because each has a different level rating. Geralt might be heading off on a Witcher contract, rated for level 37, but stumble across someone else who needs help along the way. But their quest is level 43, so it’s probably not a good idea to pursue it yet. The result is a random scattering of unfinished quests everywhere, undertaken in a bizarre order based on their level ratings, instead of what would make the most narrative sense.
Where Hearts of Stone just kept all of its quests at a similar level, since Geralt should be fully powered already after finishing the base game, Blood and Wine does at least account for reaching higher levels. By the time it begins, most players will have exhausted the standard leveling system, with all available slots filled with their preferred perks and abilities. So, an early quest in Blood and Wine unlocks a new mutation system, granting a new reason to gain levels. At first, I hoped this would expand the mutatagens that already exist in the game, which felt under-utilized. There’s just three types — red, green and blue — and each gives a simple bonus to damage, health, or magical sign intensity, instead of something that’s actually interesting. Certain monsters drop their own unique mutagens, but these are only used for brewing special decoctions (most of which aren’t very useful, unless Geralt has invested heavily in his alchemy skill tree) instead of offering cool bonuses or new abilities.
The new mutation system doesn’t touch mutagens, however. What it does instead is offer some new, extra powerful mutation skills that require both mutagens and character points (one character point is granted every time Geralt gains a level) to unlock. These mutations are pretty cool, though. Since I had focused on Geralt’s magical signs in my game, I gravitated towards the magical-focused mutations, which did things like imbue Geralt’s Aard sign with frost, letting it freeze enemies or even outright kill certain susceptible foes, or boost his sign damage based on the power of his drawn sword (this last one made his fiery Igni sign absurdly powerful). These are great! This is exactly the kind of thing that I wish had been in the leveling system in the base game from the start, instead of its endless tiny percentage bonuses that made no perceptible difference during play. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many mutations to unlock and each requires multiple character points, so it takes a while to unlock them and most players will only manage a few. And only one can be active at a time, which was frustrating. Geralt’s frosty Aard was awesome against certain enemies, but kind of useless against others, and I was not allowed to switch mutations during combat. But imagine a system where character builds for Geralt were defined by new abilities like these from the beginning of the game, many of them cumulative but with some choices between the bigger ones to define his fighting style. Oh, what could have been.
Blood and Wine makes a lot of other small tweaks to the mechanics of the game too, shaking up a lot of the more formulaic elements. For example, the base game has a lot of bandit camps to stumble upon and clear out, but in Blood and Wine each bandit camp belongs to one of the three hanses (bandit gangs) which have extra tough headquarters. These are like super-sized bandit camps, with a ton of defenders, some of whom may even summon help from nearby camps by lighting signal fires. Manage to defeat the heavy opposition, however (some of the higher level mutations help a lot) and Geralt will come face to face with the hanse leader, a formidable foe. If the leader is slain, then the hanse is disbanded for good. Other repetitive quests types get new twists in Blood and Wine as well, like the inevitable fistfight tournament that turns out to have a lot of ways to win besides punching, or the Gwent tournament that is all about a new playable faction that has upset certain hardcore fans. Hmm… I realize I never actually talked about Gwent, the collectible card game within the game, in any of my posts about The Witcher 3, but I guess that’s because I don’t have that much to say about it. It’s a nice distraction from adventuring and far more interesting than the dice poker game from The Witcher 2 (even though its design is largely lifted from the game Condottiere without proper credit), and stays interesting since Geralt keeps finding new cards on his travels. But it never became more than a fun diversion for me.
Then there’s loot. In Blood and Wine, Geralt finds a craftsman who can upgrade his witcher gear to grandmaster level, provided Geralt finds the appropriate diagrams first. Grandmaster gear is cool because it does something that witcher gear should have done all along: provide set bonuses for equipping many pieces of the same set. This is an idea I first saw in Diablo II, and it makes perfect sense here. I favored the Griffin gear, since it boosts signs, but before Blood and Wine it simply had lots of percentage bonuses to sign intensity which weren’t very interesting. At grandmaster level, however, wearing enough pieces of the Griffin set starts to change how Geralt’s signs work in cool ways, which feels much more impactful. Unfortunatley, the grandmaster sets are somewhat undercut by there being even better gear to find, often with its own unique quirks like a sword that grows in power the more monsters it slays. Towards the end of Blood and Wine, I sacrificed my full Griffin set bonus to equip a more powerful sword which then boosted Geralt’s sign damage through the mutation I mentioned earlier. The devastating Igni blasts were worth it.
The biggest difference in Blood and Wine, of course, isn’t in the mechanics but the setting. Toussaint is almost entirely unlike the rainy swampland of Velen or the windswept rocks of Skellige. Its skies are an impossible cyan, its fields and brightly painted buildings bathed in a golden glow. Clearly inspired by the South of France, Toussaint has a very Mediterranean feel. It’s where the most famous wine on the continent is made, with vineyards covering rolling hills and elegant arched bridges stretching across bright blue water, all gleaming under the shining sun. While I loved the wind and rainstorms in the rest of the game, it was nice to enjoy some pleasant weather for a change. I think there were only a few in-game days where I encountered some fog, the rest of the time it was clear skies. It’s absolutely gorgeous, in an already pretty game. Cresting a hill in the countryside to reveal a view of the capital city of Beauclair on the hills across the river, with soaring mountain peaks behind it, actually took my breath away. The art team have really shown their talent here.
In the novels, Toussaint is presented as an almost unreal place, like something out of a fairytale. Chivalry is very much alive there, and knights errant ride around and pledge to perform noble feats of bravery to win the affection of courtly ladies. All of that is present and correct in Blood and Wine. In fact, one of the first quests Geralt can accept involves participating in a full blown knight’s tournament, complete with horse riding and combat challenges. Naturally, it is presided over by Duchess Anna Henrietta herself, who has summoned Geralt to Toussaint to deal with a serious monster problem. She’s also offering serious rewards, including ownership of a disused winery estate, if Geralt succeeds. When Geralt met with her to learn more, however, I was amazed to find that her character is actually better written than she is in the novels.
As I’ve discussed before, the Witcher games have a pretty bad track record with female characters. Sapkowski’s stories and novels have some problems in this area too, but the games are worse, so I never would have expected Anna Henrietta to be such a great character here. To be fair to Sapkowski, in the novels she is exactly what is needed to serve the story: flighty and vain, in denial about the wars and terrible events occurring outside her precious duchy, so that she and her subjects can keep living in a fantasy land of their own creation. But this does not make her very sympathetic, nor does she earn readers’ respect. In Blood and Wine, however, I met a very different Anna Henrietta. She is still imperious and brooks no argument once her mind is made up, but she actually listens to her advisors (including Geralt), she cares deeply about her duchy and its people, and she is quick to take action herself in their defense. She’s one of the better leaders in the whole game, in fact, which is certainly not what I expected. I have to give credit to the writers on this one.
Anna Henrietta isn’t the only character from the books who makes a return in Blood and Wine, however, and — as I complained earlier — these cameos don’t always make sense. In this case, another major character from the novels plays a large role in the story, and he really shouldn’t be there. This character in question is a favorite among readers, and if I’m honest I was glad to see him. But his story arc in the novels is excellent, and it should have been left alone. I can tell the writers couldn’t resist, however, because Blood and Wine is clearly their farewell to Geralt. Not only can he see his old friend again, he can visit his new winery even before completing his task in Toussaint, fixing it up incrementally until it’s a fitting place to retire. His adventures in Toussaint are full of references to the earlier Witcher games, including a lot of nods to the very first entry, which surprised me since it more of a cult classic compared to its blockbuster sequel. Many monsters that haven’t been seen since that game make a return, including giant centipedes and the dreaded cursed flowers known as archespores. Even barghests, everyone’s favorite ghost dogs, show up in a few places. These creatures, lovingly rendered, serve to show just how far the games have come.
There’s even a pivotal decision towards the end of the main story that leads to one of two rather different story paths, a clear reference to the famous middle chapter of The Witcher 2 which was almost entirely different based on players’ choices earlier in the game. But the execution here left me a bit disappointed. Up to this point, I’d been having a great time riding around the beautiful duchy, fulfilling Witcher contracts and doing a bit of sleuthing for Geralt’s main mission. But the story soon led in a frustrating direction, which left me feeling like my choices up to that point hadn’t mattered. Only then was I able to make my choice between the two paths, and while the one I picked took Geralt on a memorable journey through a world of magical illusion that was slowly unraveling, all his efforts were ultimately for naught as he found himself forced into the very confrontation I had hoped to avoid. This is where the two story paths reconvene again, and it’s a bit awkward. Even worse, this confrontation takes the form of an incredibly frustrating boss battle. You know the type: there are multiple stages during which the boss unleashes different patterns of attacks, but when a later stage features an instant-kill attack with no clear way to evade, players are forced to play through the earlier stages again just to get one more attempt at dodging it. Nope, sorry, that didn’t work either. Start over again. It’s not fun at any point, it’s just awful. I eventually got through it after consulting the internet for help, but it definitely soured the whole experience.
Thankfully, that’s not where the story ends, and I had the chance to secure a surprisingly happy ending. Not just for Anna Henrietta and her duchy, but also for Geralt. The ending of the base game had a brief description of how things turn out for him, but Blood and Wine let me see the beginnings of that, and it was even more satisfying than I expected. A fitting farewell for Geralt, indeed.
It’s a little strange to be done with the game after so long. My first post about The Witcher 3 was about ten months ago, which means I’ve been playing it for nearly a year. I played a lot of other games alongside it, but The Witcher 3 has been a constant companion all that time, which makes this farewell all the more bittersweet. But all things must end, and Blood and Wine is a good ending. I was able to forgive some pitfalls in the writing and a terrible boss battle, given how enjoyable the rest of Blood and Wine is. Toussaint is a lovely place to explore, there are new ideas and mechanics that I wish had been in the game from the beginning, and the love that the developers have lavished on the whole adventure is clear. If you’ve played The Witcher 3 and enjoyed it, but haven’t dipped into the DLC, Blood and Wine is a great capstone to the Witcher saga that I highly recommend.