Blood and Wine has been out now for more than two weeks, and a number of reviews were available prior to release. Unlike those reviews, this review focuses on a slow play-through of Blood and Wine, in which every sidequest was tackled, every Gewnt card obtained, and every point of interest explored.
Taking the Scenic Route Through Toussaint
Blood and Wine is the second expansion to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and its last. It’s also the last Witcher series entry that CD Projekt Red will make. Blood and Wine is thus a farewell to the franchise that took the developer from an unknown Polish studio to the forefront of modern gaming. And, as its name suggests, it’s a bittersweet one. Sweet because it’s a near-perfect ending to the saga with a fantastic final act, and bitter only because the characters feel real enough that it’s hard to say goodbye.
As the Witcher 3 stands as one of my favourite games of all time, I didn’t want it to end. Thus, I took to completing everything Blood and Wine has to offer. I finished every sidequest, witcher contract and treasure hunt of which I am aware, and I visited every point of interest. As a Gwent enthusiast, I also completed the new Skellige Isles gwent deck. More so that in either the base game or the first expansion Hearts of Stone, taking your time with everything is enjoyable and rewarding due to the incredible detail the designers have put into every aspect of this expansion.
Blood and Wine takes protagonist Geralt of Rivia to the new land of Toussaint, a small duchy within the larger Nilfgaardian Empire. Unlike the dreary swamp-lands of Velen or the rugged storm-swept Skellige Isles, Toussaint is a bright and picturesque land. Modelled on Southern France and Northern Italy, the duchy is full of vineyards, artists, and knights in shining armour. Even within the Renaissance world of The Witcher, Toussaint seems like a land out of touch with modernity. The knights all speak with outlandish formality, and the ceremonies and traditions of the duchy are followed religiously.
Geralt is summoned to this bright land by Duchess Anna Henrietta, ruler of Toussaint, to deal with a troublesome “Beast” that’s been committing gruesome targeted murders against a number of esteemed older knights. There is initially a sort of Seven vibe to the killings, as each victim is marked by the killer for having failed to uphold one of Toussaint’s five knightly virtues. Geralt, ever a detective as much as a monster-slayer, picks up the trail to find himself caught at the centre of a grand plot against the realm. He also meets an old friend in the form of an erudite higher vampire that calls the duchy his home.
The story of Blood and Wine does a great job of keeping the mystery alive and the action moving forward, although it becomes a fairly simple story of betrayal and revenge. What makes the narrative so excellent, however, is the characters. While the other major characters of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt have, at most, very minor roles, the new characters, including Geralt’s vampire friend Regis, the Duchess, and the eventually-revealed conspirators are all wonderfully rounded with understandable motivations and complex personalities. Regis in particular is a wonderful companion for Geralt, as his long study of both humanity and Geralt have given him the ability to peel back Geralt’s otherwise dour and grizzled exterior to reveal his oft-hid feelings.
Blood and Wine’s main story, which takes about ten to fifteen hours from beginning to end, begins slowly with Geralt trying to identify the Beast before going into high-gear in the final act. It also offers two distinct paths for this final act, featuring completely different quest lines. The expansion also has three different primary endings, meaningfully corresponding to your choices throughout. Only one of these offers the true fairy tale ending that Toussaint demands, but it’s up to you to find it. The one downside of a new cast of characters is that the new storyline does feel a world apart from Geralt’s previous adventures, and some of the impact from the main storyline is lost. While Toussaint’s intrigues are compelling and well-rendered, there is also a feeling that Geralt isn’t at the centre of this story, and is only helping the tale of other characters wend to its ultimate conclusion. Unlike Wild Hunt’s search for Ciri, Geralt has very little reason to be emotionally invested in the outcome. It is, after all, just a contract. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable ride, and the epilogue does hit Geralt right in the feels.
The game suggests that you start Blood and Wine with a character of at least level 35, which you will likely have if you finished the main game. While Blood and Wine can be played without a previous save (the game will simply give you a level 35 Geralt), I highly recommend using your own post-Wild Hunt savegame. Blood and Wine features a number of call-backs to earlier events and choices, and the epilogue in particular uses previous choices wonderfully to bring about a sense of cathartic finality to the series. Much would be lost unless you made those choices yourself.
Wandering the Fairy Tale Kingdom
While the main story is wonderful, Blood and Wine also offers a ton of content for the explorer. Toussaint, in area, is around the same size as Velen (not including Novigrad and environs). It’s picturesque, with rolling green hills, distant snow-capped peaks, and placid lakes. Unlike the more drab lands of the main game, Toussaint is colourful, vibrant place that demands to be explored. Even the sunrises and sunsets seem more beautiful here, and it’s hard not to stop at times to simply stare off over a valley or take a screenshot of a sunset.
The whimsical nature of much of Toussaint’s content also mirrors the more colourful world. The side-quests are every bit as detailed and rich as those of the main game, but many of them are also more humorous. One quest involves investigating the theft of a statute’s testicles, while another tasks you with trying to withdraw money from a bank only to encounter a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. One of the highlights of the main story is a segment where Geralt is literally transported into a twisted and collapsing fairy-tale world, filled with well-known children’s book characters like Goldilocks, The Three Little Pigs, and Little Red Riding Hood. There’s also a grand tournament underway that one side-quest takes Geralt into as a competitor, featuring everything from marksmanship to horseracing to melee combat.
Blood and Wine also introduces a swath of new optional content and features. For the Gwent aficionados, an entirely new faction, Skellige, has been added to the game. After collecting enough of the cards, one can enter a tournament run by the creator of the new deck’s brother, who is trying to prove its viability. Not everyone is happy about the new faction, however, and Geralt must deal with some unhappy traditionalists.
Near the start of Geralt’s journey in Toussaint, the Witcher also becomes a land-owner, being granted title to an old vineyard by the Duchess, along with a butler who can oversee some necessary (and costly) renovations. There are a small number of upgrades available for the property, and the interior provides armor and weapon racks for Geralt to display his arms and armour. Geralt can also display some of his acquired paintings on the wall (including a couple that can be obtained in Toussaint featuring the Witcher himself), as well as trophy racks to display some of the available trophies on offer around the duchy. These can be earned for such things as winning the Gwent tournament, or for becoming Toussaint’s top pugilist. Finally, in the cellar, Geralt can also gain access to a new alchemy workstation that allows him to combine smaller mutagens into larger ones and to refill his potions and bombs.
Another side-quest unlocks a new way to spend attribute points on special mutations that grant new passive effects as well as unlock more ability slots, giving Geralt more ways to fine tune his build into the higher levels (Blood and Wine will see a character up to around level 47-52).
Blood and Wine also has a whole new tier of Witcher Gear treasure hunts, as well as two new Witcher school sets. These new sets are grandmaster level, and they provide set bonuses when equipping 3 and 6 pieces. In addition to the Cat, Griffon and Bear schools, there are now also Wolf and Manticore sets. The Wolf School set is for those who mix sword and signs, while the Manticore set provides bonuses for the masters of alchemy and toxicity. Like in previous installments, in order to gain access to these sets, Geralt must embark on a treasure hunt to find all six diagrams. These lead Geralt all around Toussaint, following the trail of a number of past witchers and learning about their stories.
In addition to new witcher gear sets, armour dyes can also now be found and crafted, letting you mix and match armour colour schemes to your heart’s content. The expansion also, of course, comes with a whole host of new items and relics, including one very-special side-quest reward in the form of a sword that actually grows permanently in power as it’s used.
The plentiful new side content adds a lot of heft to Blood and Wine, and makes exploring its nooks and crannies all the more worthwhile. Even the points of interest have received some upgrades, including a couple of new types. One new point of interest is the wine merchant contract, which typically sees Geralt sent in to some underground cellar to clear out a monster infestation. Also new is the much more impressive Hanse bases. There are three Hanse bases, each of which is a large bandit fortress. In these, Geralt must clear out a very large number of bandits before taking on the leaders in special 1-on-1 boss battles. Doing so not only lets in the Toussaint army to establish a camp, but wipes out bandit patrols in the surrounding regions, being cut off from their base of power. Blood and Wine does a great job of providing some context to each of the points of interest. Each one now almost always contains letters, notes, or environmental clues pointing to some backstory that led to its current state. In areas near Hanse bases, many points of interest will often connect to tell some story about the base or its leader, such as one that describes a slowly plotted revenge against a local lord. Taking time to read the notes and books and Toussaint is definitely worthwhile as it provides context to the detailed happening around you, and really contributes to a feeling of a living and breathing world.
A Fond Farewell
Blood and Wine looks to be the last installment of The Witcher that we’re likely to see. As such, it’s a fitting ending, continuing the excellent storytelling and characterization of Wild Hunt and Hearts of Stone, while building upon them to add more varied content and to refine a number of game elements and systems. Blood and Wine may be a bit more lighthearted than we’re used to from those earlier installments, and may push Geralt away from the heart of the narrative, but it still packs an emotional punch, and also brings closure to Geralt’s storyline. Those lighthearted elements are also some of the most fun elements in the series so far, and along with Toussaint’s natural beauty, they make Blood and Wine a joy to play. Indeed, Blood and Wine was the first time I truly felt compelled to be a completionist. A big part of it is the way the developers have tried to make everything interesting and meaningful, and to hide both story and treasure around every bend. If you enjoyed The Witcher 3 at all, you owe it yourself to see it through to the end by playing Blood and Wine. You won’t regret it.