As the latest volley of fire in CD Projekt’s war on poor DLC, Blood & Wine makes quite a statement. It’s the last story they plan to tell about the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, and one of the best they’ve ever done, if not the best.
For those of us afflicted with the notion that numbers equal value, it delivers. While Blood & Wine isn’t quite as substantial as the base game, obviously, there’s enough content here that it wouldn’t have ruffled too many doublets if they’d released it on its own with a AAA price tag. There are “over 90 new quests”, split between an array of entertaining side-quests and a substantial main story. There are 20 new monsters, 30 new weapons, a billion more ways to lose yourself in Geralt’s world again.
But this is a different side of Geralt’s world. The setting, Toussaint, is a sort of parody of medieval France. Or rather, what Walt Disney or the Victorians would have described when imagining medieval France. Situated far from the war-torn regions of Velen and Novigrad, Toussaint is a place untainted by conflict, policed by small bands of knights-errant who are more concerned with their chivalric honour and blowing trumpets than they are with actually doing any fighting. A duchy populated exclusively by pantomime people with pantomime swords and pantomime problems. A nightmare vision of what it would be like if the entirety of middle-class twitter moved to Disneyland and declared it a free state.
Enter Geralt, who has little time for that sort of bullshit.
Kicking off with a series of brutal murders, as most of Geralt’s adventures do, Blood & Wine does an exceptional job of managing the chasmic tonal shift between Velen and Toussaint. It satirises the very concept of valour with plenty of nudges and winks, but never skimping on pathos. One side-quest in particular, involving a tournament, an idiot and a maiden fair, can be described as an arresting examination of the value one places in personal freedom, and also simultaneously as a daft comedy romp.
The side-quests are where CD Projekt really have fun playing with Witcher themes of old and the absurd new setting they’ve placed them in. There’s one about cosplay, which is snigger inducing, but also involves a lot of death. There’s one about a talking horse. There’s one about stolen testicles. Witcher 3 has never treated its side-quests as lesser things than the main quest, and the stories told in Blood & Wine continue that philosophy. They are worthwhile, witty, and in plentiful supply.
The main quest, involving vampirism and the aforementioned series of brutal murders, isn’t quite so fun. There’s a notable ramping-up of bleakness when compared to the rest of what Blood & Wine has to offer. Its core theme of redemption ostensibly manifests itself in a tale of good vampires versus bad, or rather good vampires versus their suppressed nature. Over the course of Blood & Wine’s centrepiece story, there are many opportunities to examine Geralt himself. Exhausting every conversation option reveals much about him, and his relationship with his trade. We’ve always known what he is – a monster hunter, a mad shagger – but we’ve had scarce few glimpses at who he is. The question of whether or not he enjoys being a Witcher, for example, comes up very early on. The gist of the answer is player-selected, and would give anyone who cares about the character pause for thought.
Blood & Wine comes with changes to the game’s nuts and bolts; some significant, some subtle. A redesigned user-interface greatly helps with keeping track of which items are useful for what, and although players who haven’t touched the base game in months are unlikely to notice much of a difference, the changes are welcome – it’s now much easier to keep track of the heaps of shite Geralt stuffs in his armour. Character levelling has been expanded with a new mutagen system. Before, mutagens were little more than stat multipliers, but Blood & Wine reworks them (via a requisite quest) into a means by which you can gain new abilities, and combine them into better ones that open up many new combat strategies. Or you can still just dodge 'n’ roll, it’s fine.
The DLC’s other core feature is Geralt’s new homestead, the Corvo Bianco Vineyard. ‘Home’ is a concept almost alien to a Witcher, but after receiving the estate as payment for doing Witchery things, Geralt gleefully gets involved with refurbishing the property. Much like the properties found in the likes of Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed 2, Corvo Bianco can be transformed into a useful refuge to check in on between adventures. Furniture that provides stat boosts, a grindstone and an armourer’s table, a herb garden potentially saving hours of plodding around looking for that one white orchard – all things with use. Other upgrades are more decorative, or useful only as storage. It’s a nice touch, although you could quite happily play the game without bothering to even paint the house.
As a character milestone though, Corvo Bianco is very significant. Having Geralt buy a new bed, and then sleep in it, is an oddly touching moment. We know him as a nomadic outcast, who does most of his resting in the woods or, rather more worryingly, in dungeons. Napping for a single hour. Right before a boss fight. Geralt’s helped a lot of people, he deserves his own bed.
Arguably, Blood & Wine is just more Witcher 3, but it goes to great lengths to distinguish itself. Tonally, as mentioned, but visually too. Golden sun-kissed vegetation, a glistening river and a pointy fairytale castle right in the middle are the first things you see in Toussaint. It’s a glorious image, and fitting one for a character who is being put out to pasture. That he’s given the opportunity to take the piss out of aristocratic fools, take their money for fixing their stupid problems and, now, head back to his vineyard for a kip, is everything I wanted for him at the end of his journey. There is wit and wisdom here that was always detectable in The Witcher games, but never quite so accomplished as it is in these, his final hours.
Finally, given how subversive CD Projekt’s strategy has been, how they’ve managed to outclass the big dogs by simply doing the best job they could do with The Witcher 3 after years of honing their craft, Blood & Wine is a triumphant slam-dunk from a team at the top of their game. There is no better way for Geralt to sign off than to do it while whispering ‘get fucked’ at a bloated and out-of-touch set of flatulent shitebags. Play his last adventure, it’s his best.