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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine - Review

Blood & Wine is the second expansion for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and the last bit of content that will ever be produced in The Witcher series. With no plans for any future games in the series, developer CD Projekt designed Blood & Wine to serve as a final farewell tour for Geralt, sending him on one last adventure in a new land before he puts up his swords and retires from his life as a monster-hunter-for-hire. For that reason alone, Blood & Wine is a special, magical experience that serves as a fine coda for one of the best open-world games -- and one of the best video games in general -- ever created, but there's a lot more to appreciate about Blood & Wine than its sentimental value.

Whereas Hearts of Stone felt like it was, essentially, just a new story set within the confines of TW3, Blood & Wine is a full-fledged expansion fully deserving of its $20 price tag. Blood & Wine offers upwards of 30 hours of extra content with an all-new main story in a brand new region, Toussaint, complete with dozens of new quests, tons of new weapons and armor, new enemies, a new system for improving Geralt's witcher abilities with skill points and mutagens, and a player home that you can upgrade to give you extra benefits as a base of operations. There's enough original content in Blood & Wine that it could have been sold as its own stand-alone game, and the majesty of its presentation is simply breath-taking.

Unfortunately, nothing in Blood & Wine is much of a game-changer, with the exception of the new mutations and possibly the player home -- otherwise, it's all basically just more of the same from a game that was already a little too long and bloated to begin with, and at least in my opinion, nothing in Blood & Wine really outshines anything that's been done previously in either the base game or Hearts of Stone. That's not much of a criticism, mind you; CD Projekt set the bar so high with its previous efforts that coming up a little short still puts Blood & Wine well beyond other game experiences from other developers. But if you're someone like me who's feeling a little burned out from playing the same game for so long, then Blood & Wine will only give you so much of a spark before it settles back into routine.


The first thing most people will probably fall in love with is Toussaint itself, with its bright, colorful fairy-tale vistas offering a stark contrast to the often-times decrepit, dark-fantasy atmosphere of the base game. There's no denying its beauty, and I particularly enjoy how its rolling hills and mountains let you see major landmarks all across the terrain. There's something immensely satisfying about being able to see something cool seemingly miles in the distance, and then being able to work your way towards it and see it up close, which was mostly missing from the base game because everything was so flat, with trees usually blocking your line of sight. Exploration, in that sense, is pretty engaging because the world feels much more condensed, with a lot more visibly intriguing things beckoning you towards them.

Pacing becomes an issue with a map this size, however, as Toussaint inherits some of the same problems I criticized in the base game. It can get a little tedious trying to do a quest that sends you way off into uncharted territory when four other quests and points of interest pop up along the way that pull you away from what you were originally doing. It's also pretty annoying when you're exploring just for the fun of it and find some place cool and interesting, only to discover that you can't actually do anything there because it's part of a quest you don't have. That sort of thing is fine every now and then, but it feels like a lot of stuff in Blood & Wine is locked behind quest progression, with locked doors mysteriously opening and unusable items suddenly becoming usable only when a quest calls for it.


A lot of quests, meanwhile, are fairly boring and straightforward. There are over 60 side-quests in Blood & Wine, and over half of them are single-step "go here, kill this, report back" quests. A bunch are about killing monsters to clear cellars and vineyards for vintners, with three of the major ones giving you five objectives, each, that involve going to five different locations to kill things. Another five quests are about helping stone-workers build a giant statue of Lebioda, which you do by going to five places and killing things; another quest involves helping 15 knight errants by going to 15 different places and killing things. Fifteen quests are treasure hunts which basically amount to "go here, loot this chest." A few other quests are so short that they're completed mere seconds after you pick them up.

Nearly every one of these trivial quests has some kind of story behind it, but almost all of them happen through diaries and letters that you find lying around at the scene, which I find kind of lazy and uninteresting. For starters, I find it hard to believe that every single person in this world keeps a diary on them at all times, and that everyone keeps it up to date until the moment before they die. An occasional diary entry here and there is fine, but it often feels excessive in Blood & Wine; it gets a little tiring only ever reading about all these interesting events, and not actually getting to see or experience them, especially when you realize they typically have zero effect on the gameplay. After a while of finding random notes on random corpses in random places, I stopped caring and stopped reading them.


Not all the quests are boring monster-slaying, mind you. One quest involves a young maiden who was cursed by Gaunter O'Dimm decades ago, having been turned into a hideous wight with insatiable hunger; you're given the option to lift the curse, which you do by sitting down to eat with the wight, and you have to make some choices which lead to either success or failure. Another quest sends you into a literal fairy-tale world where you get to play a role in various fairy-tales and see the twisted outcomes of some fairy-tales whose characters have gotten sick of being a part of them. Other quests are equally interesting with original premises, but besides their originality they're mostly on par with other quests in the base game, and none of them come close to matching the main story of Hearts of Stone.

I realized after writing the above paragraph that both of my examples of good, memorable quests were from the main questline, and that there really weren't many good, memorable side-quests. There's one quest to reopen an old bank account which turns out to be a wild goose chase hunting down the right paperwork, and closely mirrors the frustration of dealing with bureaucracies in real life; another quest to retrieve a set of magical stamina-boosting testicles that were stolen from a stone sculpture; a quest to test your alignment with the five chivalric virtues, which is determined by what choices you make in the other side-quests; and a couple more quests about lifting curses from young maidens, one of whom was turned into a tree and another of whom has been slowly turning into a bird. These are the only ones I distinctly remember; everything else was, apparently, forgettable.


The main story of Blood & Wine, meanwhile, never really interested me, apart from a few individual moments within it. You're brought to Toussaint by the request of its duchess to kill a mysterious beast believed to be responsible for several grisly deaths. You quickly learn that the beast is really a higher vampire acting under the influence of another party, and then you spend the next large chunk of the main quest trying to figure out who's really behind the attacks. Once you figure that out, the final third of the story involves finding that person and putting a stop to the murders, with a branching path at the very end about how to accomplish that. It's longer than the main story of Hearts of Stone, but I never felt as closely connected to any of its major characters, certain parts of it felt almost like busy-work filler-content, and the plot ultimately boils down to a petty squabble between two people, which isn't that exciting and felt kind of underwhelming as it progressed.


There are several new ways to improve your character, with enough content to increase your level from the mid-30s to over level 50. The main feature is the new mutation system that gives you extra abilities to spend your extra skill points on. These mutations are pretty powerful and enable cool effects, like making Aard freeze enemies and, possibly, shatter them at the same time, in addition to unlocking extra slots to fill with basic abilities from the original skill trees. Unfortunately, I ended up not gaining much from the mutation system because of the steep costs to move up the mutation skill trees, with them initially costing two skill points and then increasing to three, five, and seven skill points, each, and requiring you to connect multiple paths to reach stronger mutations. You can only have one mutation active at a time, and so I spent almost the entirety of Blood & Wine with one simple tier-two mutation while I fruitlessly saved up skill points to invest in a tier-four mutation that I never reached before finishing the expansion.

The other major addition in Blood & Wine is a private estate given to you near the beginning, which you can spend money to renovate and thereby unlock extra bonuses. You can outfit it with a laboratory that grants you extra potions and bombs, a garden that will continually produce herbs, a stable to increase Roach's stamina, a better bed to increase your vitality, a library for your books that also grants extra experience from combat, grindstones and armor tables on site to improve your weapons and armor, as well as armor and weapon stands for displaying fancy gear you've acquired, and spaces to hang paintings. It also has a storage chest. Most of the stat boosts trigger as resting bonuses when you sleep in your bed and last for 60-120 minutes of real time. It was pretty fun to see the estate evolve as you put money into it, and the practical benefits were certainly worth it, but I do wish there was more to do with it; it caught me by surprise how quickly I was able to max it out, which left me with an empty feeling of "that's it?" despite the great benefits.


Still, it serves a point as the backdrop for Geralt's retirement, a place for him to settle down with whomever you romanced in the base game. And that's ultimately the point of Blood & Wine; to bring about a satisfying conclusion to Geralt's adventures over the last three games. In that sense, Blood & Wine is a triumphant success with a lot of feel-good moments and a picturesque ending. For that reason alone, Blood & Wine is absolutely worth playing, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. The base game already felt too big and bloated, and this expansion follows that design philosophy of churning out more quantity (which was already abundantly present in the base game) instead of focusing more on quality like Hearts of Stone did. Nothing in Blood & Wine is actually bad, except maybe the simple, repetitive side-quests, but very little of it's actually better than what we've already seen and done in Wild Hunt or Hearts of Stone. A few good moments and mechanics shine through, but otherwise, the majority of this expansion is somewhat "meh" to me.

That apathetic feeling towards Blood & Wine may simply be the result of me feeling the fatigue of playing one game for five months straight. When you spend 200 hours playing the same game, it all starts to feel kind of samey. This expansion brought about a cool "wow factor" for the first several hours as I simply took in the beautiful sights of Toussaint and once again got hooked searching for better equipment and planning how to invest skill points in a new skill tree, and upgrading the new player home. Once I got past all of the shiny new sparkle, however, it started to feel like the same old Witcher 3 again. So I guess if you played through all of Wild Hunt and Hearts of Stone and are still craving more content, or if you had to take time off from your playthrough to wait for the new expansions to release, then you'll probably enjoy Blood & Wine more than I did. But if playing The Witcher 3 has started to feel tiring to you, then Blood & Wine isn't going to fix that. It's still worth playing just to see how the series ends, but don't go in expecting a game-changing experience. 

1 comment:

  1. The first screenshot was breathtaking! Buying both the expansions! Thanks for reviewing the DLCs!

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