There’s very little that puts you in the mood of getting engrossed in a deep, rich, video game getaway better than our annual summer lull. With the still-yet-to-be-justified period where major game releases coming to a crawl, No Man’s Sky was set to be that game to hold players over for weeks if not months to come. However with Hello Games’ unsuspected delay till August 9th – much closer to the Q4 Fall rush – few games are able to fill that gap; that’s where The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine DLC comes in.
The Witcher 3’s final piece of add-on content is the bigger of the two that were set to follow the main game. Packing in roughly 20 hours of content, Blood and Wine wields more staying power than most full priced retail titles. Now 20 hours pales in comparison to the 5,000,000,000 or so years it would take to visit all 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets in No Man’s Sky, but The Witcher 3’s world is densely realized enough to mesmerize you in its convincing fantasy setting.
That new setting takes the form of Toussaint, which, in very much the same vein as Skellige, is rather inspired by Western European regions (ignoring last month’s Brexit decision). The common-folk’s twang is French without a doubt, but more interesting is its wine economy that’s juxtaposed by its chivalrous military as its counterweight. Traditional, yes. But like Skellige for some, Toussaint is ruled by the Duchess Anna Henrietta, whose high heels, skin-tight pants, and admirable feminine features speak nothing to her propensity to get involved in dangerous matters, regardless of title. Her character further dissolves the impulsive accusations of sexism hurled at the game not long past. In fact, Blood and Wine seems to go out of its way to dispute those slanted arguments of gender misrepresentation, as Geralt encounters several capable women in this DLC. Many of them are somewhat heavy-handed in their progressive message, but nonetheless color this world with distinct personalities.
But you’d have to marinate in this world to get a sense of its flavors and customs. Other changes in The Witcher 3 are immediately evident the second you step into Toussaint; Blood and Wine looks absolutely stunning. CD Projeckt RED wasn’t kidding when they announced a while back that their latest DLC would look better than the base game. Textures and natural density are among the visual bumps that Blood and Wine brought to The Witcher 3, but the improved lighting effects and tear jerking vibrancy of the new region really pop when admiring them stilled or in motion. Comparisons to this year’s dizzying puzzle title, The Witness, would not be inappropriate, as the color range made it look like I swapped my old junky flat screen for a HDR capable television. The variety of vistas and spring time-fields rivals that of Uncharted 4’s artistry, and it all makes The Witcher 3 the most visually impressive open world I’ve ever seen.
Other striking changes brought by Blood and Wine come in the form of the revamped UI, which add some much needed quality of life changes to The Witcher’s notoriously messy menu system. Sub-lists in the pause menu such as the bestiary and the alchemy list can be expanded and collapsed with a single button. Other changes include categorized menus which separate potions, oils, quest items and more, and an extremely helpful world-map filter helps cut through the slew of icons on the overworld. Most importantly, however, all Blood and Wine quests are explicitly labelled. Four months removed from The Witcher 3, Hearts of Stone had me confusing old quests that I deliberately skipped for the new content added in the first expansion pack. Being able to immediately identify quests in this most recent DLC was extremely helpful.
Fundamental issues with The Witcher’s UI still rear their ugly heads, however. Pin-pointing individual items was a nightmare in the main game, and that’s even more evident in Blood and Wine. The vast majority of the expansion’s missions are initiated by reading notes, books, or letters. If you don’t open the documents when prompted, you still need to dig through your quest items to find them among the dozens of literature that nest in your inventory. There isn’t even a logical order in which they’re arranged either such as being listed alphabetically or from newest to oldest. The Witcher 3’s new changes don’t solve every problem, however the notable improvements continue the narrative of CD Projeckt RED’s constant screening and addressing minor issues to improve the game’s overall quality.
As an action RPG, Blood and Wine sees more changes than those delivered by Hearts of Stone, for better or worse. Reception to the game’s combat has been largely negative, highlighting the mechanics’ inconsistencies and prioritized animations. I’ve been able to overlook said problems until now, but Blood and Wine introduces enemies that reveal the stitching in The Witcher 3’s combat mechanics. Several of the new monsters are much faster than those faced before, such as new wild animals and classes of vampires that make Geralt’s wind-up much more frustrating. Chief among these issues are encountered in two new monster types, the Giant Centipede and the Echinops. They’re both similar in that they sprout from underground, forcing Geralt to change direction constantly. However while the centipedes’ movement can be effectively nullified by Yerden, the Echinops are a constant chore to slay as they not only move from location to location spitting acid at you, they leave a trail of explosive flower buds in their path. Never before have I had less fun playing The Witcher 3 then fighting them.
But the big new element introduced into Blood and Wine is Mutations. These abilities further Geralt’s Witcher properties, turning him into a far more effective monster-slayer and ruthless killer of men. Many allow Geralt to rapidly increase his physical damage output depending on various conditions, such as how many enemies on the field and his Toxicity level; one in particular can fully revive Geralt after he’s fallen in battle. But my pick for Blood and Wine is Piercing Cold. This new mutation is described as adding a “25% chance to freeze opponents” to Aard, and “if the blast also knocks them down it will kill them instantly.” But Piercing Cold doesn’t give opponents a chance to perish once they’ve fallen, it makes them totally explode on impact. It’s my favorite mutation of the new abilities introduced in Blood and Wine by simply offering such explosive rewards to combat, and almost made me forgive any downfalls of the game’s mechanics.
The Blood and Wine DLC, much like Hearts of Stone, is a largely self-contained experience with its own characters and story arc that align nicely with Geralt’s narrative as a wanderer. He’s a widely renowned Witcher that’s been called to hunt down a vampire that’s been massacring high ranking Knights of Toussaint. The plot does, indeed, reveal layers of storytelling as any tale in the Witcher universe does, however it falls short of matching the level of intrigue and originality that The Witcher 3, at it’s best, is able to offer. We are introduced to a new character Regis, which fans of the books will recognize fondly, who brings a level of intellect and pragmatism when discussing both humanity and vampire tradition. But even he, who’s able to dance around Geralt’s logic, isn’t nearly as fascinating as Heart of Stone’s Gaunter O’Dimm, one of the most haunting video game characters ever written. Nonetheless, Blood and Wine wraps up Geralt’s tale nicely with one of the most heart-warming endings I’ve ever seen in a trilogy.
The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine is a strong final chapter to Geralt’s story. It feels more like The Witcher 3 than Hearts of Stone did with 90 or so added quests that make up the 20 hours of content. It certainly helps that Blood and Wine’s visual bump enhances the Witcher’s escapism, closing the loop of what makes an effective action RPG. The combat may be a bit stressed, however tinkering with the new mutations may add new dynamics in finding creative ways to cut your enemies down. With that said, if you’re looking for a game to fill some of your time this summer, Blood and Wine is an easy choice.