“You can smell the delicate flowers,” says the duchess to Geralt of Rivia, and in that moment, you might believe that you can smell them, too. Like the full game, The Witcher 3’s final expansion, Blood and Wine, has a way of expressing its sensory delights so fully and richly that you could be convinced you really do feel the rain pouring on your face or the pesky tickle of a mosquito buzzing near your ear. That The Witcher 3 continues to look and sound so lavish is unsurprising, yet Blood and Wine’s visuals are even bolder and more vivid than the main game’s. At times, the vast new region of Toussaint seems to have been poured onto the screen from the pages of a fairy tale--and depending on your choices, you may literally find yourself drawn into one such tale.
Blood and Wine is sometimes as thematically dark as its predecessors. The vampire-focused main story explores the creatures’ innate lust for blood, among other quirks and passions, and the related scenes are dramatic and distressing in fine Witcher tradition. Yet compared to the rest of The Witcher 3, Blood and Wine is brighter and more ebullient, downplaying the melancholy and bringing humor to the forefront. That isn’t to say that this series has never been funny; in fact, it’s always possessed a wicked sense of wit. The humor has never been this ubiquitous or straightforward, however. You might hear a local singing “El Condor Pasa” under his breath as you pass by on your search for a statue’s missing testicles, or you may do a double-take when you notice not-so-subtle references to GOG.com, publisher CD Projekt’s digital storefront.
The self-referential humor reaches a head during a side quest involving hallucinogenic mushrooms, though it’s best that I don’t reveal the specifics. Suffice it to say that developer CD Projekt RED has no qualms about making fun of its own foibles. I can’t say the references always work in Blood and Wine’s favor, though. All too often, the fantasy I wanted to be living reminded me of the world I actually inhabit. Perhaps if Blood and Wine’s main story and characters were more engaging, the references wouldn’t have been so distracting, but none of Geralt’s new cohorts can match Yennefer’s lusty spark or The Bloody Baron’s brutal sorrow. Dwarfs in this universe have often been bankers--but in Blood and Wine, that’s almost the only role they play. It’s sensible, then, that the game’s most boring quest envelops you in a morass of financial red tape at the hands of a dwarven-run bank. And it isn’t made less boring by the quest’s knowing references to its own tedium.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s easy to pick apart these details only because The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is such a stunning game that anything less than phenomenal is bound to stand out for being “merely” great. I missed the diversity of the old cast--Toussaint is inhabited mainly by normal humans--but I still got swept up in the populace’s squabbles and stresses. Family drama is often at the forefront (one of blood’s several meanings in Blood and Wine), whether that family be a set of violence-minded brothers, estranged sisters, or a married couple that continues its petty bickering even in death. The finest quests, however, are those that begin with odd mysteries and tell the bleakest tales. What should you make of a creature that collects thousands of spoons, and what is the best way to confront the curse that afflicts it? How is it that a tree can bleed, and what role does a local witch play in the matter?
The combat scenarios rising out of these quests are similarly involving. Blood and Wine sets a challenging tone straight away by pitting you and a group of friendly knights against a charging colossus, and even if you enter the expansion at the suggested level of 35, you might find the battle more taxing than expected. Toussaint hosts a parade of grotesquely beautiful creatures prepared to defend themselves at any cost. Some of these sequences grow repetitive--how many predictable battles against those pus-spewing plants did the game really need?--but most are fun not only in their own right, but doubly so because of how they’re intertwined with the adventure surrounding them. In one quest, for instance, you accompany a photographer of sorts on an expedition to catalog the local wildlife. It’s a terrific mix of scouting with your Witcher senses, protecting your buddy from burrowing centipedes, and engaging in Blood and Wine’s delightful small talk, all of it capped by an adorable and memorable sequence involving peacocks.
Blood and Wine’s new mutations system is there to ease at least some of the challenge. It delivers an additional array of passive bonuses, and also unlocks new skill slots. (And thank The Fire for that.) You can skip the side quest that reveals this system, but I wouldn’t recommend it, lest you end up wasting skill points on abilities you don’t care to use and have no slots for. The addition does have a bit of a balancing issue, however. Blood and Wine goes from a nicely challenging adventure to somewhat of a cakewalk when you enable the skill that adds a freezing effect to the Aard sign. Pushing away a horde of bandits with a fling of the wrist is even more delightful when some of them freeze and shatter on the spot, I admit, but the final battles lose a bit of their sting when you have such power at your fingertips. (I cannot deny the cleverness of those battles, however, from both a mechanical and a visual perspective.)
The other notable addition is Geralt’s estate and vineyard, which you can upgrade by spending a bit of coin for a new bed, weapons racks, and other sundries. The vineyard is a minor element, all things considered, but it offers yet another chance to admire Blood and Wine’s extraordinary attention to detail. You get to name the wine your vineyard produces, and then nab and quaff bottles of it once it’s in production. Depending on your earlier choices, you might bring on an unexpected staff member to arrange meals, giving an otherwise unrelated quest additional emotional heft.
The vineyard is also thematically appropriate, in two distinct ways. Firstly, Toussaint is wine country, so it’s sensible enough that Geralt would be based at such an estate. More importantly, however, the vineyard is a commemoration of Geralt’s adventures, as is Blood and Wine in its entirety. An artist paints Geralt’s portrait; you fight in a tournament, possibly under a crest that represents an almost-forgotten past; you celebrate your accomplishments with your major-domo with a glass of your own wine. These are all acts of tribute, a send-off to a hero. And make no mistake: Blood and Wine sees Geralt as a hero, not just as a monster-hunter for hire, no matter how much you haggle over your fees. The vineyard is a symbol of the retiring hunter, who leaves behind not just a mass of griffon entrails, but a legend referenced throughout Toussaint’s entire culture.
Geralt deserves to be called a legend, of course, not least because he stars in one of the greatest role-playing games ever made. Perhaps we will join him in yet another adventure, but if Blood and Wine is the White Wolf’s final interactive appearance, he at least departs in style. I’ll miss you, Geralt--your impossibly perfect hair, your mercenary disposition, your stoic approach to horrific crimes and unspeakable tragedies. If you and Roach must ride into the sunset, then I’m glad the time we spent together was so enthralling.