The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, its expansions and DLC might be one of the best value-for-money products in years. Not only was the base game one of the highlights of 2015, but its first expansion -- Hearts of Stone -- gave us a renewed look at the world of Geralt of Rivia as he put his world-saving self on hold to tackle a unique and intimate questline with some of the best characters ever written in a videogame. Now, at the alleged close of released content for the game, we find ourselves in the land of Toussaint where Geralt has been summoned to ply his Witchering trade for the Duchess of Beauclair, Anna Henrietta, in the game’s final expansion, Blood and Wine.
On the box CD Projekt RED conservatively offer players “over 20 hours” of gameplay, but that would likely only be the case if you were to rush through and miss all of the incredible gameplay the land of Toussaint offers. The main questline is arguably the best across all vanilla and expanded content and reeks of a studio that has consistently learnt as it’s developed (no pun intended). But it’s the approach to peripheral content that makes Blood and Wine truly shine. Familiar activities return such as boxing and horse-racing, but they come with new twists (look out for the fantasy world rap battle, for one), while the game-world itself is brimming with unique characters and life -- even more so than Wild Hunt.
It’s a gorgeous landscape, pulled right from ancient romantic medieval tales. Mimicking the rolling hillsides of France, Toussaint is littered with colourful vineyards and quaint villages. From almost anywhere in the game, the palace of Beauclair rises from these greener pastures, nestled over the countryside as a reminder of the Duchy’s role as both protector and ruler. This picturesque place sells the unseen dread in the game’s story tenfold, because it’s juxtaposed -- visually -- to the grim and dark tale at hand. Velen’s monsters and rude, downtrodden denizens were befitting the war-ravaged landscape, but in picture-perfect Toussaint, the underbelly becomes more nefarious; more dangerous. Because you almost don’t expect where, why or when it will rear its ugly head.
Without giving too much away to those of you who haven’t jumped in yet, Blood and Wine centres around vampires. And not just the lowly vampires we faced in Wild Hunt -- this is highbrow in-depth stuff. Like, arguably the greatest vampire lore ever crafted. It’s deeply layered and complex; rich and ever-rewarding the deeper you choose to go. The presented story is generally enough, but there’s plenty of literature littered throughout the adventure for you to sink your teeth into (pun absolutely intended), and each character’s performance is largely brilliant in delivery. This is some of the greatest storytelling in videogame form.
Storytelling and world-design isn’t all CD Projekt RED has matured on though. The character development side of things has been bolstered with new options. These exist in a buffing sort of sense, where building out your new lodgings will present Geralt with a number of bonuses through various household interactions, most important of which is sleeping. The new mutations component is also a welcomed addition, and nestles comfortably alongside your persistent character development for those of us who took an established White Wolf into the content. If you started anew, you probably found even more depth out of the system, I just couldn’t resist bringing across a character I’d sunk more than 500 hours into.
The mutation side isn’t strictly binary, either. It’s tied to a quest that features a dark and tragic story, which is expanded upon throughout other finds in the game-world. Whether Grandmaster gear-related, or generally through paper-trails, the team simply don’t let up on the narrative side of things, which builds to making this final content almost bittersweet in its finality. If CD Projekt RED’s world of The Witcher doesn’t live on in some form after everything we’ve been given over the years, our world will be worse for it. But I digress.
New monsters and beasts litter this bright and colourful countryside, while new Witcher contracts present numerous opportunities to both engage them, and sink yourself into Toussaint’s unique and quirky character. There’s a more emergent quality to discovery this time around too, and while noticeboards and general NPC quests are still part of a checklist system, they don’t feel as easy to come across this time, leaving the nosey, exploratory type players with the best opportunities to get the most out of the game. Each quest is also diverse, ranging from basic fetch-quests, combat and more, to taking a nobleman out with his weird light-capture device that allows him to essentially take photos of the world’s monsters and beasts (you even get to hang one up in your house). You have to play it to know what I’m talking about, but it’s refreshing.
Gwent also returns in glorious fashion, with an entirely new faction of cards built around Skellige. You can’t just buy these though, with an entire quest set around collecting the unique cards to build out your deck before you can even partake in a tournament you’ll see advertised throughout the city. The Skellige deck is a powerful one if used properly too. Time will tell if it’s maybe too OP, especially if all the rumour and speculation comes true from this year’s E3 that a standalone digital version of the CCG is next on CD Projekt RED’s release list. No matter though, Gwent aficionados will find hours and hours of fun in the meta game alone.
At less than $40, which will land you both the Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine expansions, which together are easily more than 50 hours of content without even going into how much more you can sink in if you’re a completionist or game-world historian, it’s impossible to argue that the value here isn’t ridiculously good. Moreover, load times have been addressed, there’s a new animation system in combat and during cut-scenes, while most important of all CD Projekt RED has addressed the menu UI which is now easy to navigate and manage, even allowing players to preview armour and the like without having to actually equip it. Honestly, the whole thing is just the complete package.
Emphatically, I’d love to plead a case to the studio that The Witcher needs to live on in some form from here on out, and I may explore this later, but such is the impact this entire product has had on me that I just don’t want to see it go. I’m not even done with this new content, and there’s that enticing New Game + option, along with the 100 level cap, and plenty of decisions and a different ending I never experienced in the vanilla game, but even so it saddens me to know this is it, for now, with the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf.