The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine Review
Like an edge-of-your-seat television show or a gripping novel, the greatest video games, once finished, leave you with that bittersweet feeling. You’ve enjoyed the journey unlike any other, but now that the curtains have closed, you’re unsure whether any subsequent tale can reach the heady heights of what you’ve just experienced.
For me, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was that game. While additional content packs meant the conclusion of Geralt’s story was happily deferred, with the release of Blood and Wine the end has finally arrived. If it truly had to finish, good that it should be like this: CD Projekt Red’s final piece of downloadable content proves to be the studio’s finest hour, and the best possible way of concluding this monumental story. With a surplus of excellent adventuring, a dose of good humour, and those nascent flashes of humanity that so few stories — in any medium — succeed in capturing, Blood and Wine represents the very best of what made The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt such a spellbinding experience.
Of the many ways The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a storytelling landmark, what strikes me most is just how successfully Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher, is characterised. Though box art and trailers would have you bundle him with the scores of unremarkable, middle-of-the-road protagonists that feature in so many fantasy games, the truth is that Geralt is a character of remarkable depth. His curt retorts and disaffected, dry humour are the hardened mannerisms of an ostracised mutant whose presence in society would not be tolerated were it not for Geralt’s inhuman ability to hunt, slay, and otherwise contend with the game’s array of predatory creatures and mischievous beings so wonderfully inspired by Germanic folklore.
Yet while Geralt shares no real kinship with the uncaring populace of the free city of Novigrad, or the battle-worn inhabitants of the Skellige Isles, his encounters with other people are infused with a sense of heroic obligation. In a world where monsters are an established fact of everyday life and the powers that be care very little for the welfare of their subjects, if Geralt doesn’t help — who, exactly, will?
Of course, the hero work doesn’t come for free. The game’s haggling mechanic makes a point of highlighting the fact that Geralt isn’t above shaking down the recipients of his aid and yet, as more of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s boggling number of contracts are undertaken, this aspect of Geralt’s “Witching work” feels increasingly at odds with his natural inclination to help others in need. One starts to get the feeling that the transactional nature of Geralt’s work is something of a charade: the Witcher wants to help, but in these dark, downtrodden lands, a charitable gesture is apt to warrant as much suspicion as the hilt of a hidden blade spotted down some unsavoury Novigradian backstreet.
Toussaint, a small France-like duchy that serves as the setting of Blood and Wine, gives CD Projekt Red even more room to explore the question of what it means to be a hero. Toussaint is a land steeped in chivalric tradition, replete with well-meaning knights who are eager to prove their virtue and win the hearts of their beloved. Buffoonish and overzealous, the knights of Toussaint are destined to perish without the intervention of Geralt, who follows in the wake of their misguided feats to put an end to a number of ill-considered, dangerous shows of valour. The Witcher’s grounded approach to fantasy bristles deliciously against the moonstruck, ludicrous, self-imposed quests conceived by knights who evoke the Arthurian legends of old.
It’s the eye-rolling, exasperated way that Geralt offers the knights his assistance that serves to highlight that even here, in a land filled with purported heroes, only the Witcher is fit to hold the title. One of the expansion’s longer quests shows that Geralt alone is capable of pulling a sword from the depths of a lake whose surface may only be breached by those who possess the chivalric virtues. Make no bones about it: though Geralt may have first graced our monitors as a rougish, womanising Jack the Lad, Blood and Wine ties the final bow on a more interesting, more complicated protagonist. One who wishes to help others while simultaneously wishing that they would learn to help themselves. An unwanted hero who longs to be as unattached as he outwardly appears.
That Blood and Wine manages to layer so much self-examination throughout a plot centred around a vampiric beast that terrorises the duchy is a testament to the strength of writing on display. Though the central story of Blood and Wine is truly interesting in its own right, CD Projekt Red never forgets that The Witcher shines brightest in the small moments: in the decisively Joycean “A Portrait of the Witcher as an Old Man”, wherein Geralt agrees to be the subject of a burgeoning artist’s painting; in the search for a statue’s stolen genitalia, rumoured to bestow virility upon any who might hold them; in a “quest” that sees Geralt caught navigating the mundane web of banking bureaucracy, ushered from one teller’s window to another in an amusingly endless paper-chase.
The quests are many and varied, and most in some way offer an elegant reflection on the series as a whole. In more tender moments, Geralt gives pause to ponder: has his life as a Witcher been a fulfilling one? Given the chance, would he choose to do anything else? These are questions that might easily come across as self-indulgent were it not for how well Blood and Wine earns these moments on the merit of excellent dialogue alone. The ease with which The Witcher manoeuvres between carnivalesque parody, base humour, and earnest rumination without hiccup or hesitation will always be its most impressive achievement.
As was true in the main game, there is so much content on offer here. There are so many quests, some funny, others sad, many thrilling, and all executed with confidence and style so rarely seen in any story. When it all finally comes to a close, Blood and Wine offers perhaps the most comforting conclusion possible. I really hope that we haven’t seen the last of The Witcher. If we have, I can think of no finer curtain call than this extraordinary expansion.