Monday, June 13, 2016

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Blood and Wine Review!

                As the final expansion for the last title in the Witcher series, Blood and Wine faces the difficult challenge of ending a story that has spanned eight books and three games on a high note and in a befitting manner. After confronting his greatest nightmare in the Wild Hunt and encountering the terrific Gaunter O'Dimm in Hearts of Stone, Geralt of Rivia embarks on his final adventure that takes him back to the fabled duchy of Toussaint, home of the chivalrous knights and most exquisite wines, where he has been summoned in order to rid the land of a beast on a killing spree. In doing so, the White Wolf is given the opportunity to end his story in a way that brings closure both to himself and to the fans of the Witcher.

                The sun-drenched and France-inspired land of Toussaint is almost comparable in size with Velen, although it is drastically different in terms of landscapes and the problems it faces. As part of the Nilfgaardian Empire, it hasn't been affected by the war, and this can best be seen in the carefree nature of its people and the absence of an army. Thus, knight-errants proudly patrol and safeguard the duchy against its smaller threats, whereas citizens are mostly concerned with the year's wine harvest and the outcome of their Gwent matches. It is also a region where Geralt receives the respect he deserves: gone are the cries of "mutant" or "freak" and none try to cheat him out of his pay, instead addressing him with "master" and even treating him with admiration at times. As such, it comes as no surprise that one of the main themes of the expansion which is explored through multiple dialogues is the one of finality, as Toussaint represents the perfect place for Geralt to settle down after a century of witchering. That is.. if he can overcome the threat of the Beast of Beauclair, Toussaint's capital and crown jewel.

                Blood and Wine's main story focuses on the confrontation with the Beast, whose identity and plan Geralt must uncover. To do so, he is reunited with one of his closest friends from the books, who is excellently adapted and written and has some great conversations with our protagonist in which they reminisce about old times. One of the things I really like about CDPR is their skill in adapting characters from the books into their games, and thus managing to transition their stories in a coherent way. Nonetheless, having spoken of the bright and joyful side of Toussaint in the previous paragraph, the main quest focuses on its dark and dangerous side, featuring multiple twists and tough decisions, with one of them branching the story in two separate parts that last about two hours each before they reunite at the finale. I thought the themes the story explored (forgiveness, manipulation, finality, friendship against justice) were great, although I now feel that certain characters could have been used a bit more screen time in order to be presented better. The moral dilemmas that stand at the root of the choices Geralt must make this time felt really tough for me, and yet I stand by my decisions, even if the outcome they have led to was not entirely pleasant, in true Witcher fashion. The quality of the writing doesn't reach Hearts of Stone levels, as overall the characters aren't written as well as O'Dimm or Olgierd and there's no scene quite as moving as Scenes from a Marriage, with the exception of the ending. Still, the dialogue ranges from great to excellent, with clever hints and foreshadowing involved but also a ridiculous amount of references, both to the books and to pop culture. All in all, I really enjoyed the main story of Blood and Wine.

                Where the expansion fares better than the other one and even the main game is through its side content, mainly its side quests, which are more diverse and entertaining than ever. One has you chasing forms to withdraw a deposit from a bank and feels terribly similar to the real world bureaucracy while still being a lot of fun to go through. Or you can go retrieve the stolen balls (literally) of a statue which are said to improve one's performance in bed, and once touched even give you a temporary bonus to out-of-combat stamina regeneration. There is another where you get to converse and do a contract with the friend which accompanied you on most of your adventures, and is absolutely ridiculous in a good way, proving that CDPR know how to make fun of themselves and the shortcomings of their games. Also, you can pose for a portrait or attend a tourney, and there's also my favourite side quest that is a massive throwback to the first game and requires you to demonstrate the chivalric virtues of the knights of Toussaint. As my Geralt decided to be just as kind and virtuous as the people of Toussaint were to him, by the time I got to this quest I had already display all required virtues through different decisions I had taken so far. Thus, a great example of choices and consequences which can unknowingly be failed based on your actions, and I only wish that this would've been the general design of quests from the beginning of development of the base game. As always, most of the side quests force you to make tough decisions and have multiple outcomes, and they eventually shape up to be one of the strongest parts of this expansion.

                Blood and Wine could have been a separate game on its own due to the massive new content it offers: my completionist playthrough took me about 35 to 40 hours to complete. As an incentive to complete his contract, Geralt receives the deed to a vineyard from the duchess, which serves as his new home and can be upgraded. Of course, this is more of a symbolic addition that is intended to fit in with the expansion's story ending themes, as from a practical perspective the vineyard serves as a place where you can display your weapons and armours on stands, hang your portraits and trophies on walls and receive a few buffs such as improved health, extra bombs and potions and better stamina for Roach. More depth here wouldn't have hurt, but the vineyard does serve its place thematically. Other additions of the expansion include the Grandmaster tier for witcher armours (which comes with a new set of scavenger hunts with small stories attached) as well as the possibility of dying them in different colours. There's also the big UI overhaul which came freely with the 1.21 patch that both looks better and adds more functionality to the menus, whereas the graphics have been improved in terms of foliage and lighting, with Toussaint being the most beautiful region of any Witcher title by far. Gwent has received its fifth faction, Skellige, which relies heavily on berserkers that transform into much stronger bears once a certain card is placed on their row, and you get the opportunity to test it out in Beauclair's Gwent tournament.

                There are three other additions worth mentioning: the Mutation system, the design of the Points of Interest and the new enemy types. The first one introduces mutations of three types (swordfighting, Signs and alchemy), which are basically small combat twists such as Aard gaining a freeze element (and working wonders when paired with the Northern Wind bomb) or improved Attack Power based on the number of enemies at the start of the fight which drops into a debuff if you don't eliminate them fast enough. Of course, these don't fix the main issues that the combat has had ever since the release of the vanilla game (clunky controls, poor targeting system and enemy AI), but rather offer some alternatives in gameplay and encourage experimentation. Although they offer up to four additional ability slots, the cost of unlocking all the mutations necessary to do so is way too high in terms of ability points, which makes it more of a New Game + feature. Moving on to the new enemy types, we have vampires (alps and bruxae), centipedes, archespores and barghests (returning from the first game), as well as wights. The encounter design is generally improved, with each type rewarding proper preparation for the fight: you'll have a much easier time against vampires if using the Black Blood potion (just as in the A Night to Remember trailer), centipedes are easily annihilated using Yrden whereas a Golden Oriole potion actually makes the archespore poison heal you. The final addition is the way Toussaint's Points of Interest have been integrated this time around: there are more variations of them (rescuing knights, clearing wine cellars; not terribly impressive, but more diverse), with there being three bandit bases (hanses) on the map that once cleared weaken the bandit force in the area. Some of these PoIs even tell stories that are continued from one to another, some have cutscenes and some are integrated in at least one of the side quests. Overall, they are much better done than in the base game or in Hearts of Stone, and they are a contributing factor to my following point.

                I was impressed with the way the world of Toussaint was built and how it comes together. Aside from the elements already mentioned such as the way Geralt is treated or how PoIs are integrated, there is also an interesting amount of world reactivity to your actions. People will acknowledge and cheer for you upon clearing a hanse or performing any great deed, to the point of being amusing as it feels that no one has anything better to do than watch your every step. Almost all merchants have at least one extra dialogue option aside from bartering which really makes the world feel more alive and organic. When one of them mentioned Vengerberg to Geralt, he mentioned that he knows the place well as it's the home of his lover. Or in a conversation with another merchant, upon hearing the name of a man for whom he'd already completed a contract, he recognised the name and remarked his unpleasant attitude. These are of course very small details, but they add a lot of feeling to the world. It also helps that everything looks so damn good: Beauclair is not comparable with Novigrad size-wise, but its architecture is artistically superior (in my opinion), making good use of verticality and a rich palette of colours. Galloping through the radiant countryside and its impressive number of vineyards is not only a relaxing activity, but also offers the opportunity of countless beautiful vistas. Lastly, on the audio side, we have an unsurprisingly excellent soundtrack that fits the two sides of Toussaint like a glove: bombastic tracks that emphasize the determination and ridiculousness of its knights, ambient ones that accompany exploration and others that are dark and mysterious and keep you on the edge of your seat during fights. The voice acting is as always on point, with bonus points for Geralt's returning friend and for the obvious french accent used by the people of Toussaint.

                Before the conclusion, I'll point out all the things that have bothered me during my playthrough. As with the main game, the problem of urgency in an open world is still not solved: multiple side quests make use of the passing of time between phases, yet Geralt has no time limit on his main contract, just as he didn't with finding Ciri. So there's some immersion breaking right there, since the world is waiting on you in the main quest. Witcher senses are still spammed as a mechanic, which really made me wonder what it would have been like if alternate paths would have been included that led to a quest failure if you just followed tracks/scents/hints without using your brain. There's also the fair amount of bugs such as Roach permanently losing her mane and tail (this is bothering me much more than it should, but a horse without a tail is unnerving to look at) or certain quests not working the way they're supposed to. Not a big minus as a patch is coming soon. What really bothered me is something that occured (or better said, didn't) in the "tragic" ending. Just as the world of the vanilla game reverted back to its state prior to the ending, the same happens here, with people mumbling their usual happy monologues instead of being affected in any way by the events that transpired. Again, a big immersion breaker and something that I'd really like CDPR to address when working on Cyberpunk 2077. As for the gameplay, it's always been the weakest part of The Witcher 3 and I didn't expect many improvements with Blood and Wine, but if you've already gotten here, you probably can trudge through some more hours knowing that it's worth it for the story and atmosphere. I can only dream of a RPG with Dark Souls-ish combat and itemisation and Witcher-ish everything else.

                All in all, as a long time fan of the Witcher universe and of Geralt, it was tough playing through Blood and Wine knowing that it's the end of the adventure. Yet it's an ending done right and one that comes at the right moment, and that's worth more than other stories which might make us weary of more (I'm looking at you, cow milking developers). It's an expansion that trumps any other recent DLC release, both in terms of value-per-investment ratio (20 to 40 hours of gameplay for merely £16) and sheer quality of content, through its engaging main story and fantastic side quests. For any Witcher fans, it's a must buy, while for the others, it's an example of how additional content should be done. No matter how sad knowing that I'll never go on another adventure with Geralt makes me, I'm thankful to CDPR for ending his story on such a high note.

Goodbye, old friend...

+ Fantastic new playground: Toussaint
+ Engrossing main story that branches based on your decision and has compelling themes
+ Best Witcher side content amongst all games
+ Better world building and Points of Interest
+ Small gameplay improvements through mutations and better encounter design
+ Great writing, although not quite as good as Hearts of Stone
+ Excellent soundtrack and voice acting
+ Insane content and value for the price paid
+ A lot of references and nods towards the books and the first game
+ More Gwent

- Vineyard upgrading doesn't have enough depth and mostly serves as a thematic addition
- The issue of quest urgency in an open world remains unresolved and affects immersion
- Mutation system is mostly intended for NG+, as its requirements are very high
- The overreliance on Witcher senses becomes annoying quickly
- The issues with the combat system are still there and affect the experience
- Inconsistency in world state after ending
- Some bugs here and there


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