Blood and Wine was the second the The Witcher 3’s two expansions, released in May of 2016, and it suffers, in my opinion, from Senioritis.
I don’t know how widespread the term is, but in the US, it refers to the condition suffered by high school seniors (who would usually be 17-18 years old) in the second semester of their final year. By then, all of their college applications have been sent off, so they don’t have to worry about grades (so long as they don’t flunk out entirely), they’re relieved to have the whole high school thing almost over with, and there’s little incentive for them to do anything but goof off.
By May of 2016, most of the Witcher 3 team has been working on the game for more than a decade, and the series for even longer than that. It’s hard to begrudge them a bit of carelessness now that the finish line is finally in sight, but the product does suffer a bit for it.
On the one hand, the expansion benefits from some of the same things Hearts of Stone did: the team is more familiar with the tools, they can take a bit more freedom with the story and setting, and they’ve learned how to get the best out of a somewhat limited combat system. On the other hand, the narrative is… I think “easily distracted” is the closest phrase I can find to describe it.
The main storyline’s opening sequence is a good example of this. You encounter a pair of Toussaintese (is that right?) knights who are looking for one Geralt, a Witcher, to help solve a series of mysterious killings in duchy’s capital of Beauclair. So the three of you travel to Toussaint in a cutscene. Shortly after arriving, you pass by a guy getting attacked by a giant, so you kill the giant. Upon arriving to the first crime scene, you find the body has been moved to a nearby villa, so you go to the villa, where you get attacked by a Bruxa (a Bruxa is a type of powerful
witch (whoops, vampire, thanks to the comments) that I’m not entirely sure CDPR had to make naked). Then, you go to the capital, where you pass by a tournament where a knight is fighting a big, ornery, armored rodent-like thing called a Shaelmaar. The knight is soon in danger, so Geralt jumps into the arena and you fight that too.
(Note: below the jump are spoilers for the novels, a certain character in them in particular. Use caution if you haven’t read them yet.)
If you’re keeping count, that’s three boss fights in one quest. Usually, it’s CDPR’s habit to have such opponents have some sort of backstory or interesting introduction or twist to them. But here, they’re just… there. You’re introduced to them in one scene, and you’re fighting them in the next, and then you never see or hear from or about them again.
The fights themselves are entertaining enough. I especially liked the Bruxa, an opponent that required me to think on my feet and be less button mash-y and more Witcher-y than usual. I suspect that this sequence was designed as a playable demo to show the new expansion off to game journalists, which is fine, but I wish they’d untangled its various component parts from each other before putting them in the game proper.
The same can be said for the pacing. In one interesting quest hook, the killer’s next victim is dressed as a hare in an elaborate holiday masquerade at a swanky party at the palace. The environment here is lovingly crafted, with guests milling around a finely manicured garden, swapping amusing chatter with each other in gorgeous early-evening lighting. But most players probably won’t see most of it, because what would have been a more involved sequence in other parts of the game is a mad dash to a sequence of quest markers here. Then, later, the relatively routine act of finding out that a master vintner has been pawning off barrels of wine on the side takes 10-20 minutes of slowly walking around a wine cellar and tasting barrels to complete. For the first chunk of the expansion, I spent half of the time wishing the story would slow down and the other half wishing it would speed up.
To polish it all off, there’s a hiccup in the quality of the voice acting. Some of the line readings are odd in inflection or emotion or both, and to top it all off the developers never really settle on what exact accent people speak with in Toussaint. According to the wiki, the expansion had 14,000 lines of dialogue (by comparison, the not-exactly-taciturn Hearts of Stone had 6,000), so it may be that quality control slipped somewhere along the line.
So yes: Senioritis. However, CDPR’s strengths are also on display here. The story’s villains are revealed in a satisfying way, and they’re both well fleshed-out characters with backstories that add depth and context to their actions. (I want to note that between the two of them and their minions, they kill kind of a lot of people. The Witcher 3 devs always seem to expect me to be more forgiving than I am of that sort of thing.) The side content is interesting and well-made, up to their usual standards. Then there’s Corvo Bianco, the vineyard you get as a reward for your help, which you can upgrade and refurbish. I can’t comment on it objectively because upgrading things in games is my kryptonite.
There’s also Regis. Regis is a character from the novels, and it’s the first time we’ve seen him in the series. I might as well put another spoiler warning above this picture just to be safe, the spoilers are below it.
Regis is a vampire. But don’t worry – he’s a friendly one. In fact, his attitude towards blood is something like that of a recovering alcoholic’s towards alcohol: he abstains completely, knowing how dangerous it is. He’s also thoughtful and kind – like Dandelion, Zoltan, and others, his friendship with Geralt speaks well of Geralt. His character is faithfully recreated here, and I was glad to see him. There’s one scene in particular where he and Geralt sit in a graveyard, passing a bottle of mandrake hooch (not the really hard stuff, though) back and forth and just talking. It doesn’t advance the story or reveal any deep secrets, but it does pleasantly characterize both of them. It’s the sort of scene that the Witcher 3 developers have made look easy again and again, but almost no other developer has gotten the hang of.
It’s also worth nothing that by the end of the books, Regis was capital-D Dead. A jerkface sorcerer by the name of Vilgefortz melted him into a column to the point where he wasn’t much more than a red stain and a pile of rocks. Now, in the source material it’s known that vampires have extraordinary regeneration abilities, but this guy was so thoroughly killed to death in Lady of the Lake that everyone involved doesn’t much consider the possibility that he might return.
But now he’s back, his miraculous recovery explained away by a bit of vampire hocus-pocus. I can’t complain too much, as the character is a fan favorite (and a favorite of mine as well), but it gives the impression that the developers are getting a bit impatient with the restrictions of the source material. After three games and so many years, you can hardly blame them. The good way of interpreting this is that they’ve been chomping at the bit to try something different, and they’ll come out of the Cyberpunk starting gate in full lather.
So that’s Blood and Wine. When reading the criticisms above, keep in mind that I hold this game and its expansions to a higher standard than most, and things that are the biggest problems here would barely make the top ten in many well-regarded RPGs. The whole series gets wrapped up in the next entry, where I submit my final and legally binding judgment, as well as my hopes and worries going forward.
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