The Witcher 3’s first expansion, Hearts of Stone, offered a deep and well-written story largely set in the same parts of Velen that players had become used to during the main adventure. The second, much larger expansion, Blood and Wine, in contrast moves the action to a new area, the Duchy of Toussaint. Blood and Wine is a last hurrah for The Witcher 3 and for the Geralt character, as it is the last piece of content released for the game and the last piece of content centered on the titular monster-slayer. Most fans of the game will therefore be delighted by the sheer amount of content on offer in this expansion: there’s as much to do here as in some standalone games, and a completionist playthrough of the expansion may well take you 30-40 hours. In this sense, it’s very much in the spirit of the sprawling base game, rather than the comparatively taut and linear Hearts of Stone. Moreover, the combat mechanics have been expanded with a new mutagen system, and the production values remain as high as ever.
Toussaint is a very different place to Velen and Skellige. For one thing, Toussaint is not ravaged by war or internecine strife, and so the general tone of the game isn’t as bleak. Moreover, Toussaint is a stunningly beautiful idyll, where the sun almost always shines and where the plants and crops grow in abundance. In particular, Toussaint is famed for its wine, and much of the action here revolves around the wine industry. Set after the events of the main game, the whole adventure has an aspect of ‘Geralt goes on holiday’, which is welcome up to a point, but perhaps could be construed as disloyal to the established aesthetic. A quest or series of objectives in an environment like this would be fine, but an entire 30-hour expansion felt like too much to me, and somewhat incongruous next to the overall tone of the rest of the game and indeed the franchise.
That’s not to say the whole thing is a bed of roses for Geralt. The main story of Blood and Wine sees him sucked into a high-stakes world of courtly intrigue, precipitated by a series of brutal murders. Geralt is tasked with investigating and killing the monster responsible, but of course it is not quite as simple as a bloodthirsty monster on the loose. There are also a plethora of side quests, and this is where you will find much of the best writing in the expansion, with some really interesting and unusual scenarios. The process of investigating and (sometimes) resolving people’s problems is one of the best parts of The Witcher 3 experience, and Blood and Wine is no different.
At the same time, I regretted that for all the beauty of the gameworld, I wasn’t able to engage with the main story here to the same extent as in Wild Hunt and Hearts of Stone. The story of Wild Hunt could end in a number of different game-states, and it’s not hard to appreciate why CD Projekt Red decided to re-locate the bulk of Blood and Wine’s action away from those events. Considering that the game-world can be very, very different depending on what happened previously, it would be unrealistic to expect CDPR to adapt the story to allow for every possible outcome. That said, it’s unfortunate they didn’t find more of a way to incorporate the well-loved characters from the main game into the events here. While Hearts of Stone was a brilliant story that amplified the dramatic impact of the main game (like, say, the Leviathan expansion did for Mass Effect 3), Blood and Wine fails to deliver the kind of character-based swansong Bioware served up with Mass Effect 3’s Citadel expansion. If anything, sending Geralt to Toussaint, which is clearly inspired by the south of France and Spain, struck me as an indulgence for the game’s developers, rather than one for the fans.
For a game which up until now had managed to make every single action feel important, I was disheartened to find that about halfway through Blood and Wine I wasn’t enjoying it any more and wanted it to finish. I don’t attribute that to fatigue with The Witcher 3 itself, but rather to the design choices made in this expansion. It’s not helped by the fact that combat can be irritatingly difficult at times: if Hearts of Stone’s arachnomorphs were an annoyance, the flesh-eating plants in Blood and Wine are even worse. By this stage, it makes no sense that Geralt should find these sorts of creatures a challenge, but the level scaling here is quite steep and rapidly makes redundant that eye-wateringly expensive Mastercrafted gear you spent so long forging. Gwent is a pleasing diversion, of course, helped by the introduction of a new faction representing Skellige. But in the end, the new characters introduced here are inadequate, and fail to generate the level of interest or empathy we’re used to from Ciri, Triss, and Yenn, or even from Shani and Olgierd in Hearts of Stone. For a game that left me with so many great memories and experiences, I came away disappointed that Blood and Wine didn’t do more to celebrate that. Instead it tried to do something new, and was ultimately unsuccessful.