Thursday, November 22, 2018

Console Corner: Review of "Blood & Wine" Witcher 3 Expansion

While it includes dwarves and elves, kings and dragons in a fantasy land, the Witcher world has never been about delivering run-of-the-mill high fantasy. Finding solid ground between familiar and unique material, there is no character like Geralt or his abilities in all of fiction or gaming, even as the Medieval land he fights his way through is, at least on the surface, recognizable. And this, interestingly, is what makes the final expansion for The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt called “Blood & Wine”, so intriguing.

Opening a whole new setting in the Witcher 3 world, “Blood & Wine” visits a kingdom that, on the surface, appears a fairy tale. From the towers of Beauclair Palace to its beautiful duchess, its charming vineyards to plumed knights fighting for honor, it all would seem the most stereotypical fantasy world possible. But beneath it, however, lie many human realities. Highlighting the manner in which Sapkowski and CD Projekt Red have subverted the classic conception of high fantasy, this major expansion closes out the overall Witcher 3 experience in fine fashion.

The storyline of “Blood & Wine” kicks off when, wandering through the nether regions of Velen, Geralt stumbles across a pair of old friends. Knights guarding a small village from bandits, they are on a mission from their Duchess to find Geralt and return with him to the land of Toussaint to find and kill a monster that is tormenting the kingdom. Arriving and meeting the beautiful, determined Duchess, Geralt learns that murders of three prominent knights have occurred under strange circumstances. Agreeing to find and kill the monster, Geralt starts his investigation. Trouble is, once finding the monster he learns how complicated the situation truly is.

If nothing else, “Blood & Wine” is absolutely gorgeous. Opening a whole new setting in the Witcher (similar in size to Skellige), there are knights in shining armor on mighty horses riding the roads, looking for tourneys and maidens to defend the honor of. There is a fairy tale castle, overseen by glorious blue skies and set among leafy vineyards. And the elegant streets and shops are filled with bread, cheese, and wine. Where the Witcher 3 base game presents gritty landscapes of mud and blood and gray skies, Touissant exists outside the ravages of war, occupying a space somewhere in the idyll of Medieval France and Italy. Wandering this new landscape is amazing.

On top of a major new storyline, and dozens of new side quests, witcher contracts, and treasure hunts, “Blood & Wine” brings to the table a plethora of new game options and play. I did not do the math, but instinct tells me 80-90% of the non-human enemies are completely new—arachnids, elementals, ogroids, etc. The sword of swords (best in the game) can be found (but only after the player has proven their knightly virtue, so be careful of your choices). Each of the sets of Witcher gear can now be upgraded to Grandmaster level (save Viper), and there is a whole new set, called Manticore, to find diagrams for and craft. On top of this, there is a new dye system that allows players to modify the colors of their outfits (enjoyable for players who delve into the aesthetic side of the game). Geralt acquires a house (estate, to be precise), and is able to upgrade it in various ways, both useful and aesthetic. But the biggest addition may be the new character abilities. Unlocked as part of a fun side-quest with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde meets Indiana Jones overtones, a mutation tree comes available that allows players to tap into a number of powerful extra abilities by spending ability points. Giving players new options for battle, the mutation tree is a breath of fresh air, especially considering the majority of new enemies and monsters are at a high level (35+).

It’s interesting to note that, like “Hearts of Stone” and its impressionist scenes inside Iris’ memories, “Blood & Wine” also contains an alternate world setting. To say more would spoil the story, thus I can only write that one particular choice takes Geralt into a true fairytale land portraying elements from stories by Hans Christian Anderson or the Grimm Brothers. Romping through this land is sheer joy, from visuals to surprises, and will likely be one of the player experiences that settles into memory.

The main storyline inundated with vampires, CD Projekt Red should be applauded for not using stereotypical material. Presented more as tormented human-animals than blood-craving night walkers with tuxedos and waxy faces, there are no scenes one might expect, e.g. fanged blood sucker stalks beautiful young virgin, etc. Their presentation something more in line with Anne Rice’s conception of vampires than classic horror, CD Projekt Red utilize the human side of vampires in generating plot tension, that is, rather than the imminent threat they pose sneaking in the shadows, looking for blood. To say more would spoil the storyline, but suffice to say it is nice to have a storyline that attempts to spin a familiar idea in a new direction, rather than one catering to worn tropes. Which is a good segue into:

As mentioned in the introduction, the thing “Blood & Wine” does best is highlight the subjectivity of heroism, and morality in general. At about the two-thirds point in the story (when the player receives a warning from the game that they should create a new save, as onwards certain side quests will be unavailable), Geralt is faced with choices that dramatically affect the lives of the people around him. Death, forgiveness, freedom, happiness, banishment—the player’s choices truly matter in terms of outcome. And none are clear cut, good vs. evil choices. In youtube videos and online discussion, players have labelled the expansion’s various endings as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. But it seems more appropriate to number them (1, 2, 3, etc.) as there are negative aspects of the ‘good’ ending and vice versa. The biggest choice the player faces is one that truly comes from the gut given it forces the player to deploy their own sense of morality, no altruistic lights shining the path ahead. This idea flows back through The Wild Hunt main game, highlighting that nothing is perfect and not all our choices are cut and dry when the layers of high and epic fantasy are peeled back to expose the human stories lying beneath. Beyond all the accolades Witcher 3 may receive from a technical or rpg perspective, it’s storytelling, and the player’s moral agency within the story, that remain the core of the experience, something “Blood & Wine” emphasizes.

I played “Blood & Wine” about a year and a half after having completed Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. And it served as a major reminder of just how good the base game is, and how so many games are still trying to achieve the same level of detail, quality, and maturity. Culminating in about 25-30 hours of additional gameplay, if Witcher 3 is the greatest rpg ever made, then “Blood & Wine” is the feast celebrating the achievement. Players hoping for Witcher 3 DLC could not ask for more.

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