Monday, June 27, 2016

The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine review

    And so the saga of Geralt of Rivia comes to an end. As successful as the Witcher saga is, I'm of the mind we probably haven't seen the last video game starring either the eponymous witcher or his adopted daughter Ciri, but I do think this is very likely the end before a reboot or for a number of years. As a hypothetical end to the franchise, though, it's a pretty enjoyable piece of fanfic. Certainly, it's less depressing than the way Andrzej Sapkowski left it.

    Blood and Wine's premise is Geralt getting approached by a pair of Toussaint knights asking him to help them fight a monster terrorizing their fairy-tale kingdom. It doesn't take Geralt long to deduce this is the work of a higher vampire and is stunned by the return of an old friend who offers his peculiar insight into their condition. What follows is a tale of betrayal, greed, love, and frustrated ambition which goes in a bizarre direction before the exciting conclusion.

Toussaint is a triumph of artistic design and color.
    It's not really a spoiler to say Blood and Wine has a serious focus on vampires after the monsters have largely been absent from the Witcherverse. They're an established part of the lore with a vampire brothel showing up in the first game and the novel character of Regis, a vampire alchemist, making his return to the franchise. I like the mythology of the Witcherverse vampires with them coming in three varieties: Higher Vampires, Bruxa, and Katakans.

    Higher Vampires are near-indestructible Count Dracula in Castlevania types, Bruxa are very powerful sexy vampires, and Katakans are mindless evil vampires. Each of them plays a unique role in the setting and you get to slay all of them by the end of the game. The DLC also expands on their history and lore in the setting. One of my favorite parts is visiting a vampire temple where you learn about how the undead have fostered civilization in order to make humans easier and more available prey. :shudder:

This is one of the good guy vampires.
    Toussaint is a beautifully rendered setting and, combined with the Heart of Stone DLC, easily could have been a third Witcher game or a spin off by itself. At about twenty-hours of gaming, it's well into the size of a separate game. The culture, personalities, and adventures are all well developed with the feel of Southern France. I came to love Toussaint despite my passionate hatred of Nilfgaard and wouldn't actually mind Geralt settling down there despite, again, it would be in the territory of the Black Ones.

    I came to love the characters of Duchess Anna Henrietta, Syanna, Dettlaff, and, of course, Regis. All of them have very big and bold personalities, which contrasts nicely to the more subdued ones of the main Witcher game. Indeed, it is a common thread in the story that the people of Toussaint are just plain nicer than the people of the North. That doesn't apply to the main story, though, which is fundamentally about decent people being warped by their circumstance until the point they do terrible things to one another. There's no ending which doesn't end with someone being horribly burned.

The ladies of the court manage to be regal yet not snooty. Amazing accomplishment there for an avowed noble hater like me.
    There's a running theme throughout the DLC of the differences between true honor and the appearance of honor. This is a theme visited in Game of Thrones repeatedly but makes sense here as well. The people of Toussaint can afford to look brave and act heroic because they have the money to do so. However, their true faces come out when their positions are challenged or they aren't being rewarded for goodness. Dettlaff is a character I particularly liked and feel his endings were undeserved every bit as much as Syanna's potential ones.

    Players wondering what they'll get in terms of gameplay benefits should note the Blood and Wine Expansion comes with a base of operations for Geralt to store his booty, raises the level cap to an absurd 100 levels, and provides Grandmaster Witcher gear in order to have the best armor in the game for whatever school you prefer. There's also the option to dye your armors whatever color you prefer, which can be quite nice if you prefer Geralt in all-black or pink. I also appreciated the fact, if you deleted your save, you can just play this separately with a pregenerated character of the appropriate level as well as equipment.

Syanna is a beautiful character.
    There's some silly elements to the game which don't quite fit like when Geralt is forced to visit an illusion-based land of Western European fables which seems contradictory to the otherwise Slavic tone of the series. Also, I felt bad for slaughtering the Three Little Pigs after blowing their house down. I will say, though, this is more than made up for by the fascinating story branches and overall very serious storyline that draws from my favorite short story in the novels.

    The DLC's tone is some of the most mature in the franchise, even if it never quite reaches the epic tragedy of Heart of Stone. The writing is top notch and all of the various adventures reinforce the themes of family, betrayal, honor, glory, and love. One of the things I love about the story is a major motivation for the games events is a man being willing to do anything for his ex-girlfriend, not quite realizing she's just not that into him.

Detlaff is a wonderfully hard boss. But, for me, I prefer him not to be fought at all.
    There's also the fact the best ending of the game requires some evil people to get away scott free while some good don't get punished. The Witcher has always been one of the most mature games in fantasy so it's nice to see them push the envelope even when they're being lighter and softer. Fans of grimdark fiction will note the people of Toussaint aren't starving in the streets and have a sympathetic merciful lord but it's a place where daggers are always hiding behind pleasant smiles.

    I think the game could have benefited by having a couple of other love interests and a few more paths to take in the final choice but I also believe the game worked spectacularly. Dettlaff is probably my favorite character out of a very good collection of choices. He's a vampire who thinks more like a pack animal than a man. He protects those he cares for, destroys those he loves, and doesn't have any concept of betrayal or manipulation save that it permanently severs any trust he has for a person.

A less memorable but still intensely hard monster.
    The difficulty spike of the game is significant this time around with vampires being some of the hardest foes in the game. Even at the recommended levels for fighting the monsters, they proved to be things which required a great deal of dodging and high-level equipment in order to survive. I also regretted I didn't make more ample use of potions as they were desperately needed in several places. Really, I wish they had given some tougher armor for this game but I was most satisfied with the final equipment I possessed.

    The handling of vampires is also something I'm back on forth about. They're done masterfully and some of the best-developed vampires in gaming. However, they're also a group which contradicts the handling of them in Sapkowski's books. Sapkowski made a whole race of friendly vampires with the idea of them being a threat to humanity the result of dumb human prejudice and jealousy. Here, the vampires are some of the most threatening I've seen in years. I generally dislike friendly vampire depictions so it's kind of ironic that I'm so mixed in my feelings here.

Goodbye Geralt, enjoy your vineyard.
    In conclusion, I'm sorry to see the Witcher saga come to an end but if it had to do so then I'm glad it went out this way. Geralt of Rivia gets the option of retiring in a land which is beautiful and peaceful or he can move on to fight for justice following another tragedy. Whatever way you choose to play Geralt, you'll have a load of fun with this installment. It really is The Witcher 4 in many ways and I think every fan of The Witcher 3 should play it.


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