The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was arguably1 the best game released in 2015, an achievement all the more remarkable for 2015 being a very good year for games in general. It felt like the first genuine step forward for RPGs in years, portraying both a believable world and empathetic, human characters who effortlessly drew you into a plot that felt like it had real, emotional stakes. Furthermore, it was a plot that was all the better for being a self-contained whole; there’s no cliffhanger or trailing for a sequel, just a complete story that took the time to give itself a satisyfing denouement, with a half-hour coda afterwards where you took stock of what had happened and tidied up loose ends. Unfortunately when it comes to expansions this is something of a double-edged sword: how on earth do you follow up something like that in an expansion pack while keeping the level of quality as high as the original game?
To their credit CD Projekt do almost manage to extract themselves from the corner they’ve backed themselves into. Almost. The first expansion pack for Witcher 3, Heart Of Stone, is a 10-hour story that uses new locations nestled into the previously-empty northern area around Novigrad. It adds almost nothing outside of that story, with precious few sidequests, no new gear and only an underwhelming runeword system to really engage your brain mechanically — but that doesn’t matter because Heart Of Stone’s main questline is the best standalone questline in the game by some considerable distance, only being beaten out by Wild Hunt’s story because it doesn’t have 60 hours for the player to get emotionally invested. It’s a tale of two antagonists: Olgierd, a cruel bandit lord who is apparently immortal, and the mysterious, mesmerising Gaunter O’Dimm, who returns from his brief cameo at the very start of Wild Hunt to draw Geralt into his scheme to collect on a debt Olgierd owes him. Geralt has to fulfil three of Olgierd’s wishes, each of which starts its own standalone questline, and each of which tells you more about Olgierd and how he came to be the way he is. The wish quests themselves are fantastically varied and a lot of fun, being by turns humorous, action-packed and full of pathos (there is a particularly good one where Geralt has to somehow take a dead man on a night out on the town) but pulling the strings behind them all is the enigmatic O’Dimm. He’s charismatic, to be sure, and captivating to watch — in fact you’ll have trouble tearing your eyes from the screen any time both he and Olgierd are in a cutscene — and this is precisely why he’s the creepiest antagonist Geralt has faced yet; you find yourself coming down on O’Dimm’s side to begin with since he’s so personable and Olgierd is such a monster, but the chances are that by the time you finish Heart Of Stone your opinion on both of them will have flipped around by a hundred and eighty degrees. As ever with The Witcher, nothing is as it initially seems.
There’s a lot of great work that’s gone into generating the atmosphere for Heart Of Stone; thanks to the antagonists, the writing and the general direction of the cutscenes it comes across as precisely the sort of unsettling folk story that would make it into the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It’s a style of storytelling that particularly suits The Witcher, and in this case I think the fact that there’s very little outside of the story has allowed CD Projekt to tackle it with an unusual degree of focus. Nevertheless I was definitely feeling the lack of any mechanical additions after a while; you gain six or seven additional levels during Heart of Stone, but since there’s no changes made to the mutagen system and you probably maxed out your skill slots during Wild Hunt there isn’t anything to do with them. Similarly I was still using the same set of Mastercrafted Griffin armour after ten hours of Heart Of Stone that I’d already been wearing throughout the last quarter of Wild Hunt. Does this hurt Heart Of Stone at all? No, not really – fixing mutagens isn’t really in the scope for a piece of £7 DLC, after all; it doesn’t hold back the story at all, and story-wise HoS is CD Projekt at the top of their game. They quite wisely left all of the mechanical fixes and additions for Blood And Wine, the second, meatier expansion pack that came out last week and which I have much more mixed feelings about.
Blood And Wine adds a whole new region for Geralt to meander around in. Toussaint is a jarring contrast with Velen, since it’s a sunny, grassy idyll full of pleasant vineyards and a populace who are generally happy to see a witcher riding into their village. The reason they’re so cheerful (aside from their country not being a war-torn hellhole) is because they’re protected from monsters and bandits by a collection of classic chivalric questing knights, who are played far straighter than I was expecting; they’re genuinely into the whole chivalric code thing and have very few rough edges aside from some stereotypical snobbishness. Still, sometimes you just need a professional to get the job done, and that’s where Geralt comes in: he’s summoned by the Duchess of Toussaint to solve a series of particularly grisly murders committed by something that seems hell-bent on chewing its way through her retainers. Since Blood And Wine is 20 hours long that’s far from the whole story, though; resolving the main plot takes up about half of that, and the other half is the same open-world gameplay that Wild Hunt nailed so well, riding around fulfilling contracts and solving other monster-related problems.
Well, not quite the same. Toussaint seems like altogether too wholesome a setting for a Witcher game; it’s an idealised combination of 15th century France and Italy that’s — unbelievably — played for laughs. Nobody seems to have any serious problems in Toussaint: the monsters are treated as more of an annoyance than anything else; everyone speaks in an atrocious accent; everyone uses ridiculous swearword standins like “Go diddle yourself, bumbotch”; and the entire place just has this hey-nonny-nonny feel to it that makes me feel like I’m playing Carry On Witcher. I dislike grimdark settings that are grimdark for the sake of it, but Wild Hunt’s brand of grimdark felt like it had a point and it’s so weird to go from that to something that feels a little like a Mel Brooks spoof at times. Toussaint looks incredible, but because I found the atmosphere so much less compelling it started to show up the open-world gameplay for what it really is, at its core: something barely one step removed from an Ubisoft game where you ride around the map ticking off points of interest. They’ve still gone to a fair amount of trouble to drop in some interesting landmarks, but anything that’s not a full-on secondary quest started to feel hollow and insubstantial. The secondary quests themselves seemed a little more hit-and-miss than in the main game; there are some really good ones, including the one where you participate in a classic knightly tournament, but others came dangerously close to what, for CD Projekt, counts as phoning it in.
Blood And Wine at least recognises that you can’t play another 10 character levels without bolting an additional tier onto the Witcher sets so that the player has something to work towards; this it duly does, and the Grandmaster tier armour is both an effective money sink and feels like it’s worth the huge investment involved, since you now get some pretty awesome bonuses for wearing a partial or full set. There’s also a new mutations system which gives you something to do with your mutagens and character points by spending them on a collection of powerful passive abilities, only one of which can be active at a time; unlocking these also unlocks additional slots for your skills that aren’t attached to a particular mutagen, allowing you to branch out a little in your skillset without feeling like you’re missing out by not min-maxing it. Of course since I’m me I did min-max it, and my Signs build became even more broken; Igni could now be fired off three times in a second, it could do critical hits, and anything that was killed by it exploded. Even stuff that didn’t catch on fire didn’t stand up long to being repeatedly bathed in waves of flame – and while there’s a few more fire-proof enemies in both expansions it’s rare that you’ll find one that can’t be beaten with a judicious amount of dodge rolling while your Stamina quickly recharges. I’ve come around a bit on my opinion of this system, though. When I played Wild Hunt I thought it was just broken — and it kind of was. It felt like I shouldn’t be able to faceroll through combats by dumping all of my points into Igni and blue mutagens and hammering Q. However, Blood And Wine finally adds enough elements of complexity that keeping my build broken required some thought and more than a little bit of work to get the right mutations, and so it finally felt right that my Geralt was so ridiculously powerful since I’d put in a fair bit of effort to make him so.
So Blood And Wine is a bit more of a mixed bag than I was used to from The Witcher, and so the second expansion was left hanging on the strength of its main plotline rather more than I think it should have been. Said main plot does a decent job, introducing an old friend of Geralt who is played with a surprising degree of warmth, compassion and humanity, and who is a damn sight more interesting to talk to than fucking Dandelion, but at the same time it feels substantially more disjointed than anything in the main game or Heart Of Stone. That’s the story of Blood And Wine in general, in fact; it’s the opposite of HoS in that it’s a very substantial expansion that goes too far and does too much and is decidedly unfocused as a result. Some parts of it are great, others are rather substandard, and so I was a little disappointed to come straight out of the stellar experience that was Heart Of Stone to encounter something that was rather more uneven. Still, substandard for The Witcher is still a cut above most RPGs today — I think that Blood And Wine, flawed as it is, would probably not do too badly for itself (and might even do better) if it were standing off somewhere on its own rather than directly in the shadow of Wild Hunt. And to be perfectly honest, given how miserly the price-to-content ratio of most DLC is these days (looking at you Bioware), paying £20 for at least 30 hours of content whose major failing is that it’s not quite as good as 2015’s best game is not a bad result at all.
- In that I argue it. ↩
If I have a criticism of Hearts of Stone, it’s that it doesn’t have quite the range of perspectives for Geralt as I’ve come to expect. Compare it to the Bloody Baron subplot. In that story, Geralt can either sympathize with the Baron and help him reconcile with his family, vocally disapprove of him and refuse to help, or steadfastly remain out of the whole matter. All three options make sense, and at the end of the plot it feels like you got a sensible resolution no matter what your opinions were. At the end of Hearts of Stone, however, Geralt either doesn’t give a shit about Olgierd or unquestioningly views him as capable of redeeming himself; there aren’t many options throughout that clearly articulate why Geralt might view Olgierd as unsympathetic*, and for as evil as O’Dimm is made out to be he honors his contract with Geralt to the letter and without shenanigans.
I agree with you that Blood & Wine is significantly goofier than the base game. However, after 188 hours (!) of playtime, I’m quite happy to wrap up the Witcher 3 with what amounts to a sequel that isn’t incessantly grim. No aborted fetus monsters, no domestic abuse, no suicides; actually, the grim stuff in the Witcher 3 is pretty frontloaded in the Velen region, isn’t it? There’s lots of lighter quests in Novigrad, Skellige, and Kaer Morhen. Regardless, it’s nice to play a Witcher game that juxtaposes Geralt’s serious attitude with a bunch of weirdos and silly adventures (and trips to the bank). Also, Toussaint is clearly meant to be evocative of Southern France and Spain. There’s more than one reference to Don Quixote, including “Dulcinea Windmills.”
*For my part, a lot of it has to do with details that the game doesn’t go into in any great depth, like how Olgierd very obviously tried to create a contract that he could weasel out of, or how Olgierd made a living as a pillaging bandit, or how there’s zero evidence that O’Dimm himself made Olgierd’s heart “turn to stone.” He certainly seemed to liven up when he realized how screwed he was at the end. I wanted the game to let me push back a bit on his narrative as being unfairly wronged, but it mostly forced me to sit quietly and come to my own conclusions.
Ah, the bank quest was great fun. Which is not something I’d expect to say about battling your way through bureaucracy, but there it is.
I didn’t have a huge problem with Geralt’s characterisation in Hearts of Stone – yes, he’s more straitjacketed than he was in Wild Hunt, but this expansion isn’t about him (except for the bits with Shani). I think it’s a strength of the Witcher series that it deals with a defined protagonist rather than the blank slate of most RPGs, and part of Geralt’s character is that, when push comes to shove, and with much grumbling, he will usually Do The Right Thing. Wild Hunt muddies the water by never giving him such an obvious choice, but O’Dimm is an evil bastard and it makes sense to me that he’d side with Olgierd at the end – not because he likes Olgierd, but to fuck over O’Dimm, both because of what he’s seen during his travels and because I’m sure he didn’t appreciate being dragged into this. Your interpretation – that Olgierd deserved it and O’Dimm is basically Lawful Evil and keeps his word — is equally valid. So it does keep up the ambiguity somewhat.
And my problem wasn’t the fact that Toussaint was more pleasant than the rest of the Witcher world, it was that it was absurd, and almost nonsensically so. If they’d toned the ridiculous accents down just a little I’d have had an easier time with it.
My perspective on Witcher is tainted by reading those books when growing and books are not that good once you go past the interesting premise of normalizing every fairy tale into a realistic life. It wasn’t grim dark, mind you: it added domestic abuse, rape and cynicism to fairy tales but at the same time made sure you understand there’s no real evil there. Plus valiant heroes can get fun by getting drunk or engaging into premarital sex. And Toussaint classic knightly types where there too. Geralt didn’t like them cause they worked for free.
Anyway, that’s probably why world is not that engaging for me: it feels much more familiar than, say, Dragon Age world. What puzzles me is how people call it best game of 2015 ignoring absence of gameplay. The game distances itself from RPG genre by making sure you always have the same tools and they’re always viable. It’s especially evident in New Game Plus I’ve started to get better ending and play expansions. Even if I don’t put any skill points in Igni it’s still a fiery storm capable of breaking any defense. Even if I change my build to completely non-combat I can still attack people to stun them and do some damage with the help of oils. In fact I’m pretty sure that whatever your playstyle you can try any build and you won’t know what skills do you have unless it’s something like enabling alternative spells which are useless. I haven’t seen anything new in game battles since I fought this griffin with newly acquired crossbow in the first location. And I rarely has been challenged: only high level monsters made me concentrate on this dodging and striking routine. I’ve played on highest difficulty but later I became bored with it – every freaking drowner could survive 10 hits so the only thing that was challenged was my attention span. Meanwhile W1 and W2 had actual choice in character development giving you new abilities and changing your fighting style.
Still there’s this new mutagen system. Maybe it makes endgame more challenging and wakes me up.
I’ve read some of the Witcher short stories. I don’t know if it loses something in the translation, but they didn’t strike me as particularly outstanding examples of the genre. Not bad, just… average, and boringly so.
Both expansions do liven up the combat a little bit. The fights with random bands of monsters are repetitive, but they have some really good bossfights where you have to use your head, and Blood and Wine has you invading bandit-packed castles where you fight 20+ bandits at the same time, which is basically a great excuse for Geralt to really cut loose. I don’t agree that all playstyles are the same — my signs build was definitely bad at trying to fight people straight up, and I rarely used stuff like dodging or parrying because I never had to.
That said, the combat in Witcher 3 *is* repetitive, largely because there’s so much of it. It’s an okay system that buckles under the sheer weight of encounters and they probably should have toned down the number of fights with random bandits/wolves/carnivorous plants in favour of the more interesting designed stuff like in the Witcher Contracts.
Trust me, translation makes those books *better* as Sapkovsky can’t write dialogues at all. All his characters are either dumb farmboys, Dandelion or every other character being author avatar switching between tough guy, snobbish nerd and Shakespear monologue routine. Perhaps I don’t have a good feeling of English language compared to Polish but translations feel much more consistent in style and message.
You’re right about the game having too much combat. The game came dangerously close to having an actual believable world instead of the usual theme park open worlds with an attraction every 10 meters. W3 has ton of quests, most are well written, and it’s quite enough to give you reason to travel the world. All those monster nests and travelling groups of monsters make world less realistic. Come on, villagers, you hire Witcher to kill that specific monster even though there are nests and groups of hellish creatures all around your village? And how do you survive at all if even witcher can be overwhelmed by dozens of drowners on his trip between two villages?
I too never used parrying cause it’s useless. You may say sign build is worse at melee but the thing is you’ll use those signs anyway. Every sign is *always* useful against specific enemies whether you upgrade it or not. You always cast trap against advanced ghosts, you always cast aard against humans to get free hist, you always cast shield cause it’ll save you from at least one hit. I *could* stop using those obvious strategies but it would be self-imposed challenge. So as far as I care different builds only affect which part of the same strategy will be more effective.
I definitely agree that HoS is the better expansion of the two but I still enjoyed my time in Toussaint a lot. It felt a bit like a very drawn out epilogue where it wasn’t about seriousness and grim darkiness but having a good time, having a laugh for a change (sometimes at least).
The main quest had a part where you travel to a particular and very over the top kind of place which to me was a nice analogy for Toussaint in my opinion.
The accents were very annoying though, some of the voice actors didn’t get it at all and as a result sounded just weird and not french at all.
The antagonist was way less developed than anyone from the main game or the HoS DLC characters BUT I liked him/her quite a bit and actually wanted to find out more and see more scenes with him/her. Which is why I was a bit sad there wasn’t as much and not as cool backround stuff to do with the antagonists history as there was for Olgierd.
Where the new area is beautifully crafted and shows the same attention to detail the other maps received by CDPR the story felt a bit rushed to me. There were some bits where I thought I might have done something wrong because it changed so suddenly. There also wasn’t a single moment in the story that could hold up to the brilliant boys night spent drinking in Kaer Morhen quest or the wedding from HoS. Still as I said in the beginning I enjoyed my time with both DLC packs immensely and it’s an amazing value for money. Small hickups here and there where the quality could have been better but it’s as good as DLC gets in my opinion. I haven’t been as satisfied with any DLC since the Dark Souls 2 Crown trilogy.