Last year's Hearts of Stone was a decent expansion for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but its successor, the vampiric Blood and Wine, is altogether more substantial than its predecessor. Whereas Hearts of Stone featured new characters and a fresh questline the burrowed through existing locations, Blood and Wine opens up an entire new region for players to explore.
There's a lot of game here. This add-on includes more content than some full-priced tripleA titles, and the quality of that content is as excellent as what we've seen in the base game. Tonally the series continues to venture close to the line, and it's clear that it has been built with the male gaze in mind. Once or twice we felt like CDPR could have taken a leaf out of BioWare's book and edged it with more inclusivity, but you can always argue that it stays true to the fiction on which it's based, and for some that's just as important.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Blood and Wine is set in Toussaint, a Gaelic-themed region famed for its wine, and at its heart sits the city of Beauclair. This is a cultured place, filled with chivalric knights and steeped in that tradition. It looks beautiful, and it's evident that a lot of time and affection has gone into its construction. The landscape is full eye-catching detail, with vineyards dotted here and there, scenic hamlets nestled in the hills, and ruined castles punctuating the horizon at every turn.
The main questline, as the title implies, revolves around vampires. It's a fully featured campaign, easily comparable to one of the main stories that veined through the base game's biggest regions. It's fully voiced, well-written, full of intrigue, and fleshed out with some cracking enemy encounters. As we've seen before from this fantasy series, there's greyness all around, and not much in the way of straight-up right or wrong decisions. This is a world dark and sinister underbelly, and even the more light-hearted stories are often underlined by human frailty.
There's a branching storyline that on the one hand offers up a surreal jaunt through an unexpected location, while on the other we're offered a more traditional investigation that leads to an interesting outcome. You'll definetly want to play through both to their respective endings (and within each there's scope for different conclusions). Obviously we don't want to spoil a thing, but we will say that the campaign will easily take around 15 or so hours to complete, longer if you crank up the difficulty. And we're not even including all of the side content in that estimation; there are some enjoyable distractions hidden away amongst the rolling hills or pinned to notice boards, and completing everything that Blood and Wine has to offer will probably take the same number of hours again.
Naturally there's some cleverly designed boss fights in there. None of these encounters were particularly frustrating, save the odd moment where we died while working out the attack sequences. Again, we'll speak no spoilers, but it's obvious enough that we can say that several of them follow the vampiric theme. The combat experience is there for players to approach as they prefer: story-driven players will experience a bit of friction on the easier difficulties but can largely focus on narrative and feeling powerful in battle, whereas hardened adventurers can turn up the difficulty and start brewing up oils for their swords and potions to give them a much-needed edge during combat.
Simply put, everything you would expect to have made the transition from the base game has done so with aplomb. However, there's some new stuff that needs mentioning too. The most notable of the additions is the revised mutations system. Through one side-quest you can unlock new abilities that give you even more options in battle, and we'd recommend seeking this out as soon as possible if you're to make the most of the feature. Less intrinsic to the experience, but enjoyable nonetheless for crafters; you can dye your armour. Of course there's also a bunch of new monsters to tackle, new collectibles dotted around the map (including some really cool armour sets), and there's even new Gwent cards if you're into that side of the game.
We should also mention the vineyard that is given to Geralt fairy early on in the story. This dilapidated estate can be nurtured back to its former glory over the duration of the play-through, and it's a nice touch that you can build a home for our witcher to retire into once this latest round of adventuring is done and dusted.
There's a fully fleshed out cast of characters to talk with, all of them with their own motivations that play into the narrative in various ways (some of them very unexpected). There's tons of new dialogue, and nearly all of it is well delivered. Geralt's clipped speech returns, and while we're not sure we were ever truly sold on it, he's still a great character, and even if you select some of the riskier dialogue options, he never strays too far from common sense, which grounds him somewhat, bringing humanity, humour and wisdom to a character that would otherwise be a killing machine.
You can of course take an existing save into the game, but there's also a New Game+ option for those who don't have anywhere near the recommended level (34) to tackle the quests herein. It's very much compartmentalised from previous content, and there's no requirement to have completed Wild Hunt. While it very much feels like a Witcher story, it definitely has its own unique flavour. It's atmospheric, intriguing, detailed, cleverly constructed, and offers a nice change of pace that does just enough to stand apart from the rest of the game.
CDPR recently confirmed to us that Blood and Wine was definitely the last expansion for The Witcher 3, and so this marks the end of the road for Geralt. Maybe for now, maybe forever. If this little sojourn to Toussaint is to be our final adventure with the silver-haired monster slayer, then it's a fitting conclusion. Blood and Wine, barring a few not-unexpected glitches (clipping, some funky physics, and so on and so forth), is a fine expansion to our game of last year. Following on from that, CDPR may well have made the best expansion of 2016, and it's one that we can heartily recommend to fans of the original eager to once again head into battle with Geralt and his silver sword.