If you ask me, The Witcher 3 is the finest RPG of our time. I don't want to bid it farewell, but CD Projekt's got quite an expansion lined up to help ease the grieving process.
The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine is set to release on May 31, and I got to play it for three hours at a recent event in San Francisco. It brings Grumpmaster General (and also Witcher) Geralt to Toussaint, a colourful wine country untouched by war. His mission? To investigate a series of brutal murders and figure out What In The Heck Is Going On. There are, of course, the requisite plot twists and turns, and I managed to play up to the point where a familiar face returned to make things extra complicated. I will not spoil the particulars, though. Instead, here's a smattering of things that stood out to me:
(OK, I lied. Minor The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine spoilers ahead. Minor!)
- It's funny. The Witcher 3 got buried beneath an avalanche of Props and Kudos for its writing, but for a lot of people, I feel like drama took center stage. Truth is, The Witcher 3's always been funny, but Blood and Wine turns the chuckle-0-meter from "sensiblechuckle.gif" to "RAUCOUSGUFFAW.MP4." The tone shift stems largely from the setting, which is just over-the-top enough. Toussaint is full of knights-errant who dream of becoming heroes. They hold tournaments and feasts. They think they can flippantly do a Witcher's job in order to, say, win the heart of the woman they have been pining for from afar (hint: that part doesn't end well for the knight in question, Guillame). They speak in prose as purple as their bumps and bruises, saying things like, "Trickery? In war, yes, and what is love if not a battle?" As you might expect, Geralt's cat-like eye-rolling reflexes get put to excellent use. It's like he strolled into a storybook, and he takes sarcastic swipes at other characters' naivete every chance he gets. Sometimes, actions speak louder than grumpy one-liners. During a desperate chase to stop a killer before he reaches his next victim, Geralt is forced to take part in a ceremonial scavenger hunt. When someone else nabs one of the clues he needs, he interrupts the ensuing big traditional presentation., grabs the clue, smashes it to the ground, and takes the scroll he needs. Everyone else looks on in shocked horror. The scene's timing and acting made me laugh out loud.
- It's still got drama. It's not like The Witcher 3 has gone and abandoned its flair for grim fantastical goings-on. In the three hours I played, the main story plunged into a morass of moral grays, forcing Geralt to choose from a series of non-ideal paths to stopping the murderer. Better still, even though I spent most of my time on the main quest, it felt like the story was only just beginning when my demo session wrapped up.
- It's big. CD Projekt claims that Blood and Wine will offer 30+ hours of Witchy Funtimes (TM), and I'm inclined to believe them. Unlike previous expansion Hearts of Stone, this one takes place in an entirely new area. I looked over the map, and while it's roughly the size of the main game's Novigrad landmass, it's even more densely packed with question marks and locations. If you like numbers (WHO DOESN'T), CDP told me there'll be more than 90 new quests and 40 new points of interest.
- It's hard. For the purposes of expediency, CDP had me play the demo on an easy difficulty mode. Despite the fact that I've sunk more than 100 hours into The Witcher 3, one of Blood and Wine's bosses still kicked my arse a few times before I figured it out. The expansion's tone might fall on the lighter end of the Witcher spectrum, but the combat's meant to be a bigger challenge than anything that's come before.
- You get a house! In previous Witcher 3 adventures, Geralt got a magical chest unbound by the laws of time and space in which to store his stuff, but he never really had a concrete base of operations. Blood and Wine gives you a vineyard mini-mansion that you can upgrade with things like armour and alchemy stations (thank goodness).
- Sign mutations are rad. Geralt's telekinetic blast, Aard, is cool and all, but there are only so many thousands of uses for knocking people silly. Blood and Wine lets you mutate signs to give them new effects. In the demo I played, I got to add an ice effect to Aard. Enemies that got knocked down froze and shattered. Enemies that got knocked back became stuck in place. That's just one example among many.
- Prepare for fairy tales. While I didn't get to see any in my demo session, Blood and Wine's latter portions will apparently dig deep into pop culture fairy tales. There might be a few Polish ones mixed in for good measure.
- Horseback stuff is still kind of a drag. While CDP's put a lot of effort into cleaning up The Witcher 3's interface for Blood and Wine, some of Witcher 3's old issues still linger. Horseback movement and combat just don't feel great. There's an increased emphasis on them, too, thanks to tournament quests and sidequests. It's not like horseback stuff is horrible. I just wish it was up to par with the rest of the game.
- The duchess of Toussaint is a badass. I won't spoil too much about her, but she's a take-charge sort of ruler. The Witcher 3 contained some fantastic portrayals of women characters and some less-than-excellent ones. Others managed to be both. I'm interested to see what we get in Blood and Wine. So far things are looking good, but I only met a few ladies and a whooooole lot of dudes, so we'll see.
- There's a character whose name is literally DLC. I won't say what happens to him, but I will tell you that his full name is De La Croix, and he loves coin more than anything. It's hardly the first time CD Projekt's struck out to make a point about paid DLC, but I found it pretty funny.
- Here's Geralt with a "unicorn." This isn't really here for any particular reason. I just like this picture a lot.
- This really is the end... for now. After my demo, I asked CDP visual effects artist Jose Texiera if this really is the end for The Witcher series. He said it is, for now. Never say never, but if anything else happens in The Witcher series, it likely won't star Geralt, and it won't happen for years. Blood and Wine, then, is meant to function as a lighthearted send-off for the series, something along the lines of Mass Effect 3's Citadel DLC or Dragon Age: Inquisition's Trespasser DLC. Except, you know, much bigger. The portion of Blood and Wine I played felt like a game comfortable and confident in its own skin, a game created by people who know this universe and its characters inside and out. It verges on self-parody at times, but that's kinda the point. CD Projekt has been doing this for a decade. Blood and Wine's the victory lap, one last trip around the old neighbourhood before Geralt retires and [UNNAMED CYBERPUNK 2077 MAIN CHARACTER] takes his place.