I've spent more than 100 hours in The Witcher 3 over the past year. It's become the background of my gaming life, a boundless, monster-ridden home I can always return to. As the last Witcher (for now), The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine is a grand goodbye, a final series of stories that sends Geralt off into the immaculately rendered sunset. It's a literal fairy tale ending for gaming's favourite monster-massacring curmudgeon. (Warning: minor Witcher 3: Blood and Wine spoilers ahead.)
Throughout it all, you're faced with questions, some more subtle than others. Is Geralt happy being a Witcher? What does it mean to hunt a killer who believes he's doing the right thing when you've got innocent blood all over your lobstered gauntlets? In a realm full of wannabe Knights In Shining Armour, what does it actually mean to be a hero? In a world as frequently grim and hopeless as The Witcher's, why play hero at all? Using well-worn scenarios and quest structures (with a few nice surprises thrown in for good measure), Blood and Wine reflects on Geralt's many adventures and asks: what was the point of it all?
It's a new adventure in a new place, but it's also The Witcher 3 distilled. You've got a new landmass called Toussaint that's basically a fairy tale version of France, and it's a Witcher playground in the same sense as previous locations like Novigrad, Velen and Skellige. You can go wherever you please and take on sidequests, monster contracts and treasure hunts. There's a standalone main story about hunting a murderous Beast on behalf of Toussaint's duchess. There's also a new system that lets you modify signs (read: magic) with powerful mutations. You can own and upgrade a vineyard, if you want.
The new systems, home ownership and sign mutations, are nice. The former adds a couple of much-needed quality of life features, and the latter gives you new powers to pursue. You can store stuff in your house and upgrade it to include stations for alchemy, weapons and armour, and even a nice stable for your horse, Roach. New sign mutations include things like a freeze effect for your psychic blast, powerful (and costly) additions to tried-and-true powers. They're fun, but not game-changing.
Nothing in Blood and Wine is game-changing. That's not the point.
Blood and Wine isn't Geralt's craziest or most epic adventure. It's not even his best. While some of the quests are surprising and exciting, others are standard witchy business -- following endless footprint trails or killing samey processions of monsters under the barest of pretences. But there's also a quest that involves retrieving a statue's penis. (Protip: DO THAT QUEST.)
The main story ranges from OK to great. One member of its supporting cast, especially, is brilliantly written and acted, among The Witcher 3's best. He and Geralt share some fantastic one-on-one conversations that speak volumes about both of them. It's quintessential Witcher. There might be an epic plot of slaughter and intrigue unfolding around them, but these characters shine most in intimate moments.
Unfortunately, the whole thing hits a patch of quicksand in the middle, nearly drowning in errands that verge on busywork. The 10+ hour main quest is, however, ⅓ of Blood and Wine. There's plenty of other stuff to do.
Blood and Wine bears its finality with grace, contemplation and -- despite all the high-minded undercurrents -- an unyielding sense of playfulness. Compared to other Witcher settings, Toussaint is a ridiculous place. It's cartoonishly colourful, and many of the people and creatures who inhabit it are pastiches of high fantasy tropes. I came across suicidally brave knights, beautiful princesses (who secretly thought the knights were doofs), beasts torn straight from the pages of well-known fairy tales and more people unironically using the word "succor" than I thought possible. But they all had twists, and in some cases, they were pretty twisted.
The Witcher 3 has always had a sense of humour, but, more than ever, Blood and Wine plays its "grumpy dad who thinks he's Batman in a world where all myths are real" shtick for laughs. Blood and Wine pokes fun at Geralt, fantasy, fairy tales, France and even video games in equal measure. At times it's like watching a roast. Some of the jokes are biting, but they're told with love, and they're more rewarding if you're invested in the subject matter.
For instance, Geralt treats knights with the sort of disdain you'd normally reserve for spoiled children, and knights in turn completely don't get his terrible dad jokes. You can get drunk and have Deep Conversations with all sorts of humans and monsters alike. There's a character whose initials spell out "DLC", and (spoilers for Blood and Wine's first ten minutes) he dies horribly.
Yet even the game's funnier elements are often turned back at players in moments of reflection. At the end of an early sidequest involving a smitten (and often hilarious) knight, I thought for sure I'd screwed up. He didn't end up with the woman of his dreams, and he blamed me. But then I realised he'd been acting like a Nice Guy (TM) the entire time. He waxed romantic about love and battlefields, but when it came right down to it, he only acted heroic so a pretty lady would fuck him. When she wasn't interested, he threw a temper tantrum. "Not everybody gets a happy ending," said Geralt, master of the weirdly profound double entendre.
As one last hurrah for Geralt, Blood and Wine succeeds. Sure, I can dock it for having a handful of ho-hum quests and a few issues that have plagued Witcher 3 since the start (some enemies spam annoying attacks and exploit holes in the animation system; anything involving horseback combat is pretty janky; I encountered a few graphical glitches and one crash bug), but those issues are minor in the grand scheme of things.
The Witcher 3 has been a game I can always count on for a good adventure, for escapism that leaves me with something to think about. The Witcher series has always been about living with what you've done. Yeah, you can save scum or replay to make sure everything's peachy in the end, but the game shows its soul when you, the player, make mistakes. It has a way of forcing you to reflect, to confront what you're feeling whether it's regret or justification.
Blood and Wine is equal parts triumphant and sombre, a reminder of all the great times we've had with Geralt and some of the shitty things we've done in his shoes. It's about facing down the totality of Geralt's in-game legacy and -- instead of regretting or redoing it -- coming to terms with it. Toussaint in all its colourful silliness might seem like an odd place to end Geralt's grim tale, but looking back on it all, I think I get it. He's a lone hunter, an outcast who drifts in and out of people's lives. He's spent the past year drifting in and out of mine, there when I need him, forgotten when something new and shiny comes out. You'd think that the only real end awaiting him would be a lonely one -- fearful people ganging up on him, a fatal mistake in battle or a monster that's a bit too fast or powerful -- and maybe it still is. But after all the time we've spent coming to know and love this guy, why end on that?
CD Projekt could release a bunch more DLC episodes and milk The Witcher 3's characters and mechanics dry, but by then we'd be as sick of the game as Geralt is of, well, most things. He'd be worn out, and so would we. So instead we get one last (mostly) happy snapshot, and then we part ways.