The time has come to say farewell to Geralt of Rivia, silver-haired sorcerer, warrior and traveling star of The Witcher series of games, at least for now.
It's the second expansion for The Witcher 3, following Hearts of Stone, released in October 2015. But while that addition ran for around 10 hours, this one has a bigger narrative element and a longer running time (between 20 and 30 hours) as well as some gameplay changes.
Blood and Wine is recommended for anyone with a level 35 character, so if you finished the core game's main quest, you're pretty certain to be all good.
It's set in the fictional region of Toussaint, modeled on the south of France and the Piedmont region of Italy. In contrast to Geralt's usual stomping grounds, this is a place largely untouched by war.
Toussaint is a verdant, lush country of flowers, mountainous vistas and babbling brooks. The playing area is about the same size as No Man's Land in Velen, but with many more points of interest, according to developer CD Projekt Red.
Essentially, Geralt is taking a nice vacation, joining a few old friends on a touring holiday, while he solves a string of murders and does battle with various monsters. A "Beast" is slaying noblemen in curiously humiliating and specific ways, suggesting some sort of diabolical motive.
This country of Toussaint has its quirks. Its inhabitants are impossibly romantic, chivalric and deluded. They live according to antiquated codes of honor that went out the window years ago back in Geralt's more cynical heartlands.
So we have fellows pledging themselves to the honor of damsels and saying stuff like: "By my troth, could that be the musty scent of fresh pate?" This, along with the world's vibrant colors and easy charm, gives the story a faintly comedic tinge, in which the developers and writers have sought to let loose a little.
In an early scene, a monogrammed handkerchief is found with the initials "DLC." This is game developer humor at its most eye-rolly, but it's in the spirit of an end-of series addition. For fans of the series, there are plenty of references and in-jokes promised. Blood and Wine is an opportunity for the team of developers to send themselves up a little.
Playing through the first few hours, it's clear that the game's artists have also gone a little wild. Special attention has been paid to pink sunsets and orange sunrises, giant glowing moons and sweeping starscapes. The whole environment has a romantic vacation feel to it, which works in contrast to the grisly discovery of mutilated corpses, and the occasional boss fight with oversized and extremely dangerous monsters.
The clothing of lead characters, most particularly the Renaissance garb of rich women in the game, is also rendered with lusty detail.
This being The Witcher, it's not long before those clothes are being hauled off, to reveal heaving bosoms and lavish posteriors. As Polygon noted in our review, this franchise takes a tiresomely retrograde view of portraying women's bodies.
Indeed, the first speaking woman we meet in the game is stark naked, while the next (a duchess, no less) whips off her skirt in broad daylight, ostensibly to better ride a horse.
For anyone who took an interest in the issue of The Witcher 3's complete lack of nonwhite humans, discussed here on Polygon last year, I asked the developers if this expansion features any characters or passers-by other than Caucasians. During my play session, I did not see any nonwhite humans, though, as always, there's a lot of variety in terms of fantasy races. A spokesperson responded that there are "no new races coming to the world of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt with the Blood and Wine expansion."
The company's previous explanation for The Witcher's lack of human racial diversity is that this fictional world of monsters, vampires and imps is based on its Polish homeland, from which Andrzej Sapkowski's original series of novels hailed. This is a quasi-Central European world, they explain, with no history of migration of people of color. Racism and prejudice is tackled in the series through encounters between people from different districts, or between different kinds of creatures.
That said, there've been people of color living in southern France for many centuries: migrants, merchants, warriors and drifters from Africa and the Middle East. If there was ever an opportunity for this series to tell a more inclusive story, this was it.
So, back to that story. Geralt sets about figuring out the mystery of the dead men, by completing missions, searching for clues and fighting anything nasty that gets in his way.
During frequent conversations with NPCs, the player selects from a small number of choices, which have consequences. The whole investigation takes place against a backdrop of a sumptuous series of tournaments, glittering with royalty and pageant.
Combat is based on constant movement, watching out for weak spots in enemy patterns and use of "signs," or spells, that deal extra damage. As in The Witcher 3's main quest and side quests, players are also expected to make full use of potions and poisons in order to enhance weapons.
New upgrades called mutations have also been added, delivering powerful punches to special magical attacks and can also be applied to different weapons. These 12 mutations add an extra layer to combat strategy while also giving Geralt heavy endgame powers. In one, he is able to freeze attackers en masse, as they crowd around.
Along the way, our hero somehow acquires a nice vineyard, which he's able to decorate, bringing a little home improvement to The Witcher series. But this being Geralt, who was never much of a homebody, the decor is pretty much a binary matter left to a non-player character. There's not much in the way of personal choice going on.
Personal choice has been expanded for his sartorial designs, with new dyes and paints added, which allow the player to customize suits of armor and other outfits. These dazzling dresses can also be exhibited in Geralt's house, which has the feel of a nice retirement spot.
The game's user interface has also been tidied up, making navigation of menus a little simpler. CD Projekt Red promises 30 new weapons, 20 new monsters, 90 quests and 40 "points of interest."
For the many role-playing gamers who loved The Witcher 3, this looks like a highly polished, satisfying and visually attractive conclusion to the game. CD Projekt Red has now turned its attention to Cyberpunk 2077, and while a return to Geralt has not been ruled out at some point in the future, this trilogy will reach its end when Blood and Wine arrives on May 31.