Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Witcher: Blood and Wine, a review

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There are games, and then there are Games. Almost everyone, including people who don’t usually much hold with fantasy RPGs, seem to agree that Witcher 3 certainly belongs to the latter category. So the release of its second and last expansion pack “Blood and Wine” a little over a week ago was quite a long expected event, not the least because they moved it back a few times. For me, it was enough to feel irritated that due to a vacation; I would only get to play it five days after the release. Five whole days, can you imagine?

But anyway, the five days have passed, and here I am, having finished the main story-line of the expansion pack. And it took me only twelve hours, too! So, what did I think?

First, as always, it’s just so very pretty. There’s a reason it’s usually screenshots from Witcher that are used as promos for new graphics cards nowadays, and “Blood and Wine” changes nothing about this. The sceneries are less dramatic than some from the main game, but the particular setting of this story-line has a very well done distinctive character that shows in both the beauty and cheerfulness of the countryside and in the character of the quests.

In fact, the little details that contribute to the specific atmosphere of the duchy of Toussaint, where Blood and Wine takes place, were one of the highlights of this expansion. It begins with the new armour set you get in one of the first side-quests you come across, and continues through some aspects of the main story-line – like a brilliant wine-tasting interlude, though one that will make professional wine-people roar with laughter, I’m sure – as well as the various side-quests. “Balls of Granite,” for example, is just pure joy, but there are others, more involved and less cheerful, that nevertheless remain true tot he spirit of Toussaint.

Part of this are also some of the new enemies that can be encountered. In fact, many of the fights and challenges were interesting and new, including the final boss fight, the middle leg of which was challenging enough that I had to cheat my way through it if I wanted to finish the story-line in time to write this piece. I promised myself to go back to it, though!

There are some new game play aspects in the game, but I won’t get into technicalities here, except to say that I found all of those I used an improvement. Especially the inventory, which is better organised now. What I appreciated a lot, too, was the possibility to get and customize a house, the one thing I’ve missed from Skyrim in this game.

106dff388ba39456d5a07cd7d6f410366ac164fba862d7ab5692c4eca6f3efabA thing that deserves a mention of its own is the fairyland part of the main story-line. It can be avoided, but if you finish the game and realize you haven’t encountered it, I sincerely recommend going back (you will have more than one reason to, anyway) and re-evaluating your major decision, because that place is worth seeing. It’s beautiful, for one, but there are also so many little jokes there – some extremely morbid – that it would be a pity to miss.

“Blood and Wine” is strong in most of the things the main game and “Hearts of Stone” were strong in, really, which si to say pretty much everything. Including the many pop culture (and high culture) references to be found throughout, starting with a charming Don Quijote one, and insignificant side-characters being so endearing you want to have an entire 100+ hour game just about them. In this category, my personal favourite would be the little capitalist bootblack boy, even though it’s true I’d probably have Geralt (the protagonist) murder him if I was to sit through 100+ hours with him, so perhaps that wasn’t the best turn of phrase in this particular case.

Still, there were some things I was less completely thrilled with, and it makes me all the sadder because they are those that were very strong in the “Wild Hunt” and “Hearts of Stone” as well. Namely, characters and story-line.

Not that the characters are weak or flat and the story-line doesn’t make sense. No, “Blood and Wine” stays as powerful here as Witcher 3 ever was. But the implications, in some cases…

With characters, I have to admit it’s sometimes nitpicking. As someone who read the books by Sapkowski, the ones the game is based on (and might actually write a My Fave Is Problematic article on them some day because boy, do they deserve it), I deeply appreciated both the subtle references to their events and the outright continuity in the appearance of some characters, but this was also when my first issues appeared. There was one fan-favourite they chose to bring back, and through the course of the game, I couldn’t quite rid myself of the feeling that his characterisation was just the tiniest bit odd. I’d probably best summarise it by “he spoke too quickly,” which sounds like the most ridiculous nitpick in the world, and yet it kept bothering me through his appearances, like a tune that’s just slightly off. I expect that is just my very personal issue, though.

More different was Anna Henrietta, the duchess of Toussaint, but there, I can understand their reasoning. In general, this instalment of the game has done a great job of improving the books’ – and the previous games’ – treatment of women, and I think Anna Henrietta is another case of that. I cannot help to regret it a little, since she is rather endearing in her particular silliness in the books, but still, she’s a ruler of her duchy in her own right. I can see why it would seem wise to the creators not to depict the (almost) only such female ruler they have as a silly goose. She’s not her book self, but she’s compelling in her own right.

Watch out! Spoilers ahead!
Not explicit spoilers, but still, if you’ve started playing, there’s a good chance you will know which characters I’m talking about, there’s no way around it.

The two major original characters they introduced were both intentionally morally so dark grey hey were basically black. One of them was a rehash of a character from a short story in very many ways, but the final solution to that story arc was a little different than in the books, and I’m not sure how happy that makes me. The great point of that is clearly showing how people often turn bad and bitter for a reason, how treating them like crap leads to events everyone would much rather avoid. The game is careful not to condone the acts this character did in their bitterness, but still, the narrative does give them a mostly happy-end option, which contrasts rather painfully with the other major original creation.

He is, in many ways, a manifestation of the trope of that good but passionate man, who is so ruled by his passions he cannot control himself. He’s a parable of a domestic abuser, clearly the type to strike his partner in anger. Only…well. Only the narrative of this story makes his partner an actual manipulator, who used him to do some very unsavoury deeds while she knew of his volatile character quite well, leading to an all-around tragedy. This hardly absolves him of blame – and thankfully the game never does so – but it still remains true that he doesn’t get a happy-end in any version of this story, while the woman who knowingly manipulated him (and was behind at least some murders herself, independently) does.

I find that disturbing, and wonder if it has something to do with his not entirely human nature. This is another thing Witcher has always been good with, showing that “monsters are human too.” In fact, as far as I know, Sapkowski was one of the first major proponents of the fantasy racism metaphor, and while he does terribly with most social issues, he does relatively well in this, as far as I am able to judge, and the games followed in his footsteps. So the idea that the fate of this character is decided partly because of his “monstrous” nature disturbs me. More so because he is a very good friend to one of the main characters, who ends up taking part in his final elimination. That particular scene raises many question in itself, too, chiefly whether permanent elimination was truly the only option. Given the context, I really felt like other avenues should have been explored. As it was, it left me feeling very uncomfortable.

Generally, one of the main great things about Witcher 3 are the brilliant moral dilemmas Geralt faces, and the way so many of them do not have clear answers and are very far from being black and white, and each decision has marked results and, usually, repercussions. I once spent several hours arguing with my husband about one particular choice, and I judge people by how they decide in Witcher. “Blood and Wine” was the first instance of me being a little disappointed in their handling of this. Or, to be more precise, there are cases when it shines through still, but others less so.

The above is one such example, in never giving you a choice where it would make sense to do so. As for others, in the one lengthy side-quest I’ve managed to complete so far, I was thrilled at first when I realised that you can have Geralt respect a lady’s privacy in front of her admirer and the game never punishes you for it, and on the contrary, seems to declare you to be right with Geralt saying that that she is “thankful to the admirer, but doesn’t owe him her love”. But that was until I found out that if you make a different choice and disrespect her privacy, she gets a sweet happily ever after with the admirer, or at least hints of such.

It seems the different endings of this quest were tailored to the kinds of people who might make the respective choices, and I find that a little upsetting, and disappointing and confusing considering their previous good record. In “The Wild Hunt,” how the whole story ended pretty much depended on how much you respected women – well, one woman in particular. Why the sudden change of tune?

There is also a moment when the main story-line comes to a rather abrupt point which I suspect was chiefly included to give an opportunity for a cool fight and cool scenes. Unfortunately, the by-product of that is a disaster happening, a disaster the heroes could have prevented or at least tried to, but the game gives you no chance to do so. It was the one moment in the plot that I found truly jarring and that gave me the impression it was hurried in some way. Perhaps some scenes were cut from the story to make it shorter? It seemed that way, anyway.

5c34bf448758c4a6a0263e3a1c84701ba277109c3eef859a1506f4e445d4cf79Another thing that gives me discomfort – more discomfort, in fact – is the happy-end they chose to give Geralt. Well, one of them. “Blood and Wine” has many possible endings (the game’s complicated, all right?), but one of them includes Geralt’s partner of long standing coming to live with him. Even the base game had issues with the depiction of this character, but here it becomes more pronounced as this lady, a powerful sorceress in her own right (one of the ten most powerful in the known world, in fact) who always acted very independent in their relationship, comes to live with our hero in his quiet house, declaring how much she loves having no plans for the future and that she was a stupid goose for not going after him earlier.

This smells rather uncomfortably of her being taught her place. This lady is ninety years old and has been doing her own thing for the majority of it, living in her own houses, and Geralt treated her like a jerk for most of their relationship. But suddenly she gives up all her work because she just wants to be with him? The other romantic option for Geralt is allowed to keep her job, so it’s not quite straightforward sexism. It’s more complicated, and related to the characters of these two women, something that would deserve a meta of its own as well. But…it made me unhappy, and I fully admit part of that was that the lady is question is my fave and she was my life goals when I was fourteen. It’s disturbing to suddenly see your feminist icon turned into a model of countryside domestic bliss.

But in spite of all this, there come moments that make me want to forgive them everything. Not only the undisputable all-around brilliance of “Blood and Wine” as a game, disregarding its implications, but also various points in the story. Towards the end, you might hear Geralt saying “I hoped they’d treat a woman differently” and a female character replying “Geralt…when they treat a woman differently in this world, it hardly ever means better. Quite the opposite.” And, well…don’t you just want to kiss them for that line?


All images courtesy of CD Projekt RED.

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