Allow me to spoil this review for you slightly… I mean, normally I’ll keep any major revelations until after the jump so that you have to click there and we get more delicious, delicious clicks. But for this particular article I see absolutely no point in being coy. Given my review for the base game of the Witcher 3 I think it’s probably more than just a safe bet to say I’m going to recommend both of the major DLCs for the game, given that it’s obviously just going to be more of the same absolutely high calibre stuff.
Seriously, just buy the Witcher 3 and all the DLC…
ANYWAY, I guess I actually have to review this stuff though, to try and provide my reasoning behind why both DLCs for the Witcher 3 are so absolutely worth your time rather than just yelling “BUY IT” in your face until I go hoarse…
Before I go into any specific detail about either expansion I first of all just want to absolutely take the time to praise CDPR here for doing DLC so fucking right. Firstly: neither one was Day One DLC… Just saying… Both of the expansions are honestly massive and incredible additions to the main game. However, despite how good they are, there is nothing in the main game which requires knowledge of the DLC to understand. So they aren’t necessary for people who just want to play the base game (take fucking notes EA). As if that wasn’t enough, you don’t even need to have played the base game to play the DLC with CDPR offering you the option of just starting the DLC with a high-level Geralt.
I mean… Jaysus, no wonder I’ve heard that that the working conditions at CDPR are dreadful because they legit must have crucified themselves to stick to such outstanding principles.
Hearts of Stone
Both of the major Witcher 3 expansion packs seem to exist to fill a requirement left by the base game (which is just CDPR being good-guy game developers again). Hearts of Stone was the first of the two and exists as a pure story expansion.
While the base game had a fabulous story with excellent and engaging characters, there are I suppose a few cliché elements to the story. For example there is very much a clearly defined threat in the Wild Hunt and so the build-up to the final fight against them and the overarching conflict of SAVING THE WORLD is perhaps inevitable and predictable (I mean I personally loved it… But there you go).
So, in Hearts of Stone, CDPR basically decided to produce just one of the best written story-lines they could muster. Overall the expansion is not particularly long, clocking on average at about 15 hours long (incidentally, isn’t it fucking telling that I describe it as “not very long” despite being as long as the average Triple-A game). However, the content it has is excellent. You are a provided a few extra small side quests, nothing of true note, but that’s only by Witcher 3 standards because I still remember my time in half of them.
For instance there is now an end-game economy character whose sole purpose is for you to sink much of the tens of thousands of gold you have into him in order to obtain access to some rather questionable buffs (presumably the min-maxers will come screaming out of the woodwork at that statement, but I personally struggle with any buff that also results in some kind of complementary debuff).
There are a few more “question mark” explore markers on the map, which actually have a wee side story that ties most of them together. And thankfully not one of them is a bloody smuggler’s cache. Again, nothing really over-the-top here, just a few notes scattered around so you can piece together a small conflict on the outskirts of your awareness.
None of that is important really, as the bulk of the expansion is comprised of the “main” story. In Hearts of Stone you end up working for two different men, the seemingly immortal, callous and cruel Olgierd von Everec and the deeply mysterious and unspeakably creepy Master of Mirrors, Gaunter O’Dimm.
Can I also briefly interject to point out that you actually meet Gaunter O’Dimm at the very start of the Witcher 3, in one of the least memorable and cast-away moments of the game. It felt so irrelevant at the time, but looking back on it shines it in a new light. Because one realises that fucking hell, CDPR literally planned this from the very start of the Witcher 3. It’s just another one of those small touches that can just make a game.
Anyway, it is naturally rather difficult to review the expansion as the story is what makes it so good and I also want to avoid spoiling anything unnecessarily. Suffice to say, there are twists and turns, moments of heart-wrenching sadness and moments of honest-to-god hilarity.
I’m not literary critic and a lot of artistic subtleties can really fly over my head when it comes to writing, but despite this I can absolutely assure you that I feel like the writing of Hearts of Stone probably far surpasses anything else in the Witcher 3. It was one of the most stand-out story-lines I’ve ever experienced with what felt like real weight behind it.
The entirety of HoS is also significantly darker than the core game. A game which could never really have been accused of being all sunshine and roses in the first place… If the central game tells a classic hero’s tale, HoS is a tragedy. It’s characters are mysterious and despairing, suffering is rife and behind it all the hands of a cruel puppet master of fate. It is a game in which there are victims and villains but lacks any real kind of hero outside of Geralt. This just gives the whole expansion a weightier feel, makes the decisions slightly more considered when one is aware that there seems to be no real chance of a pleasant outcome for the players.
In a sense it is also far less forgiving than the base game, containing some of the outright hardest fights in the game as a whole including arguably the single hardest boss. As well as this, while the Witcher could never be accused of being light and cheery, Hearts of Stone feels particularly dark and grim in its tone and theme. It also apparently has some extremely philosophical leanings, the sort of which (like I say) tends to fly wildly over my head but I figured it would still be worth mentioning for those of you into that kind of thing.
There is also another new romance plotline involving the REAL best grill of the Witcher 3: Shani, which was actually a very lovely little storyline in its own right. In fact there are a vast number of specific quests and tales within the overarching plot which are just fabulous in their own right, including a Wedding quest which might just be some of the most amusing series of events to happen in the game. This was then followed up by one of the most gut-wrenching acts of cruelty in the game.
The expansion is still set in Velen, so you won’t really be seeing anything new in a broader sense. True the map does extend in a northerly direction so you’ll get a bit more of Velen to explore, with some of what was once hidden behind the fog of war now available for Geralt. But much like the new side-quests, there is nothing of too much note here. Of course, the basic rules for the Witcher still apply in that exploration is still rewarded, but if you are specifically looking for a vastly expanded map you’ll be let down in that particular regard.
As I say though, Hearts of Stone exists primarily to fulfil the “gaping” hole of an exciting and original story. Because, obviously the base game was abysmal in that regard… So while it may not add a massive new map or a tonne of new side quests to while away your time on, it instead primarily provides a very tight and contained experience of some of the best CDPR had to offer.
Even with that in mind, it’s worth remembering that the central plot of the DLC is still a moderately long experience and is therefore absolutely worth your time and money, even if you are just looking for some kind of time-sink.
|· Fabulous writing, filled to the brim with emotion and difficult decisions
· Genuinely one of the best villains I’ve ever encountered, both supernaturally creepy, powerful and omnipotent
· Can be extremely challenging, which brings a breath of fresh air to the game
· Despite the dark tone and heavy air of consequence, it also contains some of the funniest sequences of the whole game
|· Considerably smaller than Blood and Wine with only a few other side quests outside the central story
· No new map, so don’t expect any exotic new locales
· That scene with the wooden spoon… Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.
Blood and Wine
Where Hearts of Stone existed to fill the desire for a deeply complex and captivating story, Blood and Wine exists to fill the other gaping need in the Witcher 3: more Witcher 3. It feels a mite disingenuous to say this, but realistically that is what it felt like. After 100+ hours of Witcher 3 it felt like nothing else could quite live up to the standards it set, so CDPR just decided to supply even MORE for you to play around in.
Blood and Wine is set in the brand new map of Toussaint, which feels every bit as vast as either Velen or Skellige. Where Skellige featured Scottish clans in a Norwegian backdrop and Velen felt more like medieval England ruled by petty warlords fighting foreign Kings, Toussaint and its central city of Beauclair are deep within the “Holy Roman Empire” of Nilfgaard and seems closer in culture to the Chivalry of the French Court and the art and wine of the Italian Renaissance.
As a principality of Nilfgaard, far away from the war of the Northern Realms, it is entirely untouched by the war which ravaged the latter and made such a grim setting for the base game. As well as this, the setting of central Europe is combined with that central “fairy-tale” ideal of Knights in Shining Armour (a la King Arthur), making the whole thing initially seem like something out of a Disney movie, especially in comparison to the base game. Gone are the squat forts of Velen, the guttural snarls of cruel Knights and the war-torn countryside. In its place are towering spires of marble, noble and handsome Knights working to keep the land and people safe.
While it was said to me that the bright and intensely colourful nature of Toussaint was a little overpowering for some, I personally loved it. Actually, I think that if the base game was beautiful then Toussaint is jaw-dropping in how gorgeous it is. I’m honestly perfectly happy that they used an occasional time-lapse fast-forward in different quests because I could stare in appreciation for hours. It’s absolutely no surprise to me that the Witcher subreddit is constantly dominated by pretty screenshots, largely from Toussaint. It really is no exaggeration to feel like the central castle of Beauclair feels like it was taken right out of a Disney film, whilst the surrounding city feels like one is walking through Renaissance Florence or Venice. It is genuinely a work of art.
Of course, this is the Witcher 3, so while it has all the trappings of a fairy-tale; from noble Knights to beautiful maidens and valorous tournaments, it also goes out of its way to poke fun at these same tropes. It points out all the essential human failings which would make such an idyllic utopia either impossible or just plain stupid and does it with the usual humour and cynicism that is to be expected of CDPR and Geralt. A prime example is a side-quest which caused a fair amount of argument between me and a friend of mine because it pointed out how the actions of a Knight-in-Shining armour could be interpreted as inherently creepy at best and downright insulting at worst.
It is a tone which actually somewhat rankled with me. I mentioned in my review of the base game that the cynicism of the Witcher is one of the hardest aspects of me to deal with. From the books all the way through the games a central theme is how easily corruptible and horrible humans can be, whereas I prefer to delude myself and imagine the best in people. So when it turns that cynicism on one of my favourite settings and concepts; namely King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, it proved a little difficult to fully come to terms with it.
Having said this, despite that the game is still laden with its customary mockery of all things pure and honest, it actually felt more relaxed and laid back than both HoS and the base game. Yes not everything was as good as it seemed, perhaps the good in Toussaint is just a veneer on top of normal humanity, but this is not hammered home quite as relentlessly. It might just be a facade in Toussaint, but the outcome is still one that is more “pure and just” in general. One gets the impression that “okay, yes, the Knights are just as fallible as everyone else, but hey they are trying at least! Sometimes… When it suits them… Go fetch me some wine peasant!”
A primary example of this is that there is a few more “feel-good” quests than in the base game and Hearts of Stone. Not an absolute plethora, because it wouldn’t do to actually give people too many happy endings, but enough to keep the general upbeat tone of the expansion.
Combined with the gorgeous setting and it gives the expansion of an overall more cheerful tone. It’s just a nicer and happier place to be. And this is somewhat fitting given that this has also been described as “a fitting end for Geralt of Rivia”. Which is something I completely agree with. While perhaps it might not completely fit with everyone’s mental picture for Geralt, I have to say that I was extremely happy for the guy to get given this chance. He gets a Vineyard and is allowed to ease into a “retirement” of sorts in a beautiful locale, which seems perfectly fitting given that only just went and saved the bloody world!
Even if the steward of his estate IS Basil Fawlty…
While the expansion perhaps primarily acts to provide some sort of epilogue for Geralt, as unlike Hearts of Stone the expansion is ostensibly set after the events of the main game, the other purpose is actually as simple as stated at the beginning of this segment. As stated, Toussaint is huge, it feels easily as big as Velen and Skellige, and like them both it is absolutely stuffed with side-quests, things to explore and points of interest.
The points of interest are actually also, surprisingly so, more in-depth than any iteration of the game thus far. There are several over-arching quests which involve the completion of a separate number of the points, including clearing up vineyards, doing knightly deeds and the construction of a massive fuck-off statue. Even the individual and separate ones actually often seem to be more detailed than previous ones. Where before one might go to a point of interest, kill a few ghosts and then find a letter which detailed the location of a nearby lost treasure. In BaW there tend to be a few extra steps and investigation thrown in just for the fun of it.
It adds to that all-important point that I had about the side-quests in the main game. Sure there may be a lot of them, it may almost be exhausting seeing how much there is to do and it can be overwhelming setting yourself the task of doing everything. But everything is absolutely worth doing, every part of the game is worth exploring and wandering through and just enjoying in general.
While the game provides more to do in a very pleasant backdrop, the central story of BaW is perhaps its weakest element. This is not to say it’s bad by any means, because it’s still CDPR and still the Witcher 3, but certain aspects do just feel weaker than previous story-lines. The central plot revolves around the mystery of the Beast of Toussaint which Geralt is tasked with hunting down, and much of the first two thirds of the plot are enjoyable, fun and exciting.
It also introduces Regis, a higher vampire character familiar to any who have read the books, who is quite possibly my favourite character thus far in the whole game. He’s a bro. Seb likes bros. Vampire bro.
The primary issue with the game comes towards the end of it where there are a series of extremely important decisions made in the lead up towards deciding how the story ends. Normally in the Witcher the consequences of decisions tend towards a “lesser of two evils” sort of outlook and even then there can be a lot of debate about which is the lesser of the two. In BaW, towards the end one very quickly becomes aware that the devs are pushing you towards a “good” choice whilst trying to actively drive you away from a “bad” choice. It’s obviously never outright stated, but the “good” choices are not only the way to get the seemingly best outcome but you are also pushed none-too-subtly by practically every other character in the game towards it.
Normally this wouldn’t be too much of an issue and I would shrug it off and happily go along with the flow and get the best ending possible for the game… Except that the choices one would have to make in order to reach it also feel actually feel illogical and foolish. You also are frustratingly powerless on at least one occasion where you realistically should not have been.
All in all it feels very much like the devs trying to railroad you towards getting the happily ever after and the penalising you for not choosing their route. And this feels extremely out-of-place in the game which previously has always presented genuine moral conundrums and debate over paths to take. Even I was frustrated and disappointed by the outcome! And I love happily ever afters!
Do you know the worst part about this? The final quests of BaW are genuinely fabulous quests. They are basically just fucking awesome and really fucking cool, from the internal plots to the fights within them. It’s just ruined by the actual finale of the overarching story, which is a damned shame.
Of course, it’s worth being reiterated that when I say “ruined” I mean in the context of the rest of the game. Even if it doesn’t hold up to the same high standards of other story-lines, it’s actually still broadly a very strong plot.
What makes me happiest about Blood and Wine, at the end of the day, is the way that it feels like an epilogue to Geralt’s story. It is a footnote after having saved the world, but it is one which tells you of how Geralt really does settle down and maybe, just maybe, get to live out his final days in peace. Despite having only recently come on to the Witcher scene, after close to 200 hours spent in just one playthrough, it feels like a fitting end for the weary warrior, the perfect way to close the book on him and his story.
Guess now it’s time to play it all through again, don’t you think?
|· A third huge map to explore, very possibly the most beautiful of any locale thus far
· Side quests are excellent, with somehow even more depth than before
· Tone ranges towards the lighter end of the scale, despite heavier and darker moments, allowing for a more relaxing experience
· Some of the most exciting quests of the game
· Provides a truly fitting end to a fantasy epic which should now be a must-have on any top-10 list
|· A few major plot points are heavily weighted in favour of a certain decision, making the story feel slightly more railroaded than before
· Ignoring said “hints” results in an ending which is frustrating and disappointing
· Tone and setting is perhaps slightly out-of-tune with the rest of the game and so might be jarring for some