Spoilers follow for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and its first story DLC, Hearts of Stone. There are also very mild spoilers for Blood and Wine, but nothing particularly detailed, with no significant outcomes revealed.
Blood and Wine, the second and final major story expansion to 2015's The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, following the immortality-ain't-nuthin-to-fuck-wit vibes of previous DLC Hearts of Stone, is out now and, basically, it's amazing. Polish studio CD Projekt RED swept the awards boards last year with its role-playing game – although it left the Gaming BAFTAs of the spring empty handed, oddly, despite eight nominations – and with B&W is now calling time on the adventures of its titular monster slayer for hire, player-protagonist Geralt of Rivia. So while the Mediterranean-of-feel Blood and Wine is a shinier, happier experience than the war-ravaged landscapes of Wild Hunt were, all golds and greens instead of greys and browns, playing through its main campaign and multitude of secondary quests is also a peculiarly melancholic pursuit.
This is almost it for Geralt and me. We've been firm friends, best buddies, almost-too-intimate chums, through well over a hundred hours of rambling exploration, explosive combat, political machinations and stuffed animal hanky panky. We've met the devil, or someone/thing close to it. We murdered a frog prince, or maybe a toad; it was a long time ago, now. We've watched good men hang and seen non-humans burn, just because they wanted to live where a land's rulers decided they couldn't. We've crossed dimensions and chanced our way through magical portals. We've laughed together at some shameless Game of Thrones lifting, never more explicit (but well natured) than in Blood and Wine. You've a sword called "Needle", you say? Feels familiar.
And we've marvelled at how this fantasy world manages to feel both comfortable, with its array of elves and sorceresses, trolls and vampires, and yet completely unique. Its delightfully dark tone is quite unlike any other fantasy game I've previously spent ample time with, both mercilessly realistic of cause and effect but incredibly imaginitive of monster and ally alike. It features some terrific character development, with Geralt's closest friends each much more than window dressing in the game's core plotline. And it's genuinely awesome how everybody just gets on with getting on, with or without Geralt being there to see it. He doesn't matter to 99 percent of the population in these lands, not directly at least, although his actions will ultimately affect millions. Never has a virtual world felt more lived in than this one. Each village has its own personality, every castle a history, every cave an occupant.
I don't want to let Geralt go. I suppose I don't have to, but I'm very nearly out of even the smallest, most trivial distractions in the main game, and Gwent aside (which I may never truly get into), the secondary quests are all completed, likewise every monster contract I'm aware of. I have a few treasure hunts to finish, but they're for equipment inferior to what I have right now. Essentially, once the credits roll on Blood and Wine, that's me done. And I'll have a moment, a little silent pause. I know I will. And I'm not alone – The Witcher 3 has sold somewhere around ten million copies, meaning that there are a whole lot of people in the same slightly rickety boat as me, every one of them about to bid adieu to their own White Wolf.
One such person is Sam White – VICE Gaming contributor, freelancer for real-life actual newspapers, adventure game admirer and owner of some really nice shirts. I spoke to Sam, to share our stories of our Geralts, because while we've all been playing as the same (mutated, sterile, excellently bearded, steely and robust on the outside but slushily romantic on the inside) man, our journeys have all been different.
Mike Diver: So both you and I, Sam, have spent the past year of our gaming lives in the company of Geralt of Rivia. But I suspect our Geralts might be quite different. The character you meet in the opening area of White Orchard is no blank slate – he's got a solid backstory. But everything that comes next for him is pretty much determined by the player. Be a dick, or a delight. Be promiscuous, or monogamous. Take on every contract you find and do the job for the base rate, or constantly push your fee up, knowing that those villagers can barely afford what they offered the first time.
So, I want to know a little about your Geralt, Sam. What kind of man is he? What kind of monster have you created these past 12 months? We're both seeing our Geralts approach retirement – my Blood and Wine vineyard is looking pretty sweet right now, albeit at the expense of the main Blood and Wine story – but will yours look back on his exploits with pride, or shame? What have been the big events for your Geralt over the course of Wild Hunt, Hearts of Stone and now Blood and Wine?
Sam White: Well, my Geralt is kind of a mix of everything, really. Like you say, he was no blank slate to begin with, and actually I think The Witcher 3's greatest strength is how it doesn't let you run too wild with choices, and instead gives you a predefined character where certain options simply wouldn't feel natural for him to go with. With my Geralt, though, I was pretty much a good guy for the duration.
During the base game I decided that my Geralt wouldn't be a coin chaser when doing contracts, but this changed when I started Blood and Wine, simply because I needed the money much more. I wasn't that promiscuous, either – I had a bit of the sexy funtimes with Keira Metz, for example, but I was firmly in the Yennefer camp for the entire game. I helped ol' Triss out, but I never did the dirty with her. I couldn't let Yen down like that, especially as we were trying to find what is essentially our daughter (Ciri) together. It felt wrong to do that.
I also loved how the game occasionally let you side with the monsters. Aside from the fact that this was the game's opportunity to quite subtly say, "Look! Humans are the real monsters in this situation!" I really enjoyed that it gave you another dimension to these creatures. I've enjoyed that in Blood and Wine, especially a fantastic quest featuring a cursed, spoon-collecting wight. The potential outcomes are super interesting.
MD: I too enjoyed the wight quest – though I think for Spoiler Reasons we shouldn't go too deep with that. Having the choice it presented you with was wonderful, though. And I agree: it flipped the narrative on who the monsters really are in this world. Hell, I dare say Regis in Blood and Wine, as a courteous vampire, does that, too.
Like you, I was super faithful to Yennefer – though that was during my (main, I'm still on it in B&W) second playthrough. I never finished the first, using debug code, as time was against me; but back then my Geralt was definitely a little looser of morals. Do you feel that the game's pre-existing fiction, what we know of its characters through the books, and what we're told in-game of Geralt and Yen's past, influenced your decision to stay faithful to her? There's so much lore to work through in these games, but I think CDPR have done an admirable job of streamlining it down to the essentials and letting the player fill in the gaps. The way Regis is introduced in B&W is very: this is all we need to tell you, and you can either look up the rest, read the glossary, or simply ignore it. I love that side of the game – you can get as deep into the fantasy as you want to, but its makers never really force you into anything.
During Wild Hunt, the base game as you say, there were some massive decisions to make – or to influence through your actions. While we definitely should avoid spoilers for B&W I think Wild Hunt is safe ground, a year later. Who did your Geralt put on the throne in Skellige? I loved that part of the game – hell, Skellige is by far my favourite place in the whole game world, including Toussaint. Did you take the notes from Keira and prevent her from trying to settle with Radovid? Did you help Triss get the remaining mages out of Novigrad? And what about the Bloody Baron – in your story, what was his fate? So many questions, I know, but all of these inform who "your Geralt" really is.
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SW: Yeah, I absolutely do think that the game's pre-existing fiction helped enforce whichever decisions you wanted to make. I think it'd enforce it both ways, too. Either you're a player who really gets off on the fact you've been "honest" to your digital girlfriend, or you're a more rebellious type who wants to see how and who your actions affect when you start being a bit more of a wildcard. Regis is a fantastic character in that sense – not a romantic interest, but still a long-term companion who shows up out of nowhere. Not only is he brilliant and one of my favourites in the entire game, but his and Geralt's friendship is one that you feel you have some control over – like you could affect how it winds up by the end of Blood and Wine. I like that a lot – the reams of backstory make you feel like you're affecting something in a way few games do.
In terms of the base game, I practically hoovered up every single bit of it that I could – I think some of the only remaining undiscovered locations of mine are the ones in Skellige's ocean. I put Cerys on the throne of Skellige, simply because she felt like the only real sensible choice to make. Putting her brother on the throne felt like voting Brexit to me – just utter stupidity. Keira and I ended up having a little bit of a falling out, actually. In my first playthrough – the one I'm playing Blood and Wine with – I ended up in a sticky situation where, no matter what I tried, even reloading, Keira and I ended up fighting, which obviously resulted in her untimely death. That came after we'd had some lakeside shaggin', too, which is a little awkward.
I helped Triss with the mages, and also helped the Bloody Baron all the way until the end, allowing him to take his wife to the Blue Mountains to try help her recover from her mental and physical ordeal with the Crones. Overall, I feel like I ended up with some of the "best" endings for all the main supporting cast. I also helped Letho – one of my favourite surprises, that quest. And Ciri ended up not going missing at the end, which was a relief.
MD: Ah, you saw Letho? I did in my first playthrough – but not in the second as I made different choices during that palace grooming scene. "Palace grooming scene" scans a little creepy, now that I look at it, but you know what I mean. If you met Letho, did you also meet Sile, the sorceress, from the second Witcher game? I'm unsure if one cancels the other out, but I found her looking very worse for wear in a dungeon, a lot later in the main game. There's a lot of under-the-hood stuff going on in Wild Hunt, and I love that – though I suppose it does lead to uncertainty.
I helped the Baron look after his wife in my main playthrough; but the first time I took on that quest, it resulted in her death and him hanging himself. Which was pretty fucking bleak. Come the end of my main story, Ciri became Empress. I'm not sure if that's good or not, but I was happy enough. Like you say, at least I, or rather Geralt, knew where she was, and that she was okay. Was your ending any different?
SW: The Letho quest was fantastic. You find him hiding in an abandoned manor with a price on his head. He finds out he's been betrayed by a supposed friend, so goes with Geralt to kill him in revenge, before visiting the band of bounty hunters tracking him down. He then fakes his death in front of you. You're left unaware of his plan, as he tells you just to go along with everything that happens. You do, and he wakes up a few hours later with the bandits thinking they've finally killed the infamous Kingslayer. I then sent him off to Kaer Morhen to help out against the Wild Hunt. Good ol' Letho.
As for Sila, I found her in a prison dungeon in Oxenfurt. She was properly wounded from months of torture, so I gave her a merciful death as she wouldn't have made it out of there even if Geralt wanted to rescue her. It was quite sad, despite the fact she's a complete bitch, as it highlighted more of Wild Hunt's ruthless attitude towards sorceresses – or basically anyone that is deemed remotely different.
I had the same ending as you. It's the ending I think is least cool, though. I mean, it's good that Ciri survives, but the ending where Geralt gives Ciri her Witcher sword is by far the more interesting of the two, at least in the sense that it implies some brilliant spin-off in a few years where the two of them have a similar relationship as Geralt and Vesemir. And the bad ending is just horrific – a withered, defeated Geralt whose fate is left unknown as a swarm of monsters surrounds him. It's a horrible way to leave the character, but really effective.
In this (seen to be the best) ending to the game, Ciri becomes a witcher.
MD: You mention the bad ending – so did you see that on a separate save, or YouTube? How do you think you'd have felt if your Geralt was left that way, after so much? And is it pleasing that this is a game where all the decisions you make feed into the end game proper? Unlike, say, Fable 2, where however much of a dick you are, you still get the option to undo all the badness at the end. Presumably, if you were playing as a dick, you'd want Geralt remembered as a dick.
And on the Ciri spin-off – yes please. I already wrote a little something about that. When your Geralt hangs up his gauntlets, do you want to see the characters of Wild Hunt feature again in another game? Without wanting to get too off topic, I think there's great potential for a Ciri-focused game.
SW: I watched it on YouTube, of course. I have a New Game+ save that I'm plodding on through whenever I get bored of everything else that's out, but I'm only around the halfway mark on that save. As for the bad ending, I think that if I had got that ending it would've made sense. There's that scene about midway through the game – a beautiful scene on the Isle of Mists, where Geralt discovers Ciri's presumably dead body in that house with the dwarves. For a few minutes, you think Ciri is dead. It's a wonderful curveball, but in those fleeting moments you see Geralt's world properly crumble around him. He's defeated. Obviously, she turns out to be alive and then they take on the Wild Hunt together, which is another great and unexpected twist. But if after all that she actually did die, or disappear, or wherever she goes, then Geralt would lose his mind a bit. It feels like a horribly fitting end to that canon, and almost the most suitable end in a world as depressing as Geralt's.
As for characters returning in future games, my heart says yes, that I do want to see them again. Blood and Wine doesn't feature the familiar faces, so it's an unusual goodbye in the sense that it isn't a last hurrah with the gang. My head says no, though, that this saga should be left alone. CDPR has done an incredible job of crafting the best RPG ever made – I've said that twice on VICE now, so it's official – and keeping an unrivalled consistency throughout its two DLCs. I can't remember the last time that a studio delivered two big new bits of content for a game that kept the quality this high. And although I have every faith that they'd only continue this story if they knew they could do it justice, I'd rather them not take the risk.
A Ciri-focused game would be ace, I'd be well into that, but they'd need to change the voice actor for her before that happens. She really annoyed me in Wild Hunt. Not her as a character, but the way she spoke. She was a bit too cockney. My ideal scenario would be a Blood and Wine-type expansion every year until 2025. There's so much to see in this world, I feel like CDPR has only really gotten started on what they're capable of.
MD: Imagine if there was a way in which finding Ciri "dead" actually meant she was. If you'd taken too long to reach the Isle of Mists, pissed about with too many side quests. How brutally brilliant that would have been. I mean, crushing, but quite the striking turn of events.
I could quite happily play a 20-30 hour chunk of Witchery goodness once a year, forever. But you're basically happy that B&W marks the end of Geralt's journey, of his story? Even without Dandelion and those sorts?
I can't recall another two pieces of same-game DLC as good as HoS and B&W – Left Behind was a brilliant addition to The Last of Us, which really added to its story, but offered nothing like this level of depth. Has CDPR set a bit of a precedent here? Are other devs of such games going to need to step their, um, game up? We've had Fallout 4's Far Harbor expansion recently, which you've played. I'm guessing that doesn't compare to B&W?
And on Geralt, we touched upon it, but having that predefined element of him, of him being a walking, talking personality, not a blank vessel for you to occupy, is a good thing. I much prefer that over a character creation set up, where you begin with nothing, essentially. You?
SW: I feel like B&W would be a bit different if you came out the end of the main game with an MIA Ciri. As much as a vineyard is nice, it doesn't replace your daughter, so I don't know how they could explain him suddenly living "happily ever after". I do wonder what CDPR consider as their canonical ending. I'm supposing it's the one where Ciri becomes Empress, but I can't be sure.
I think The Witcher 3 raised the bar for a lot of games, for me personally. For example, I used to be a sucker for most open worlds – especially Bethesda games. As I said in my Far Harbor piece, I've sunk a lot of time into those worlds. But since Wild Hunt I don't feel nearly as invested in a world that doesn't have that narrative craft that CDPR has absolutely bloody excelled at over the past 12 months. Any game I've played since its release has immediately been compared to Wild Hunt. "Do I care as much about these side quests?" "Am I interested in the little sub-stories it's trying to tell me?" I never skip dialogue in The Witcher 3, because all of it is good, and so much of it hides brilliant little secrets. Few games do that on such a – forgive the term – epic scale.
The same goes for character creation. In Bethesda games I loved creating my own character – to feel the ownership over what that character will do and eventually become. But Wild Hunt changed my thinking quite a bit. I now align more with the predefined protagonist angle – a character that has a fully fleshed personality, a backstory that better writers than me have imagined and made real. I think the halfway house is Fallout 4. We keep going back to it, but it tried to have its cake and eat it a bit. The voice acting in that game really brought your character to life, but it also tried to have you create someone from scratch, which felt a bit restrictive. You had fewer options because the game decided to be more directional in how it handled its protagonist – that voice didn't suit being evil, so it just felt a bit weird if you tried. Do you know what I mean?
MD: I hear you, loud and clear, yep. Whereas Geralt, well, credit to his voice actor, really, Doug Cockle. The man, he has range. I've seen Geralt be surprisingly tender in B&W and was really impressed with how moved I was by that. There was that moment in Wild Hunt, too, where he rescues a girl and takes her back to a village, to live with an aunt. It's one of the two small free DLC quests, "Where the Cat & Wolf Play". I dare say the strength of the main DLC shows that the base Witcher 3 could have been so much more, if CDPR had infinite time to tweak it. But I think HoS and B&W are two of the strongest quest lines across the whole game – right up there with the Bloody Baron.
Why don't you tell me about your three favourite quests?
SW: The White Orchard griffin hunt, which is your first real entry into being a Witcher in an open-world environment. Not only is everything new, but it's really challenging – you're getting to grips with the game's oils, its decoctions, and learning what signs and bombs to use against certain enemies. Also impressive is the fact you're fighting an aerial beast, so you're moving around the world in a way you didn't really have to in previous Witcher games. To go back and experience that hunt again, cor. I envy anyone picking up Wild Hunt for the first time, don't you?
Second would be a very specific scene in Hearts of Stone. Up until this point, you're aware that Gaunter O'Dimm is powerful, but not quite sure how omnipotent he is. He also feels like a bit of a mate – he's after Olgierd's soul, but he harbours no particular animosity toward you. In this scene, you enter a pub to meet Olgierd's man, but instead find O'Dimm sitting on a table. When a drunkard at the bar interrupts you, O'Dimm freezes time with a clap of his hands. He explains to Geralt that he won't tell you who – or what – he is, because anyone that's ever found out has died or gone mad. At the end of the conversation, he walks out of the pub, pausing only to insert an entire wooden spoon into frozen drunkard's eye. One clap of O'Dimm's hands and time resumes, blood spurts from the drunkard's eye and he collapses to the floor, dead. It's a horrible scene, and the reason why O'Dimm is the game's best villain bar none.
Lastly would be a quest called "Possession", where you come up against a Hym. It's a truly dark curse that torments one of Skellige's jarls for supposedly letting his brother drown years ago. "Possession" features one of the scariest houses in the entire game, and also one of its most tense scenes. In order to trick the Hym – the only way of truly defeating it – Geralt is kept in the dark about the plan. This plan, it turns out, requires you to put a baby in the oven – or at least, make it look like you've done that, tricking the Hym and forcing it to switch hosts to Geralt, who, stricken with grief having just killed a baby, now has the necessary guilt for the creature to feed off. Then, low and behold, the baby is revealed safe and sound, and the Hym is banished for all eternity. Let's all go home for tea. It's one of the best quests in the game, not least because you've little control and have to trust Skellige's potential queen, Cerys. It was this quest that sealed the deal in making me recommend her as leader of the islands.
MD: Those are all fine choices. I've actually just finished a side quest in Blood & Wine that I massively enjoyed because it was so... well, weird. And funny, and completely out of the ordinary compared to the main game. I don't want to spoil it for people yet to play, but if I simply say "cow", I hope you know what I mean.
I liked the "Witcher Wannabe" side-quest, too. In B&W, people regularly fawn over Geralt. He's something of a celebrity in the big city. But in Wild Hunt, he's demonised. Villagers spit at him, and hide their children away. But then there's this guy, just a regular dude, who's swanning around pretending to be a Witcher. Why would anyone want to do that? It's absolutely mad. He's even got a wolf medallion. Turns out he's a conman, a simple crook – but I love how anyone in this world would choose to play dress up as one of it's most loathed inhabitants.
Finally, I really enjoyed "The Last Wish", from the perspective of the loyal-to-Yen player. That was the quest that really solidified the relationship between the two characters, after a long period of being apart from one another, and a period of awkwardly feeling their way back into "normality". Also, battling a djinn on half a shipwreck, on the summit of a mountain, was pretty rad. In terms of visual impact, it's the burned-into-the-mind's-eye image that'll always stay with me, years after I put this game down.
So, are you going to miss your Geralt? I know that I'll miss mine. I suppose he became a version of "me"; yet all the time I was role-playing a lot more than I would with a self-created character, because I had this pre-determined foundation for his personality. I chose to be good-natured, to spare what I could, to be generous. And that's extended into B&W, with (no spoilers) rewards as a result. In real life, I'd be a pretty shitty witcher, really, acting that way. Too soft. Wouldn't last a year on the path.
SW: I'm going to miss Geralt a huge amount, actually. Not only because of who he is as a character, but because of what he allows me to do in game. Wild Hunt does something few games manage: it places you in a profession that makes perfect sense for the world you inhabit. He's not saving the world; he's just doing his job and getting paid to do it. I like that – I like the simplicity and focus of it. The fact you end up wound up in greater threats is par for the course, but even then they don't feel like Skyrim's world-ending dragon disaster, or any of that. They're compulsive little mini-dramas that are incredibly well told.
I also chose to be good-natured. I feel like the people of Velen and that, they need someone good from time to time. Perhaps that's the most impressively touching thing about The Witcher 3. It doesn't let you save the world, but it does allow you to make it a little bit of a better place. Can't ask for more than that, can you?
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