I was right in the middle of Dark Souls 3 when I went and saw Blood and Wine, the new Witcher 3 expansion, a couple weeks ago. I was struck by the difference between the two: they were both real-time action games, but one dispensed almost entirely with narative, while the other reveled in it.
Billed as the final chapter of Geralt of Rivia, the gravel-voiced Witcher who Mike affectionately referred to as "Medieval Batman," Blood and Wine shifts to sunny Toussaint - a colorful locale inspired by the south of France. The move was a deliberate attempt by the development team to breakup the rather drab Eastern European locales that have tended to dominate the series in the past. The effect is immediate - when a group of Toussaint knights arrive to escort you to their region, their elaborate armor contrasts heavily with the rundown medieval villages and scrubland that has constituted the world of The Witcher to this point.
Once you actually arrive in Toussaint, the difference is even more striking - everything is just so green. It's the sort of landscape that invites you to just take a moment and spend some time riding through it. I've compared Witcher 3 to Red Dead Redemption in the past, but Rockstar's western was never this lush. You can practically smell the dew as you ride down the path along with the knights.
Once you reach your first objective, though, the beautiful scenery recedes to the background and it's back to business as usual for Geralt. Knights are being murdered, and the townsfolk are convinced that they are being haunted by a beast that is punishing them for their lack of virtue. From this point you can pretty much put down your controller as Geralt interrogates the villagers and tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. This is what The Witcher does, and it does it very well. Still, after the minimalism of Dark Souls, it was sort of jarring to sit through so much conversation. Such endless chatter was one reason I ended up putting down The Witcher 3 back when it first came out a year ago.
Of course, I know I'm in the minority. Lots of people like these sorts of scenes, and in terms of writing and voice acting, The Witcher 3 does them better than almost anyone. Once the interrogation is finished, it's off to the coastline to examine the site of an attack for clues using Geralt's Witcher senses, which are akin to a more advanced version of Detective Mode in the Arkham series (Medieval Batman, am I right?) I'm not going to spoil exactly how the mystery unfolds, but the trail eventually leads Geralt to the scene of a grisly massacre at a vineyard, after which he finds himself in a race against time amid a series of decadent royal contests (one of the knights gets to wear a bunny suit - adorable).
As always, the monster battles are the most compelling part of Witcher 3. They aren't just hack-and-slash affairs - they require you to do actual research into their relative strengths and weaknesses. When fighting a vampire in Blood and Wine, for instance, you want to glitter bomb the vampire so you can track them while they teleport around the room (yes, really). It's also best to poison your blood just in case they go for the bite in an effort to regenerate their health. These thoughtful, tactical encounters are the highlight of Witcher 3 for me, and help to elevate it from hack-and-slash walking simulator and make it something a little deeper.
Beyond the story, Blood and Wine throws in all sorts of touches that will make it well worth your attention when it arrives on May 31. Among them, the user interface has been redrawn to feel less busy and more accessible, and new Advanced Mutations afford access to incredibly powerful spells, including instant revival and regeneration and a massive blizzard attack. The aforementioned bloodsoaked vineyard, meanwhile, becomes a player base for Geralt - a place you can decorate and upgrade at will. It's also a convenient spot to rest, which is important in light of the The Witcher 3's health regeneration mechanics. It's a neat addition, and certainly worthy of exploration over the course of Blood and Wine's 30 hour adventure.
As with Hearts of Stone, Blood and Wine will be immediately accessible even if you haven't hit the requisite level in the base game. All you have to do is roll up a level 35 character, and the quest will be there for you to understake. It's not the most elegant solution in the world - there's something to be said for enjoying the entirety of the story from beginning to end - but it's nice to have the option available if you want it.
As always, The Witcher 3's richly texture world and storytelling is its greatest strength, and that goes double for Blood and Wine. Where Dark Souls leans heavily on mystery and ambiguity in advancing its narrative, The Witcher 3 sits at the opposite end of the scale. It wants to be a Game of Thrones-like interactive fantasy novel - a bloodsoaked tale in which an old and powerful Witcher navigates a world filled with brutal politics and terrifying monsters. Whether or not you approach taken by Witcher 3 or Dark Souls is a matter of taste, but there's denying the former's execution.
With Blood and Wine marking the end of Geralt's tale and Cyberpunk 2077 on the horizon, CD Projekt Red appears ready to put aside The Witcher for a while. They leave a franchise that has grown from PC-exclusive curiosity to international megahit - a unique RPG that stylistically sits somewhere between Skyrim and Dark Souls. It's a remarkable accomplishment for a Polish studio that was virtually unknown just a few years ago, and the massive Blood and Wine expansion looks to be one of their greatest accomplishments to date.