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The Witcher III - DLC

In a Nutshell

THE GOOD

  • Compelling and thought-provoking new quest lines
  • Story pacing and stakes feel more appropriate to this sandbox experience
  • Blood and Wine adds a whole new, colorful region
  • That creepy song the children sing in HoS is stuck in my head
  • Adds a little multiculturalism

THE BAD

  • Monotonous boss fights that seem to break the game's own rules
  • No expansion-specific loading vignettes
  • Character upgrades are still obtuse

Overall Impression: A-
If only CD Projekt Red could program boss battles
as expertly as they can write quest and characters.

Note: This is a review of expansion content only.
Please click here for my review of the base game.

The Witcher III: Hearts of Stone DLC

The Witcher III: Blood and Wine DLC

Developer:
CD Projekt Red

Publisher(s):
Warner Bros. Interactive

Platforms:
PC (via Steam),
PS4, XBox One

Original release date:
Hearts of Stone: 13 October 2015
Blood and Wine: 31 May 2016

ESRB rating: Mature (17+) for:
blood and gore, intense violence,
strong sexual content, nudity,
use of alcohol, strong language

Genre:
Open world fantasy RPG

Player:
single-player

Official site:
thewitcher.com

I just don't understand how CD Projekt Red can be such masters at world building and quest design, but are completely inept at everything that involves Geralt drawing a sword or throwing igni. I almost gave up on Hearts of Stone because the beginning of its main quest just put me into a controller-throwing rage.

Geralt is tasked with killing a mysterious sewer monster who has been killing women who go into the sewer hoping to find a toad who can be turned into a prince with a kiss. One of The Witcher III's long-standing annoyances for me is that it makes such a big deal about Geralt being so analytical that he prepares for every monster hunt with potions and so forth, but whenever a quest boss comes along, the game decides to just throw the player in with no chance to prepare. This quest provided no opportunity to investigate to learn what the toad monster is or what its weaknesses might be. When you hit an arbitrary point in the sewer, the game triggers a cutscene that just throws Geralt into the boss arena, so you can't re-equip yourself, respec, or otherwise prepare.

To make matters worse, the game checkpoints you inside the boss fight, instead of prior to the cutscene. If you die, you have to wait for the game's god-damned-bloody long-ass load times before having to go through the trouble of resetting your equipped potions or any other preparatory activities, only to survive for thirty seconds before the fracking toad kills you again and you have to sit through another two minutes of load screen before having to start it all over again. Just unacceptable, CD Projekt Red; absolutely unacceptable.

In order to beat the damn thing, I had to reload from an autosave earlier in the quest (fortunately, I didn't lose much progress) and use the Potion of Clearance to respec Geralt to take points out of my [currently useless] support skills and put them into abilities that buffed my attack, defense, and the two spells that are actually useful for this fight.

The Witcher III: Hearts of Stone - toad boss
The boss fights in Hearts of Stone seem to break the game's rules, and frustrated me to no end.

To add insult to injury, this boss fight ends with a cutscene, and the next playable, non-dialogue sequence is another boss fight, this time a mage with an entourage of soldiers. Without any of my support or crowd-control spells, I ended up having to replay this fight several times as well (it didn't help that the mage seemed to have a one-hit kill area-of-effect tornado attack). At the end, I thought I would be able to respec my character back to the way I had him, but apparently that potion is only a one-time use. I had to fast travel around to several merchants to try to find someone who would sell another copy to me (because Kiera disappears after you finish the main story, so I couldn't buy it from her). It cost 1,000 gold! Then, after finding my way back to the original quest-giver, I got stuck in yet another obnoxious boss fight.

All three of these boss fights seemed to break the game's established rules. The first one kept hitting me with poison, so I tried using a potion that was supposed to allow me to heal from exposure to poison. Except the potion didn't work. Neither of the other two bosses were vulnerable to Yrden or to dimeritium bombs to block or negate their magic abilities. This all was incredibly frustrating, as one of my biggest pet peeves with video games is when the developers give bosses immunity to all the fancy support items and spells that the player has, which you've been saving up for just such an occasion - a boss being the one place where such tools are actually useful or necessary. On top of that, all three fights are needlessly long endurance matches that quickly devolve to repeating the same few actions a hundred times in a row. Absolutely, unforgivably terrible boss fights, the whole lot of them! Needless to say, this DLC did not get off on the right foot with me - much like the base game didn't.

Back to Oxenfurt

But I grit my teeth and played through the base game, only to find some of the most outstanding quest design and characters that gaming has to offer. So I would do the same with the Hearts of Stone DLC. And once again, I was rewarded for my patience with a quality storyline. This expansion brings back a mysterious character who you'd met at the beginning of the game and might have forgotten all about. The call-back was neat, and this strange man reveals himself to be much more than meets the eye, as he points you in the direction of Olgierd von Everec. Olgierd's quest is a sad and engaging tale about an arrogant man who makes a pact with the devil that doesn't end too well for him. It doesn't pull the heart strings nearly as well as the Bloody Baron's questline from the base game, but the "Scenes From a Marriage" quest was almost as heartbreaking.

The Witcher III: Hearts of Stone - 3 wishes
Olgierd does not expect Geralt to actually complete these tasks.

Olgierd's quest will have you traveling all over the eastern half of the Novigrad map from the base game, using the city of Oxenfurt as your central hub, rather than Novigrad proper. I'm not sure if the major locations in this expansion (such as the Von Everec Estate) existed in the base game, or if they appeared out of nowhere when the DLC was installed. In any case, in addition to the quests given in this expansion, it also gave me the opportunity to explore this area of the map that I had neglected save for a few story quests. The eastern half of Novigrad may not have been a new area added by the DLC, but it might as well have been for me. While the boss fights were annoying, there were some quality non-combat and role-play quests. I don't want to spoil too much, but along the way to dealing with Olgierd and O'Dimm, Geralt got to be the life of a wedding party, and he got to plan a heist. Fun stuff.

But it isn't just that there's some fun, quirky, and creative quests to engage in. The lighthearted romps are tempered by some seriously deep and expertly-written explorations of heavy existential and metaphysical themes and pondering on life, death, and immortality. Again, I don't want to spoil too many particular details of the storyline, but it involves an immortal character struggling with the realization that he's experienced all that there is to experience in the world, has become numb to the entire affair, and just wants it to be over. On the other side of the coin, we have a different character who is dead, but whose soul is trapped forever in a painful memory. She is suffering eternally, but the only alternative is to truly die - to become non-existant - and she struggles with whether it is better to exist, but to suffer; or to not exist at all. And both of these characters' fates may rest with you, so you'll have to think about it too...

Hearts of Stone asks players to ponder life, death, immortality, eternal punishment, free will, and predestination.

Oh, and all of this is layered on top of some subtext regarding whether these character actually have free will, if their fates are predestined, and if their fates are deserved. Further, the fact that the player is interacting with these storylines and deciding some of these questions (either intentionally or through their own inaction) just makes the story's message so much more poignant. This is something that a non-interactive medium like film or books can't really deliver.

Another very interesting aspect of this questline's ludic structure is that it manages to solve the problem of the open world limbo that plagued the base game. Olgierd assigns Geralt with three tasks - tasks which Olgierd assumes are impossible. He doesn't expect Geralt to finish any of them, nor is Olgierd in any hurry to see these tasks completed. So the player is completely free to take your sweet time tackling these objectives. It's an elegant solution to the problem of properly pacing a sandbox story, but it isn't a universal solution. After all, this setup only works because the stakes for both Olgierd and Geralt are personal - there's no apparent world-threatening cataclysm this time.

The Witcher III: Hearts of Stone - 3 wishes
Weapons can be enchanted.

Since you're in no hurry to complete Olgierd's wishes, you're free to pursue some of the side quests that the expansion adds. One such quest unlocks the ability to enchant weapons and armor at the Olfieri rune-wright. The new buffs have nice effects, but you have to sacrifice all three upgrade slots on the relevant weapon or armor in order to apply an enchantment. I'm not really sure if it's worth it. Maybe the very high-level enchantments are, but I never secured the extra 10,000 gold necessary to unlock those upgrades. Other quests will grant access to new weapons, equipment, potions, and so on, but the best armor and weapons in this DLC are frustratingly easy to miss (and you only have one shot to acquire each piece). The side quests weren't particularly impressive, other than an amusing bit in which Geralt gets audited by a tax collector. Even so, this all gave me a chance to finish up some other base game side quests that I'd neglected. For only $10, Hearts of Stone was a fun little ride, but the obnoxious boss fights almost ruin it.

To the colorful land of wine

The second expansion, Blood and Wine, is a considerably more substantive expansion. It's also a more costly one, at $20. With your $20 investment, however, you'll get a whole new, colorful map region to explore: the land of Toussaint. Basically, it's Witcher 3's equivalent of France. And the DLC will waste no time rubbing your nose in its French-ness.

The Witcher III: Blood and Wine - Golyat
Geralt will be immediately thrown into another slew of boss fights upon entering Blood and Wine.

Sadly, this DLC doesn't start much better than the previous DLC: it also begins with a gauntlet of boss fights, and in keeping with the mantra of being bigger than Hearts of Stone, there are four consecutive fights to win this time around. But hey, at least my bombs, potions, spells, and counter-measures actually work this time. Also, you'll actually be able to study and prepare for one of the fights, which is nice. However, the third fight of the quartet comes awfully close to being as obnoxious as the Toad Prince fight from Hearts of Stone.

You're thrown into an arena with an armored monster that rolls around the arena. You're supposed to defeat it by forcing it to roll into a wall and get knocked on its back, but doing so requires that the camera and targeting systems cooperate, which is always a minor miracle in Witcher III fights. This wouldn't be so bad if not for the fact that the developers thought it necessary to put an idiot NPC in the fight as well, one who can die if not protected. And this NPC has no sense of self-preservation and loves nothing more than to stand right in the monster's way and tank hits - hits that he doesn't have the HP to endure. He'll even stand right in front of the monster as it performs a persistent area of effect attack, and he'll stand there soaking up the damage until he dies. He doesn't walk away or dodge or anything. Having to deal with this stupidity is almost enough to induce an aneurysm in this reviewer.

The bosses that introduce Blood and Wine are very hit-or-miss engagements.

Are the developers of this game actually proud of their combat mechanics, battle scenarios, and boss fights? If so, they shouldn't be.

The last chapter of the main quest elapses three days without you being able to do anything in between, before degrading into another terrible combat tunnel culminating in a terrible boss fight. The boss just keeps repeating the same three moves over and over again. You'd think that would make the fight easy, but since CD Projekt Red can't write a combat encounter to save their lives, the whole thing is a mess. The boss flies around the arena so that the camera won't stay focused on him, so I can't see where the attack is coming from or where it's going to hit. And even when I do dodge, I still lose half my health bar to damage anyway. In fact, I'm pretty sure that during the cutscene in which the boss transformed into phase 2, 2/3 of my health bar just vanished.

Maybe I should lower the difficulty level? But that just makes the combat encounters too easy and boring, and I don't want that either. I'm not complaining that they are too hard. I'm complaining that they feel broken. Seriously, just read this strategy guide. Here's a choice quote: "Even using the Quen Sign won’t fully protect you. You can’t avoid this attack completely but you can roll towards him to take less damage." And here's another: "When he dives into the ground start dodging continuously because he’ll emerge in front of you and perform an AoE attack." That guide was the top result when I searched "how to beat Dettlaff" in Google. And it's advice is "you can't completely avoid damage" and "dodge continuously". It doesn't improve my opinion that the entire fairy tale adventure that immediately preceeded this fight was riddled with bugs.

The Witcher III: Blood and Wine - sharing a drink with Regis
Like the base game, Blood and Wine is at its best when your swords are sheathed.

Hearts of Stone avoided the problem by eliminating the final boss fight altogether and replacing it with a combined moral choice and riddle that was based on whether or not you investigated the situation thoroughly. Brilliant! Why couldn't Blood and Wine have done something like this for its final boss fight?

But, once again, if you grind through these boss fights, you'll be rewarded with a long, complicated, and thought-provoking quest line. Like with the base game, and the Hearts of Stone expansion before it, Blood and Wine is at its best when Geralt's swords are sheathed, and the quests involve puzzles, meaningful dialogue trees, moral conundrums, and existential ruminations.

Aside from the boss gauntlet at the beginning, and the combat tunnel and cheap boss fight at the end, the main quest for Blood and Wine is fantastic and enthralling. It will send you on a long, complicated monster hunt with quite a few twists and turns. In the meantime, This quest (and its tangential quests) will have Geralt attending more costume parties, participating in chivalric tournaments, reuniting with old friends, frolicking through fairy tale land, and tracking down the missing penis of a marble statue, not to mention the standard monster killing. Ponderings about immortality will also return as a recurring theme in this questline, along with some in-depth discussions of the pros and cons of being a vampire.

The Witcher III: Blood and Wine - bank queue
Queuing in line at a bank is an example
of one of the more creative quests.

In addition to the main quest, Blood and Wine includes well over a dozen side quests, witcher contracts, and treasure hunts, not to mention all the monster nests and other ambient events that litter Toussaint. So when you need a break from hunting vampires (or you finish it and want more Witcher), there's a bevy of new tasks for you to complete. There's the typical monster hunts and exorcisms that Geralt's been doing all game long, and then there's also super-exciting new quests like ... waiting in line at a bank to fill out forms to make a withdrawl. Seriously. That's a quest! It just goes to highlight the level of creativity and variety that keeps me coming back to this game.

It's not all gold, though. A couple of these side quests are garbage. The worst offender is an emergent quest called "Extreme Cosplay", which I advise that you avoid at all costs unless you are considerably over-leveled. A combat scenario starts out of a cutscene with a horde of enemies, including two mages that start casting fireballs at you immediately. Each time I reloaded the checkpoint, I was hit by two spells (and sometimes a stab from an enemy spear) before the screen had completely faded in from black, and my health bar was half empty before the controller even starting accepting inputs. Geralt was dead within 4 seconds. I only managed to beat the quest by finding an exploit that allowed me to hide up the stairs and meditate, resetting the enemies (but not their health bars - this isn't Dark Souls), and allowing me to lob bombs on them from above. How this quest made it out of CD Projekt RED's QA, I have no idea, but they also let the final boss fight through, so ... whatever.

Writing is solid all-around, but seemingly-simple combat scenarios feel outright broken and unfair.

I find myself liking The Witcher 3 more and more...

Overall, both expansions are worth playing, and my opinion of The Witcher 3 just keeps rising. Both expansions offer more of what I love about the base game, and nothing here deviates tremendously. Both expansions are at their best when it's the writers flexing their muscles, rather than the boss designers.

Unfortunately, both expansions also carry over the same things that I hate about The Witcher 3. The combat mechanics still seem unresponsive, enemies get in frequent cheap hits, and controls often feel lacking or fidgety, and I can't get Roach to cross a bridge or walk through a gate to save my life. I was also dismayed by a lack of some bells and whistles in the expansions. For example, there's no expansion-specific load screen vignettes for either expansion. I guess it would be hard to set them up so that they don't interfere with the main quest vignettes (if you still haven't finished the main quest yet), and I guess you can always re-read the quest notes.

I'm also disappointed by the romance options. Blood and Wine allows Geralt to obtain his own home in the countryside and invite his lover to settle down with him to live happily ever after, but only the base game's Triss and Yennefer are available for this outcome. Both expansions add their own romantic partner, but neither one of them is an option for a permanent relationship. So if you blew it with Yennefer and Triss (which I had done, since the game wouldn't let me go back to Triss after I'd broken the love spell with Yennefer), you won't find anything other than some more one-night-stands (and no happily ever after) in the expansions either.

The Witcher III: Hearts of Stone - Shani leaving
Though Geralt has new booty calls, none of them are more than a one-night-stand.

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