Retirement may well be in the cards for everyone’s favorite witcher, and it’s hard to imagine a better place to hang up one’s swords than Toussaint. But there’s one thing about this picturesque Nilfgaardian duchy that Geralt Of Rivia will never quite be able to stomach: all the damn vampires. Summoned by Anna Henrietta, Toussaint’s temperamental duchess, to investigate a series of ritualistic murders, our hero soon finds himself entangled in webs of courtly intrigue, uncovering dark family secrets and hobnobbing with the undead who seem to have descended en masse upon the capital of Beauclair, either as members of the local aristocracy, nightly scourges, or both.
A change of climate was required for the series as much as its protagonist, and part of what makes Blood And Wine such a successful swan song for most of its considerable length is how astutely it understands that the proper way to show respect for the potentially heartbreaking events that conclude The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is by refusing to dwell on them. Instead, the bid for poignancy is made subtly, through a Geralt who’s clearly in need of a strong enough distraction to expedite the process of coming to terms with loss.
And a distraction he gets, in the form of two Toussaint nobles seeking him out to deliver the duchess’ offer, their pompous ceremoniousness comically at odds with the harsh pragmatism of Velen’s lumpenproletariat. Tracking down the so-called Beast Of Beauclair doesn’t sound particularly removed from the White Wolf’s regular monster-slaying routine, but it’s the place and manner of investigation, rather than the job itself, that provide Geralt with his much-needed break. Toussaint, “the land of love and wine,” is nothing like its dreary, pockmarked neighbors to the north. It is a country of vineyards and olive groves, where war is but a footnote in the history books, and only the tallest snow-capped peaks bear witness to winter.
In many ways, this achingly beautiful province, obviously modeled after the Pyrenean countryside, is almost an inversion of the bleak Skellige isles from Wild Hunt. The sun emanates a permanent Mediterranean warmth and the locals wax poetically about their favorite type of pâté instead of raids and battleaxes. Unsurprisingly for a people steeped in chivalric tradition and inspired by such scenic surroundings, romance is everyone’s second favorite subject after food and wine, and most of the problems the witcher is called on to solve during his stay tend to reflect that. It’s admittedly refreshing that, for once, it’s everyone but Geralt having love troubles. Even then, the refined nose of a court sommelier is as likely to prove crucial to the witcher’s investigations as his own more conventional tracking skills.
In fact, everything is so different in Toussaint—the rhyming dialogue, the elaborate rituals, the frilly outfits—that the experience acquires a sense of unreality, as if the whole world around Geralt has decided to stage a play for his benefit alone. Even the series’ ongoing spot-the-reference game feels more aggressively pursued here. A scene reenacted from Don Quixote serves as our introduction to this land of endless summer. The local peasantry murmurs Stephin Merritt’s lines (only minimally adapted for historical authenticity), and the perpetrators of a scam involving wine reserves seem to have taken their cues from Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share. Whether deliberate or not, the artificiality brilliantly captures the state of traumatized withdrawal, the sense of disconnectedness that should follow the majority of Wild Hunt’s possible endings. It makes for a wonderfully complex hero, one who is in the process of negotiating with change and healing past wounds.
Of course, some things never change, including the game’s imaginative monstrosities and elaborate, engaging subplots. While there’s nothing here that quite rivals the sublime grotesqueness of the Three Crones, Blood And Wine is exceedingly generous with its bosses and unique creatures. The feel of the combat is still distinctly average, but at least enemy AI has been markedly improved so that players are less likely to follow the reliable but repetitive attack-attack-dodge pattern that all but ensured victory in the original game.
Less expected are the expansion’s narrative missteps during the final stages of its story arc. In the middle of a mounting apocalypse, Geralt veers off to an extra-dimensional, Fables-inspired fairyland on a disruptive, lengthy tangent. Occasional quirkiness has always been part of the series’ appeal, but given what’s happening in Toussaint’s capital while you’re off dealing with drunken wolves and giant beanstalks, this tonal break threatens to trivialize the colossal scale of those real-world events. For the hour or so of the protracted quest, the narrative risks bleeding out of coherence. Even worse, instead of providing an insight on the deeper motivations of the villain—who accompanies Geralt for the detour’s duration—it betrays not only the glaring senselessness of the conspiracy that drives Blood And Wine’s plot but also an objectionable moral relativism on the part of its writing team. He may be willing to slaughter bandits indiscriminately, but for his world’s tormented aristocrats, Geralt has special reserves of compassion—even after they have carefully orchestrated a series of murders and are indirectly responsible for a hecatomb.
Fortunately, these are momentary hitches in a much longer journey that, depending on the decisions you have made along the way, could end on a surprisingly sweet note. In the course of Geralt’s stay in Toussaint, he acquires the deed to a local estate—vineyard included. At first, the quest to renovate the property, outfitting it with a blacksmith’s anvil here and an alchemist’s table there, feels out of place. What need could the wandering witcher possibly have for all these conveniences? It’s only after the dust has cleared that the symbolism becomes clear thanks to an offhand remark from one of Geralt’s constant companions as they enjoy a last drink together. “After all that toil, I believe we deserve a bit of a rest.” Rest he may have now, and a home, but at the end of Geralt’s story starts the greatest challenge of his life: settling down.