How The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine’s Monster Design Shows How Far The Series Has Come

The Witcher 3’s second and last expansion, Blood and Wine, does a fantastic job of bringing the series to a close. CD Projekt clearly wanted to finish Geralt’s story with a flourish and this is evident in so much of the expansion’s design.

It’s also a conclusion that brings the series full circle, although it does so in a way that, in typical CD Projekt fashion, is much subtler than you might expect from a game of this ilk. There’s no getting the gang back together for a round of drinks and to reminisce about the Good Times (well, there’s a little bit of that if you know where to look), and no revisiting of important locations from earlier games. Instead, Blood & Wine looks back at the series as a whole through its enemies.

While Blood & Wine adds a couple of entirely new monsters to the game, such as the formidable Shaelmaar, the bulk of its adversaries are reintroductions that can be traced back to the very start of the series. Barghests, Fleders, Alps, Bruxae, Archespores, even Giant Centipedes were all staple mobs of the original Witcher. Since that game, many of these monsters have appeared only occasionally in the sequels, or in the case of Barghests and Archespores, haven’t featured again at all.

There’s good reason for this too. Many of these monsters represent the series at its worst. I was completely taken by surprise when I encountered Barghests in Blood & Wine, because I have nothing but bad memories of them. In the original Witcher, Barghests are some of the very first enemies you encounter. They’re ghostly canines which, according to the game’s lore, tend to appear around people or places that have been afflicted by a curse. That’s a cool concept, but back in 2007 they were sickly-looking mutts that snapped at your ankles and were incredibly boring to fight. They also harassed you constantly throughout the initial chapter, appearing every five minutes to bother you like the family dog when it hasn’t been taken for a walk in three days.

If Barghests were bad, Archespores were even worse. For starters, an Archespore is a plant. Cutting up a plant is not Witchering, it’s gardening, no matter how long and sharp your secateurs are. Like Barghests, Archespores had a tendency to crop up at random intervals in the first Witcher, mainly while exploring Vizima’s swamp during chapters two and three. Unlike Barghests, they could also attack from distance by shooting poisoned thorns at you, particularly irksome if you were battling a different enemy when one appeared.

Alps and Bruxae fared better in terms of direct combat, but they sadly highlighted another unsavoury aspect of the first Witcher: its attitude towards women. It’s possible that their penchant for fighting in the nude and tendency to make vaguely sexual noises upon death wouldn’t have been a massive problem in isolation, but in the context of the game their portrayal came off as a little skeezy. Especially when you compare them with the far more monstrous portrayal of other vampires such as Fleders, who are one of the better monsters from the first Witcher.

In the nine years since The Witcher was released, CD Projekt have done an excellent job at rectifying the mistakes they made in the first game, which is why I was so surprised to see these particular critters return in Blood & Wine. I shouldn’t have feared, because CD Projekt have taken all of the experience they gained from creating the brilliant bestiary of Wild Hunt and funnelled it into turning these weaker adversaries into truly special monsters.

Let’s start with the Barghests. CDProjekt have taken one of their least interesting enemies, and made it into perhaps their most visually spectacular. The designers clearly meditated on the spectral qualities of these phantasmal hounds. Often summoned by the equally dangerous Wights, Barghests glow like fireflies in the dark. They tend to attack in groups, are wickedly fast, and use their luminescence to dazzle the player, flashing in and out of existence as they leap for Geralt’s throat.

Archespores have also been transformed. No longer an awkward arm of cellulose that juts out of the ground, Blood & Wine’s archespores are floral snakes that writhe and twist and hiss as they lash out at Geralt with thorny maws, trying to trip him up with bulbs that explode in a haze of poison gas. They’re still a little bit annoying – there’s something about the idea of being accosted by an angry flower that is innately irritating – but at least now they feel genuinely dangerous as well.

But by far the most impressive monster update is to the Alps and Bruxae. Any titillation that may have derived from their original design has been thoroughly expunged by CDP. These new vampiresses are utterly ferocious. They stalk the lands of Toussaint resembling women wearing a hood and cloak. Yet when they spy Geralt approaching, they immediately vanish, and begin scampering invisibly around the Witcher, cackling at him as they evade his swings and knocking him back with an ear-piercing scream. When they attack, they’re able to cut Geralt down with just a few swipes of their claws. I encountered a single Alp in a ruin while searching for some Witcher gear, and the ensuing fight was one of the toughest I’ve had throughout the entire series.

Why have CD Projetkt returned to these enemies in particular? It seems unlikely that it’s a shortage of ideas, given the plentiful imagination that goes into so much of Blood & Wine. I mentioned the idea of coming full-circle, but I think there’s more to it than fan-service or pointing at these creatures and going “remember these?”

In going back to Geralt’s formative opponents, I believe CD Projekt are exorcising the last of the ghosts lingering from that first game. Since the release of The Witcher, there isn’t a developer on the planet who has worked so hard to prove themselves. With their final instalment of Geralt’s tale, CD Projekt want to show veterans of the series just how far they’ve come since that first game, not simply through the gradual evolution of the series, but with a direct point of comparison that links the beginning of Geralt’s journey to the end.

What better way for an RPG about a monster hunter to bow out than to take the worst monsters it has ever portrayed and turn them into its best? When I played the first Witcher back in 2007, I never thought I’d be sat here, writing about how much I enjoyed fighting one of those dreadful ghost dogs, yet here we are. To me it demonstrates just how wondrously surprising the progression of this series has been, right up until the very end.

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41 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    heretic says:

    I really have to pick this up at some point… my backlog is unmanagable!

    • Stirbelwurm says:

      This is exactly what I was thinking, when reading this. If only Steam was also selling time, to play the games you bought way back when, that’d be something I buy in a heartbeat!

  2. SMGreer says:

    Well said! The Witcher 3’s monster designs (among many other things) are indeed brilliant, especially when you take into the variety as well as the diverse range of inspiration. The way they all manage to feel part of the world yet are all so very clearly from different places is a fine line CD Projekt walked deftly in the third game and as pointed out above, Blood & Wine is a shining example of that.

    The vampires were a real treat in Blood & Wine for me, living up to the build up throughout the series as some of the fiercest foes around. Worth mentioning though, that the weird vampire Katakan’s of the base game are an especially novel take on vampires. My first encounter with one in a pitch black cave was a highlight of my many, many hours with Wild Hunt.

  3. Suits says:

    Didn’t even remember even fighting these monsters in Witcher 1, that’s how forgettable they were I guess. But yeah, they are awesome in 3.

  4. dudelebowski says:

    My stepdad bought the originial Witcher for me when it came out. Loading times were so long you could take a bath and game would still be loading. Then after all that you played this wierd, clunky, bad(?) (after all this years i still don’t know if it’s bad) game. And there was the plot. Oh Lord it was bad! I mean there are great moments but not many. The fact that The Witcher and Assassins of Kings in comparison to the first game makes it even worst.

    I don’t know about you guys but i hate original witcher for what it did to saga. SPOILERS ALERT! Geralt and Yennefer died at the end of last book and now they are back i guess? Not really?

    It’s so good to see how far CDP came with this franchise.

    I’m sorry for my bad grammar English is not my native language. I hope you understand what i’m trying to say :)
    Thanks for great article!

    • SlimShanks says:

      This is interesting, because I have played all three games, love them all, and I think that the first one has the best story. It’s a slog, involving too much running from place to place, but it’s writing is brilliant every step of the way.

      • dbreed says:

        Can you elaborate on what makes the story so great? I’m not trying to be confrontational, but I honestly don’t understand why the first game gets such high marks when it comes to writing.

        • Zaraf says:

          Several memorable quests. The plot behind the first chapter (the beast and its barghest friends summoned by the acts of the villagers), the detective quest in chapter 2, the brides in the 4, the final revelation about the identity of the main antagonist (which made him a more interesting antagonist than the wild hunt imo).

    • Booker says:

      Jesus, Sherlock, Gandalf, Geralt. They all did it. What’s so bad about Geralt pulling a Gandalf and coming back? I’m glad they did it instead of coming up with a generic Witcher instead.

    • Phantom_Renegade says:

      I think you might need to read the last book again. They didn’t die, they were saved at the last moment by Ciri, who left them in Avalon.

      • froz says:

        Of course they died. It was a metaphor, not to be read literally.

        • Isengrim says:

          Who’s to say that? It was totally ambiguous, no evidence either way… I don’t believe Sapkowski ever spoke on the topic.

    • Premium User Badge

      hemmer says:

      In the books it’s left rather ambiguous if they die or live, which seems intentional.

      As for the first game being bad…well yeah it was, at least mechanically, but most of that was fixed with later patches.

      I found it extremely well-written though, having read the books it’s astounding how many details they put in without it being overcrowded or boring exposition. And the characters are just spot-on.

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        It was the obscene difficulty spikes that made me quit the first one, along with the sheer amount of running around you had to do in between tiny little bits of plot.
        Oh, and having a difficult fight with the nearest save point before an skippable cutscene was really annoying.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Especially the reveal about the big antagonist which some players might have missed at the end of the first game was ingenious.
      Apart from that the story was standard fare.

  5. carewolf says:

    But if they are decent fights in the Blood & Wine, that means they have been level-scaled completely out of the range of sanity, automatically making them break all lore surrounding them and also rendering them completely idiotic because any one of them could take on the entire Wild Hunt single handedly.

    • FeloniousMonk says:

      Man, you’re hard to satisfy. I admit that there are some titles that manage the “Bigger! Faster!” realities of leveling continuity more gracefully than TW3… Throne of Bhall comes to mind… But the whole idea of Blood and Wine is to spend a few quieter moments with Geralt in his dotage, something that would not at all be permitted by this philosophy. On the one hand, those centipedes are hella OP. On the other hand, Geralt is hella old. Maybe just assume that every additional level is another year of age in witcher equivalent? My Geralt would be 43 or so by that standard. Not bad for a 43 year old!

      • Booker says:

        Witchers can easily make 400 years if they aren’t killed before (Vesemir was close to 400 and he could still fight and everything), so Geralt isn’t really THAT old with his 100 years.

    • k47 says:

      What you are talking about is static level scaling, so that theoretically, yes, you could spawn with a console a lvl 47 spirit dog (from the expansion) that would maybe kick a lvl 35-ish final boss’ ass (from the vanilla story) or at least give it a run for its money.

      Not to confuse this with dynamic level scaling, which, depending on how it’s capped, upscales and/or downscales enemies to your level so they are a relative challenge at any level (Witcher 3 has this option as of one of the latest patches, and it only upscales.)

      Now, I have my grudges with leveling systems that The Witcher 3 and so many other RPGs use, but to associate a gameplay mechanic with lore and call it idiotic is like missing the point almost intentionally. I mean, if you take it that seriously, a lvl 50 Geralt would have already broken the lore by himself by being able to utterly destroy low level “epic” monsters in one hit or sign use that can’t even put a scratch on him.

      At most what a game can do is try it’s best to not present you with these scenarios. I’d argue that TW3 doesn’t exactly succeed at this, but it’s a far cry from “rendering them completely idiotic”.

      • carewolf says:

        I would just have prefered the content to spawn at a lower level, or run more like a mini sequel restarting a bit. It would still be a suspension of disbelief. I just don’t like the spongy feel of level scaled monsters. It doesn’t matter if they are statically scaled, they are still sword thrust sponges. Though I guess it is whole lot better than bad, it is still Witcher3 and very good, and at least it is not 34th level drowners like in first expansion which was really disappointing as I felt I had outgrown drowners and really didn’t want to fight drowners that was suddenly fire resistent and sword thrust sponges.

    • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

      Welcome to Suspension of disbelief’s anonymous. I know we’re all here because we take fictional games too seriously, and this 12 step course will help you overcome the lore monkey that’s nestled so firmly on your back. Who would like to share today? Carewolf? You have your hand up?

  6. Kestrel says:

    I’m in love with Blood and Wine. The whole game, in totality, just might be my favorite RPG of all time, dethroning Chrono Trigger. But I gotta say, archespores and centipedes are utterly annoying to fight. Also the arachnids. They’re not necessarily difficult, just painfully annoying.

    The vampires are difficult fights, since even if you’re overleveled, a couple mistakes can be extremely costly.

    • Harvey says:

      Ugh, those arachnids. If my Geralt comes upon them in an open field, he rides right on by.

  7. Booker says:

    I always thought they went to Toussaint with this last part of the game because they also were in Toussaint in the last book of the series, the tower of swallows (or whatever the english title is called). But that’s a nice interpretation of it that didn’t occur to me.

  8. It's not me it's you says:

    I played and, warts and all, loved W1. I got stuck in act 2 of W2 (after endlessly losing to that bald bastard – eventually I won though) and W3 I cannot manage to get combat comfortable for love or money.

    I want so badly to play this game and enjoy the setting and story and whatnot, but the combat just consistently kicks my ass. There’s a game with a challenge and a game where any random bandit group will rip me a new one.

    The thing that sticks in my craw about it is I don’t learn anything from the deaths – I can’t work out what I did wrong, what I should do better next time, what skills I should invest in, et cetera. Geralt just feels like a paper man with a sword made of twigs. I even went looking for videos that explained the combat system to me in a way I could use and didn’t come up with anything.

    Anyone have any ideas?

    • Enkidum says:

      Try a barrel roll.

    • UncleLou says:

      Block! Block! Block! Can’t stress how important that is.

      Also, use Quen.

      I didn’t find it difficult, but it’s never really fun. It’s such a shame that this otherwise so brilliant, brilliant game is let down by such weak core mechanics. The Witcher with, say, Dragon’s Dogma’s combat would basically be the best game ever.

      • Premium User Badge

        hemmer says:

        I practically never block and only quen for specific encounters.

        Different playstyles I guess, I play a hybrid Fast/Sword+Sign build, for me the small dodge is the most important thing, had to learn early on that the dodge roll is a bad idea in most sitution and the sidestep is just godly.

        Friend of mine played full sign, which is apparently easy as fuck, ploughed through the game on death march, so you might try that. Igni with high sign intensity kills most everything. BURNING GOLEMS!

        I definitely had more trouble than him, but it was also more exciting, so there’s that. =)

        Other than that, using different signs and bombs on enemies (sometimes even those not recommended by the bestiarium) can work wonders.

    • UncleLou says:

      Just had a horrible thought – you realized you need to *equip* skills you have picked, right? Just making sure because a mate played it for 15 hours before I explained that to him. :)

    • Naum says:

      The Ekhidna decoction is quite overpowered and iirc can be obtained relatively early. It heals you whenever you consume stamina, which combines well with a play style where you engage only when Quen is up and otherwise roll around like a madman. I’ve found that this works very consistently in almost all situations, although it makes the fights very long-winded and boring.

      Later into the game, I’ve found an alchemy build quite entertaining because I could keep up three decoctions at all times, making me near invincible (and the resulting intoxication even gives additional bonuses). However, you probably need a decent selection of good potions and oils for this to be effective.

    • Harvey says:

      Well, the game’s difficulty curve is pretty gnarly at the beginning. I wanted to play on deathmarch (to atone for ragequitting Dark Souls yet again) and at first, had a lot of controller tossing moments.

      As the game progresses it actually becomes easier rather than otherwise, when your potions and gear gets better Geralt starts to become hilariously overpowered.

      I recommend a signs-heavy build to start, for a variety of reasons, but if you’re having difficulty in the early stages the most important reason is that it is probably the quickest build by far to become powerful.

      Every point in signs increases your stamina regeneration, allowing you to keep Quen up.

      the Griffin armor set (a signs-heavy set) is the first Witcher set you can wear.

      Bandits are so much tougher than monsters, but points in secondary Yrden shoots all projectiles out of the sky while also stunning and damaging enemies in range. Aard blows shields out of shield bearers hands. Igni burns everybody else down.

      This build will get you up and running, and if you decide that you no longer like setting whole troupes of bandits aflame in one go you should, by then, have enough points and experience to try any other build you fancy.

      Hope that helps.

  9. Dewal says:

    *This post will contain spoilers*

    I loved Heart of Stones. The main antagonist is extremely creepy and frightening, the missions are fun and diverse… but for Blood and Wine I’m a little more reserved.
    The place is beautiful, the intrigue is thoughtful… but ugh, the people.
    *Spoiler Incoming*
    *Spoiler Incoming*
    I had the ending with everyone dying and even though at first I was frustrated, I finally accepted that they were all raging stupid people and both the vampire and duchesses deserved to die for their stupidity. And I don’t think it’s a good ending when your final thought on the story is “Ugh, whatever”.
    On Heart of Stone, when I let Olgierd get fried by O’dimm, it was the result of both me being frightened by O’dimm and Olgierd kinda deserving it for being an asshole, even though nobody must really deserve having its soul stolen. But in the end I had to live with my choice (and my cowardice) and it was awesome.
    Here, everything happened out of my control (with the unexpected magic ruban saving the criminal mastermind, forcing me to fight with a “not so bad” manipulated criminal) and the Duchess being utterly naive. Even the accepted “good” ending is stupid, with the “not so bad” vampire dying and the bitch sister living peacefully after causing the death of hundred or thousand of people.

    And seriously, although the Bargheist were a nice addition (“Oh, it’s like in the first village with the witch !”), the Archespore were a pain in the ass. It takes 10 minutes to kill, always come in pairs and are EVERYWHERE on the map (ugh, the quest with the rival wineyards…).

    I’m sorry, I had to get all of that out of my chest. I loved the Witcher 3, I loved Heart of Stones and Blood and Wine was supposed to be the best of the best, not the worst of the three. I enjoyed it a lot but it still a big let down comparing to what it was supposed to be.

    • Harvey says:

      SPOILERS!
      SPOILERS!
      OHGAWD SPOILERS!

      If you hated her so much, why did you buy that ribbon for her? :) If you don’t think the vampire is so bad, you do have the option to let him live.

      Spoilers above.

      • Dewal says:

        *MORE SPOILERS – Seriously, why are you reading this thread if you didn’t play*

        I was trying to be nice with her because I wanted her to confront the vampire and not flee. I didn’t trust her and was trying to manipulate her to trust me (in my head, having her being killed by the vampire was the plan all along, she deserved it so much). I didn’t knew the ribbon would be magic and ruin my plans.

        As for the Vampire, I don’t remember having the possibility to spare him. I’m not sure if in the heat of the moment I would have, though. His final transformation was a bit frustrating to handle, with a lot of deaths on my side.

        • Zaraf says:

          Actually, you only get the possibility to spare the vampire if you don’t get the ribbon.
          Btw, what Olgierd did to deserve his “bad ending” fate ? He just got tricked by O’dimm.

  10. JFS says:

    Ugh, was that header image really necessary…

  11. BenWH says:

    It’s become terribly fashionable to pan W1, so it’s easy to forget what an excellent game it was despite the shameful state of the original translations. A few naked cards have offended sensibilities (seriously, is this the worst thing in games?) and buried so much that was good about the game – a game which, had it really been so bad, would never have been such a massive success out of nowhere, nor spawned what came after.

    I remember the first combats with the barghests fondly – they were different, and so was the fighting system (far more so than the constant rolling of W2). I am prepared to concede my initial love of W1 was in the context of that time and it might not stand up well, and unlike W3, I never made it to the end, but credit where it is due, just like W3 now, in size, scope and innovation it was a huge step forward. The real difference is CDProjekt have learned so much that W3 is as close to perfect as a game of this sort can be, whilst W1 was a long way off – but still ahead of all the competition.

    • misho8723 says:

      Yeah, exactly.. TW1 is not somewhat dated, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game.. it’s a more PCRPG game than modern RPG that are TW2 and TW3, but in my opinion the atmosphere and music are the best in TW1 + Eredin and the whole Wild Hunt are better written in TW1 than in TW3 in which they don’t even have any depth and complexity which they should have.. politics are too simplified in TW3 compared to TW1 but mostly in comparison to TW2..I love all Witcher games but TW1 is going to be always my number 1 just because it has atmosphere that none other games has – atleast that’s mine opinion.. and the combat isn’t as bad as people make it out to be

  12. TheRealHankHill says:

    I can’t get through the first section of The Witcher 1, combat is so boring.

  13. Murdock says:

    Its always a pleasure to ckick on a article related to Witcher series. All you see reading the comments, are positive opinions. Compliments, and people saying how much they enjoyed this masterpiece of RPG.

    I just hope, we can see a game that can make us FEEL it again in the future (Cyberpunk 2077, maybe?!). But I am certain it will not happen very soon.

  14. Zaraf says:

    I enjoyed B&W monsters as well, especially the fact they got more diverse patterns than in the original game. The alps/brouxes are particularly fun to fight.

    However I don’t think the problem in the first game was bad monster design. It’s just the whole combat system which was not very satisfying.