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.