The biggest chunk of Hearts of Stone is it’s narrative, sprawling and driven by player choice, much like the main game its self. However, with its much shorter length (roughly ten hours) the story is much more focused and the threads are a lot easier to follow. It felt very reminiscent of one of the short stories from the first two Witcher books, which despite their relatively short length were still able to deliver some truly brilliant moments. Hearts of Stone does much of the same, and manages to pack so much variety in along the way.
Over the course of the main quest I was led on a road of celebrating at a wedding with a ghost, which was packed full of laughter, to planning a grand heist and then on to being genuinely terrified and creeped out – with further sprinklings of shock, amusement, intrigue and passionate nookie added in along the way. Oh, and Gwent. Lots of Gwent.
Naturally, the complexity and emotional impact of the main story line, as well as the other seemingly insignificant encounters, are hard to really describe with out going into specifics and spoiling it for you. So you’ll just have trust me when I say that it comes close to matching the main game its self.
There’s also a handful of side quests which are equally well written. My favourite was only a very small one, it took five minutes to complete and was comparatively insignificant, but there was a twist that I could have missed all together I hadn’t spotted that something wasn’t quite right and investigating further. It was so, so satisfying to know that I was correct with my assumption. It really summed up why I love The Witcher 3.
All the new and not-so-new characters are what really make Hearts of Stone shine. Starting with the brand new, Olgierd Von Everec is set up as the expansion’s antagonist but, as is everything with The Witcher, it’s far more grey than that. Upon first encountering Olgierd I was immediately struck by his charisma and his moral code, as he forbade one of his men to grope a serving woman.
However, you could also tell that he was an agitated man, one who’d become bored of the life he lived and could spark into a rage at something trivial at any moment. As the story unravels and you learn more of Olgierd, his tragic tale unfolds and the root of his aggravation and boredom becomes clear, making him an interesting character. His Yorkshire accent can do one, though.
Just as immediately memorable, but for different reasons, is Olgierd’s brother, Vladimir – who is potentially one of the funniest characters in all of gaming. From the moment I met Vladimir to his departure, I was constantly sniggering at his crude jokes and gibes at Geralt, and then rolling my eyes every time he’d attempt to pull with one of his cringe-worthy chat up techniques.
There are also some familiar faces in Hearts of Stone as much-loved book character Shani returns, who hasn’t been seen since the original Witcher game. Just like every new character introduced in the expansion, Shani was wonderfully voice acted, and her delicate yet assured words were a lot softer on the ears than Triss’ whine. Her character model was further proof that CD Projekt Red have become masters of detail. The little crease at the corner of her mouth, the countless faded scars, the emerald eyes that had seen so much horror. Truly sterling work.
It’s also great to see another very strong female character introduced into the world of Wild Hunt, to add to the plethora that already exist. I love how she doesn’t need to be a bad ass who knows how to fight or cast spells to be a strong character, too. She knows her role, knows what she wants, knows her strengths and accepts her weaknesses. She may not be able to fight like a warrior, but that doesn’t matter.
Now on to the man who steals the whole show: Gaunter O’Dimm, the Man of Glass, Master Mirror, or as you probably know him, that fella who helps you find Yennefer right at the beginning of the game. I remember thinking it was strange back when I first began Wild Hunt that there was a seemingly pointless NPC that you only spoke to once who had such a unique character model.
CDPR had all of this planned back then, and O’Dimm comes back into the story wonderfully. He seemed like the same chirpy merchant I met in White Orchid at first, but it soon became clear that he possesses powers far greater than perhaps anyone else in the world. He possessed the aura of a man who could do whatever he wanted back then, and now it’s easy to see why.
Despite knowing about his powers, it still wasn’t obvious whether or not O’Dimm was friend or foe, but ever so gradually with every new encounter he becomes more and more sinister. What made him such a compelling villain, other than his seemingly unlimited abilities, is that I still, even now, know very little about him. He’s completely shrouded in mystery which made him truly frightening and easily The Witcher 3’s best villain. It’s testament to the brilliant writers at CDPR that I genuinely want a character from an expansion to be a main antagonist in a full title.
CD Projekt Red also responded to the criticism they received upon the game’s original release over the lack of ethnic diversity in the world by including characters from the distant land of Ofier. These characters may not have had a huge impact on the story, but it’s still very nice to see other ethnic groups represented.
As well as having the best villain in the entire game, Hearts of Stone also has some of the best boss battles too. With in the first hour of play I was tasked to venture down into the Oxenfurt sewers and slay a massive toad. Then later on I had to defeat a creature known as ‘The Caretaker’. Both of these battles were some of the toughest encounters I’ve faced and both of their designs were truly hideous and disgusting. The new enemy type, Arachnomorphs, are also fun to fight due to their mobility and swarm-like fighting tactics.
Alas, Hearts of Stone isn’t without its problems. Just like the main game, technical issues are almost ever present. There were frequent audio issues where background music would be too loud or even nonexistent, during a cut scene the aforementioned massive toad’s body disappeared leaving only its face (which was terrifying) and I seem to be experiencing a bug where letters I need to read to complete quests won’t appear in my inventory – which is obviously frustrating. I also found the new ‘runewords’ system, that allows players to add buffs to weapons and armour by combining existing rune stones, to be an incredibly pricy waste of time and quite underwhelming.
However, these problems did little to undermine the hours of enjoyment I got from Hearts of Stone. This expansion should be the industry standard of how to DLC correctly as it’s incredible value for money and offers genuine new content that you can’t experience from the main game. It doesn’t matter if you’ve completed The Witcher 3 yet or not, Hearts of Stone is marvelous fun and offers you a great reason to get lost in the world again.
Incredible value for money.
Fantastic, varied story.
Rune write system underwhelming.