How expansions should be done.
If the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was about a heroic adventure, then Hearts of Stone is about lessons. On the surface, it presents the age old adage of “be careful what you wish for.” How the things we desire come with irreversible side effects. There are those walking around who feel they know exactly what would make their lives perfect, only to find out that they have to give up so much more then they every bargained for.
But Hearts of Stone has another lesson that really pushes the player throughout the adventure all the way up until the end. Where Wild Hunt makes it easy to play the hero, even with its sometimes questionable situations, Hearts of Stone makes no option clear. You are tasked with helping an individual who isn’t what he appears to be, but your target is yet another man with a dark cloud hanging over him.
How does one be a hero when it seems like nobody is worth helping? How far are you willing to go to fulfill the wishes of a man you find absolutely deplorable? These are the questions Hearts of Stone asks players through its lengthy campaign as it introduces you to characters tied together by the desire of a single man.
These characters are easily the best to have graced The Witcher 3. Your quest starts with a contract from one Olgierd von Everec. A fallen noble who is now notorious for his “adherence to the laws of hospitality” and criminal escapades with his band of vagabonds. An introduction that seems as routine as every other deal Geralt has made up to that point sends the player into a series of event that must be followed through or they’ll lose something even more valuable then they could imagine.
One thing Hearts of Stone does really well is that there is no clear antagonist. You meet Olgierd and he certainly isn’t revealing everything, but as you play through the expansion you find out interesting things about the man with the horrible scars. Some of these things will make you hate him, others will place you in a realm of understanding, blurring the lines between what’s wrong and what’s right.
Then there’s Master Mirror, the Man of Glass. To call him a man fails to encompass everything that he is, but to call him a mere demon does him a disservice. He is clearly not a good person, but that doesn’t necessarily make him evil. After all, how evil can someone who gives you exactly what you ask for be?
Of course, Hearts of Stone is more than just its characters and story. When playing a Witcher game, the act of embarking on an adventure is equally as important, and Hearts of Stone provides a very solid one. The main quests place Geralt in some interesting situations.
Hunting a fairy-tale beast kicks off this expansion and is followed by events no less…weird. Attending a party where you must work hard to have the time of your life, gathering a team to obtain a mysterious object, and journeying through other worlds and realms provide an intriguing ebb and flow to the whole affair.
Just like in Wild Hunt, missions don’t just revolve around Geralt bloodying up his sword, but Hearts of Stone goes even further with a heavier focus on story and inspection. There are fights (don’t worry about them completely eliminating combat), but they only present themselves when necessary, not as padding. Geralt will instead explore not only the world, but the thoughts and motives of those he now has to deal with.
When you do have to fight, though, it’s exhilarating. There aren’t too many open world enemies thrown into the mix (although spiders are an addition I’m sure many would’ve slept better without), but the bosses in Hearts of Stone each present an interesting challenge. Whether it’s dealing with a constantly healing, faceless monster or battling nightmares incarnate, no two encounters are the same.
You won’t get any clues prior to these fights, either, which makes each scenario a tense learning session as you employ several different strategies all while trying to keep alive. The rewards for success are worthwhile, as well. For instance, you’ll acquire an interesting steel weapon that looks a bit unwieldy but provides a powerful perk.
Then there’s the addition of the runewright. This interesting merchant from the Ofieri lands is able to use those runes and glyphs you’ve undoubtedly acquired to imbue powerful perks into your weapons and armor. It’s an interesting way of increasing Geralt’s power and fighting ability outside of just leveling up through quest after quest.
Not everything in Hearts of Stone is a step up, unfortunately. Where the combat encounters and main narrative shine, the side activities are lacking. This is not a sense of there not being enough. There are quite a few side quests and treasure opportunities. But when compared to the Main Quests, or even to the side offerings of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, they are fairly mundane.
There are very few investigations, and even less hunting opportunities. Most boil down to “walk to place A, find some information, then return to your client.” There is a bit of narrative that you can dig for in these situations, but hardly enough to warrant being distracted from the solid campaign.
It’s a good thing that main quests are broken down into so many smaller, yet highly engaging, objectives. Each one providing an option for the player that can change how the events of this first major expansion unfold. Players are given control even up to the very end of the tale.
All in all, Hearts of Stone is something special with very few shortcomings. A thrilling story, interesting characters, and terrifying encounters make for something that should have fans eagerly looking towards the future. With this being the smaller of the two planned expansions and being as expansive as it is, one can only await the next one, Blood and Wine, with bated breath. CD Projekt Red have gone above and beyond in providing something truly new.
Hearts of Stone never feels tacked on at any point, and although the side activities are a bit lackluster there are more than enough highs to make the singular low seem insubstantial. This is a true expansion, one that builds excellently on the already amazing base game. CD Projekt Red did an amazing job with this one and kept true to their word that they would only charge if worth it. The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone is most definitely worth it and a testament to how an expansion should be done.
• Story is amazing.
• New characters are a joy to meet.
• Plenty of player choice within the story.
• Side quests aren’t as grand as before.