It’s been one solid year for CD Projekt RED, what with its RPG The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt winning more Game of the year awards than any other game in gaming history and the first expansion, Hearts of Stone, receiving rave reviews from fans and critics alike. Many even consider the expansion as being better than the base game in many ways. Before we dive headlong into Geralt’s last adventure in the upcoming expansion, Blood and Wine , let’s look at what makes Hearts of Stone as amazing as many claim it to be.
The reason for the review coming so late is because of the sheer size of the base game. It is a humongous package, containing hundreds of well written quests that I couldn’t help but dive into, just to see how my actions affected various people in the world. I completed the game a month or so back, with my playtime clocking in at 130+ hours. After seeing and experiencing all that the base game had to offer I decided to dive into Hearts of Stone, a thing I had been looking to do for quite some time.
The game starts off with Geralt happening upon a contract put up by a bandit leader Olgierd von Everec, one of the major players in the story. Long story short, the contract goes awry, Geralt finds himself captured and is being transported to the land of Ofier for execution. However he is rescued by Gaunter O’Dimm on the way and is now indebted to him. Gaunter O’Dimm is a returning character from the base game, whom the players meet at the very beginning of the game, in the White Orchard inn. In order to pay his debt to the mysterious man, he must fulfill three impossible wishes of von Everec who too is indebted to him. Geralt’s effort to fulfill said wishes makes up the rest of the game.
I was instantly hooked by the main story. The base game had a wonderful story to tell, with its myriad of well written characters to meet and quests to complete. However, it also had a few problems. A sense of urgency was forced upon the player. Geralt’s adopted daughter Ciri was being chased by the titular Wild Hunt across dimensions and it was necessary for him to find her before they did. At the same time, Geralt seemed to have all the time in the world to play Gwent with shady characters and rid a village of its monster problems. It is a trope common in many RPGs but to see it pop up in the massive world of The Witcher was certainly disappointing. By the end, the plot too becomes all about saving the world which felt a bit annoying since The Witcher games have always steered clear of such tropes.
Hearts of Stone on the other hand is a self contained story, a much more personal tale involving Geralt. It does not contain any save the world nonsense seen in most other games, and is a look into how Geralt operates on a day to day basis as a monster hunter for hire. How he solves the various problems he comes across on a regular basis. The plot here feels much more focused and intriguing and I just couldn’t leave it hanging for too long, because I was quite excited to see what would happen next both due to Geralt’s actions and various character interventions.
The expansion is 10 hours long, involving some of the best written characters and quests I have ever seen in any game. The characters are varied with their own motivations and personal agendas. Both Olgierd and Gaunter O’Dimm would make for interesting case studies. There’s even a returning character, Shani, who serves as a love interest here. I personally liked her characterization, sometimes more so than Yennefer or Triss. Unlike the sorceresses with whom Geralt regularly interacts, she isn’t uptight or haughty. She is down to earth and much more grounded in comparison to them. She has her own fears and insecurities, but at the same time very much confident in herself and unwaveringly pursues her desires.
Olgierd can be considered as the Bloody Baron of this expansion. A man who has done some very unpleasant things but for whom the player is supposed to feel some degree of sympathy. From the very beginning, he is established as a morally ambiguous individual, someone who is as capable of appreciating pieces of art as he is of destroying them on a mere whim or fancy of his. He is a multifaceted character and an interesting one at that.
The show stealer here though is the mysterious Gaunter O’Dimm. A man who is strangely genial at the surface level, behaving in the most gentlemanly fashion possible but potentially hiding a malevolent personality. He establishes himself as something of a trickster, ahead of everyone at every turn and a force to be reckoned with. Unlike most stereotypical villains he never flaunts his powers or capabilities but with a calm demeanor makes it known that he is capable of a great deal of things unimaginable. Most villains tend to lose their charm over the course of a campaign because their motivations and nature are laid bare before the player, making it somewhat easy to guess their next move. Not so here as you will be left guessing as to what Gaunter O’Dimm’s true nature is even after the conclusion.
Yet another absolutely amazing character is not a living character but a ghost. Geralt has the task of showing him the time of his life and boy is he intent on living it! See, unlike most ghosts in other games where they are presented as characters who were victims of unfortunate events, here he very casually brushes aside the circumstances surrounding his death and makes it known that all he cares about is merry making, horses and women. He is the polar opposite of Geralt, brash, fun loving and lively and his behavior sets up some genuinely laugh inducing scenes in the game.
Also, through him it is shown how lonely and grim Geralt’s own life is. He allows very little room for fun in his life and prefers to lead a solitary existence. During the ghost’s quest-line we see Geralt having fun, letting go of his otherwise quiet nature and generally being carefree. It really made me smile, as I genuinely wanted him to have fun considering the sacrifices he has made and the pains he has endured. When a quest makes you feel this way, the game is certainly doing something very right.
Quests are very well written, with their own little themes. These include stories of treachery, regret, death and redemption. My personal favorite is about an ealdorman and his family and the tragic events surrounding them. It was gut wrenching and sorrowful, and is bound to make players feel uncomfortable due to the theme involved. At the same time it shows that the game isn’t afraid to invoke macabre themes to portray the grim reality that haunts the lives of regular peasants and aristocratic nobles in the world. However players will be doing quite a bit of running back and forth during the quests and they are a little heavy on cut-scenes, taking control away from the player quite often. But the stories involved more than make up for it.
Despite being an expansion to the base game, it doesn’t take the player to any new region or land. New locations have been added to the north of Novigrad to explore with new monsters to tackle, quests to complete and characters to interact with. This might leave some players disappointed as expansions are meant to take the player to new areas with their own inherent characteristics. The locations are varied and a great amount of detail has been put into them, but the expansion as a whole feels like more of the same. Strip away the new content (as in characters and story) and what you are left with looks very similar to the rest of the game in terms of visual design or overall tone. However, for fans looking for more time to spend in the world of The Witcher, this should not be much of a concern.
Gameplay wise there isn’t much of change in the expansion. Certain additions have been made to shake things up like glyphwords and rune-words but in terms of stat boosts and effects they provide, they just don’t feel worth it. Most of the effects are minimal and underwhelming and the cost of some glyphs can be quite high. It might appeal to completionists, but regular players have very little to lose by ignoring them. It feels pretty much like a wasted opportunity.
Boss encounters are much better done here. Where many boss encounters in the base game left me underwhelmed (especially the Wild Hunt ones), here they left me satisfied and impressed. CD Projekt Red seems to have taken a page or two from Dark Souls in terms of boss mechanics and design, because they pack quite a punch here. They certainly aren’t as unique or difficult as the Souls bosses, but they are a delight to tackle nonetheless. They are visually stunning and employ different tactics, dealing punishment wherever a mistake is committed.
During my play through there were two stand out bosses, one of which is optional but which I think players should take on nevertheless. The other proved to be quite difficult and even left me frustrated, but the fight itself was immensely satisfying and the atmosphere stunning. However they don’t use particularly complex moves or transform mid fight like in Bloodborne or the more recent Dark Souls 3 that force you to change tactics on the fly. The players’ approach to them isn’t bound to vary much. Despite this, I would really like to see such encounters being implemented in the upcoming expansion.
The expansion requires players to be level 30 before they can attempt it, but it provides players with the option to jump into right away with a pre-made level 30 Geralt with decent equipment. Many players will prefer to play through the expansion with their own version of Geralt instead of depending on the game to supply them with a pre made one. But I think its a neat little addition for new players and those who might have run into save game issues.
With a surprisingly low price tag and 10+ hours of content to offer, Hearts of Stone is a no brainer for any one looking for more Witcher adventure. It has its fair share of flaws and doesn’t particularly differentiate itself from the base game, but with an intriguing story and a vibrant and deep set of characters, it’s one of the best expansions out there and one which is not to be missed.