Also on: PS4, PC
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Developer: CD Projekt RED
To date, much has been said about The Witcher 3, and most of it's been rather good. It's both a wonderfully-constructed open-world game which runs well, and one with generally satisfactory gameplay, but if there's one point of praise that stands out of the series as a whole, it's the writing. The folks at CD Projekt RED have a firm grasp on the Witcher universe, and have never wasted a player's time with dialog nor written word — an impressive feat when considering how much of it may go unnoticed, or even how low the bar is set for game writing in general.
It is for this reason that the Hearts of Stone expansion (being the first of a planned two) is tricky to discuss, as the content is largely story-based, but luckily for anyone who enjoyed The Witcher 3, it's a satisfactory story-based chunk of questing that's well worth their time.
I'll leave it at that, for anyone who wants an idea of the general value based on an aspect of the game, and continue ahead with a warning that light spoilers await.
Picking up at around level 30, the best way to describe where players exist at the tail end of The Witcher 3, Hearts of Stone adds a few new quests to a notice board where some DLC-excusive contracts await. Among these minor quest additions, we're introduced to some new and old faces, beginning with the introduction of the bandit Olgierd von Everec and his request that Geralt slay a beast in some nearby sewers. Aside from the care put into Olgierd's design and voice acting, it's a by-the-book quest that perfectly hits the spot after coming off the game a few months ago, and even reminiscent of Witcher 1-style contracts — running around the sewers to kill some thing that's been eating some people for a reward hopefully worth your time.
Or perhaps it's Shani's return that harkens back to the first game, as Geralt's brief run-in with her when starting the quest reintroduces her to the series. Back in the day, things didn't go so well between Shani and I, and a lesser developer probably would have shoehorned some relationship decision dialog in Hearts of Stone to re-establish that, but in The Witcher 3, the past is the past and adults move on with a better understanding of themselves. More on that later.
Upon slaying the beast, Geralt soon finds a simple task becoming less simple and likely ending a lot later than expected — or at least as long as being in another jail cell could last. It's between a rock and a hard place that Hearts of Stone calls back to May of 2015, (re)introducing Gaunter O'Dimm, a character who — and I look forward to replaying The Witcher 3 some day to see this play out — claims to have played a key part in White Orchard when Geralt was searching for Yennefer. While I'm sure someone has written a Wikipedia entry or put a video on Youtube about the verification of O'Dimm being in White Orchard at Witcher 3's beginning, it's a delight to see a game sneak someone totally forgettable into a major quest planned far in advance. Before we're finished asking "Who?" and "Really?", we've got no other choice but to believe him and take a helping hand.
It's beyond this point that Gaunter O'Dimm's interest in helping Geralt reveals the fine print we've been waiting for, and exposes some sinister dealings between O'Dimm and Olgierd which now involve Geralt as a proxy. There's something uniquely Cold War about the ongoing standoff between O'Dimm and Olgierd, in that as a third party it's not clear who's more dangerous for quite a while, and still keeping in line with the Witcher universe, both parties ultimately turn to you to pull the trigger aimed at the other.
CD Projekt RED's knack for stitching Geralt into other people's problems is rare in that even in their most basic contrivance, it still feels earned somehow. Maybe it has to do with this work being a part of Geralt's job, but whatever the extra oomph is behind their storytelling, the story and scenarios in Hearts of Stone have a great layering to them that stands out among game writing, and most writing in general. One particular part of the DLC involves a wedding reception where Geralt kills two birds with one stone by attending as a guest — a fairly lighthearted task. While the immediate goal of having a good time is of primary concern, we're reminded halfway through that this is a brief holiday from the feud between O'Dimm and Olgierd thanks to O'Dimm sneaking himself into the celebration. Whether this character's intent is malignant or not has yet to be determined at this point, but his mischievous nature is a great counterpoint to what could otherwise flounder into a paint-by-numbers relationship subplot with Shani — only for the evening to rediscover the importance it deserves once he departs. By the time the this section's last few cutscenes have resolved, we've recharged our batteries and return to the quest with a sober head.
As mentioned, Hearts of Stone has a handful of contracts, treasure hunts, and side quests for players to pad out their time without exhausting the main quest, but it also introduces some new loot and the Runewright — a new craftsman who can enchant weapons with Runewords and Glyphwords. While this may hold potential for some players, I hardly used the guy despite having fully expanded his store. At the very least, he's there now and gives some more flexibility to customizing equipment, but as someone who never fiddled around much with runes, served to serve no real purpose aside from completing the quest of giving him enough money to call it a day.
It's difficult to find issues with Hearts of Stone as a singular piece of content, but it is worth mentioning that with the game set at its highest difficulty, Death March, many battles become protracted exercises in dying and loading the most recent save file. I was disappointed to have finished The Witcher 3 on this difficulty only to lower the setting in order to progress at a reasonable pace for review purposes. There's no point in playing Hearts of Stone on the hardest setting if you're achievement-hunting, and it's worth bypassing an unbalanced difficulty level for the tradeoff of actually making progress over having your pride hurt.
When it comes to Hearts of Stone, as with most elements of the Witcher universe, it's the writing that comes first. In this expansion, we're treated to characters who walk between shadows, uninterested in the Geralt's future outside of whether he's a useful pawn, and this makes for an interesting dynamic throughout the unraveling of O'Dimm and Olgierd's dealings. With a healthy dose of humor and perfunctory characters, the little moments that we find so meaningful are just as equally regarded as detours to the main plot, which for me has always balanced this fantasy game incredibly well. There's lots to do, with at least 15 hours of core content for those sticking to the main plot, and more importantly for the next expansion, a bar has been set for what players could expect.