“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” A relevant quote, perhaps, as CD Projekt Red releases The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Hearts Of Stone as the first expansion to their ‘Game of the Year’ candidate. If you’re anything like me, then getting out of the clutches of the original game was enough of a problem that it would scarcely have taken much to drag you back in at all…
At no stage since The Witcher 3 released have I gone more than about five days without playing it at least once. The game was truly remarkable and – to this point – has continued to surprise and amaze me with just how much content remains to be found, even hundreds of hours after I first re-took control of Geralt of Rivia. No surprise, then, that the opportunity to dive back in for a brand new story expansion seemed like too good a chance to pass up. But with so much success already piled into the game’s original state, could this expansion really add anything worth paying for?
The set-up is simplistic enough, given that it is taking place in a world of magic, myth and endless political turmoil. Taking Geralt back to the northern areas of Novigrad, we find the Witcher tasked with killing a dangerous and seemingly immortal bandit captain at the request of the mysterious ‘Man of Glass.’ What follows is one of Geralt’s most treacherous adventures to date, lined with deceit, danger and – erm – weddings. With the challenge taken to new heights in Hearts Of Stone‘s ten-plus hour runtime, the developers make no qualms about aiming the expansion strictly at higher level players. And once you dive into the action it’s pretty easy to see just why that is…
What impressed me in the early moments of this new adventure was just how lost it made me feel, despite being in very familiar surroundings. Anybody entering the action at this point will have to have a certain comfort and experience with the mechanics of the main game, but new additions to the existing formula will cause you to find that your faithful strategies and tactics may not be quite so effective anymore.
If Hearts Of Stone marks an evolution for the adventures to be had within the realms of The Witcher 3, then it also has heavy expectation for its players to evolve, too. Consider, for example, new creatures the Arachnomorphs. These baddies will regularly appear in numbers, and in my first encounter with them I tried to call on old experience to pick them off one at a time. Not about to let me succeed so easily, however, the beasts swarmed me each time I tried to single one out, webbing me to slow my movements before chipping away at the defenceless Geralt. Never before had I found myself so panicked in my time controlling the Butcher of Blaviken.
Fortunately, Hearts Of Stone isn’t just about making you feel like you’ve lost all ability to succeed, and it does counter its challenge with a brand new tool for the Witcher’s arsenal. Runewords are the key addition here, allowing you to not only add damage buffs and defence bonuses to weapons and armour, but to enhance the effects of Geralt’s exertions like never before.
Crafted by turning runes and glyphs into ingredients for the words, there are some remarkably useful benefits to be had by utilising them. Placation, for example, is a second tier Runeword that depletes full adrenaline points to boost the regeneration of vitality, stamina and toxicity. Others will boost armour to the point it can deflect all arrows, or even charge Geralt’s swords with the power of the last sign he has cast. The Runewords are a superb addition to the tactical element of how players choose to arm their Witcher and are near indispensable during some of the new challenges posed by the expansion.
The strengths of Hearts Of Stone do not just lie in improvements to the core gameplay, however, and its story and atmosphere are just as impressive. The main quest-line that runs through the heart of the expansion is gloriously decorated with deception, excitement, fantasy and even some chilling horror. The theme of evolution runs deep through this story as well, and players will see a side to Geralt scarcely glimpsed through the arduous journey of Wild Hunt.
Without giving too much away, I can say that the events of this expansion and the return of the character Shani sees Geralt become humanized like never before – his stone-like stoicism being chipped away to reveal a surprising lightness beneath. It’s refreshing to see that a character so set in his ways can present us with something new without ever truly abandoning what has made him so popular for so long.
But I’d be sorely mistaken if I were to suggest Geralt were the only exciting character to appear in this story, and credit has to be given to CD Projekt red for once again filling their world with a vibrant and believable cast of engaging individuals. We’ve mentioned the return of Shani, whose razor wit and sharp mind aid much of Geralt’s own evolution, and she helps the story hit on many of its most impressive emotional beats. Special mention also has to be given to Olgierd von Everec, the ruthless and apparently immortal antagonist that Geralt is tasked with defeating. Olgierd is remarkably charismatic and humorous to a fault, and it wasn’t long before I found him to be an ‘I hate how much I love him’ type of character.
Along those same lines, I actually found that nearly every cutscene in this expansion was more engrossing than some that appeared in Wild Hunt. In the latter stages of my time with the original game, I found myself impatiently skipping some conversations that started to seem needlessly long-winded or downright unnecessary. In Hearts Of Stone, the engaging characters fill each line with vigour and thematic awareness. At times I even found myself disappointed that I had to choose between two polarising responses and that I wouldn’t get to experience all possible conversational threads.
I’d be misleading you, however, if I tried to suggest Hearts Of Stone was perfect. It isn’t, and it’s with near despair that I am unable to call it such. Fortunately though, the flaws of this expansion are – like those of the original game – minuscule and ultimately more than forgivable. At times I experienced the same issues with texture pop-in and other visual problems that I did with Wild Hunt, and did find that an enemy I had defeated was then bizarrely alive and present in the background of a cut-scene conversation. I also have to say that one or two of the mini-games included in the expansion are pointless and annoying, but they are mercifully short enough to become a distant memory once players are released back into the comparative glory of the rest of the story.
Ultimately, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt‘s first paid expansion is a marker by which gamers will come to judge future DLC releases for all titles. For a meagre price it recaptures what was so impressive about the main campaign, before adding a host of new features, stories and themes to re-challenge its faithful players. The ten-plus hours of story content are one thing, but the way this expansion has continued my love affair with the world of The Witcher is somewhat of a triumph. Fans should not hesitate in adding this new quest line to their collection, whilst anyone yet to experience one of Geralt’s adventures can add this to the list of reasons as to why they should.
This review was based on the PS4 version, which we were provided with.
Gaming expansions are somewhat unavoidable these days, but rarely do they feel as worthwhile as The Witcher 3's Hearts Of Stone does. Its superb story is complimented by excellent characters, and there's more than enough new content to make it an essential addition to Geralt's adventures.