In 2015, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt took the video gaming world by storm. With the new console generation in full swing, The Witcher 3 was the immersive gaming experience that many players had really been waiting for. Plus with CD Projekt RED’s Witcher video game franchise making the transition to PlayStation, that just provided even greater exposure to the adventures of Geralt of Rivia. Hearts of Stone marks the first major expansion for The Witcher 3. CD Projekt RED provided a free DLC program for players, with some additional side quests and story-based missions, but this was something far bigger. In Hearts of Stone, Geralt of Rivia is set on a new quest and matched against a new dark adversary who is quite possibly more evil and sinister than anyone Geralt has faced before.
In terms of its overall scope and story, Hearts of Stone may have better writing than the main campaign of the game at launch. It’s essentially a fairly self-contained story. However, depending on the progress of the a player’s current session, events of the Hearts of Stone can be referenced or noticed by NPCs in the main campaign and vice versa. What makes Hearts of Stone so interesting is that at the center of its story is a dark and tragic love story between Olgierd von Everec and his wife Iris. The strings are being pulled by a seemingly random NPC players encountered earlier in the game, Gaunter O’Dimm aka Master Mirror aka The Man of Glass. O’Dimm is quite possibly the most intriguing and terrifying character who has ever been introduced in the franchise. He can manipulate time like it’s a toy. He believes that human lives are nothing more than chess pieces. He’s the ultimate game master, and he always wins. This is someone that Geralt of Rivia could never hope to outmatch in an actual fight. There’s a suggestion that O’Dimm could be Satan or the Devil, but there’s an equal suggestion that he’s something far worse. O’Dimm could be evil incarnate, or he could be an Elder God of the universe like Cthulhu. It’s equally terrifying that the game never truly shows all of its cards with Gaunter O’Dimm.
The amount of new material for Hearts of Stone came off as fairly robust. Besides the new story chapters, there are a number of new side quests and also areas on the world map to explore. There isn’t a completely new country like there will be with Blood and Wine, but the ability to explore areas of the world map that were restricted beforehand is nice. Where Hearts of Stone really shines is through the variety in the amount of new material the expansion offers. Geralt will fight wayward specters, attend a wedding, play party games, take part in an auction and then he will even get to organize a high-stakes heist. The heist quest with “Open Sesame!” was above and beyond one of the best things to come out of The Witcher gameplay experience. Geralt gets to be part of a classic heist mission, complete with a fun round-up montage like in a heist film. It’s here where CD Projekt RED gets very clever and is clearly having a lot of fun. That sense of fun is infectious for Hearts of Stone.
Another instance will have Geralt uncovering the mystery behind what happened to Olgierd and his wife. This gameplay sequence was somewhat reminiscent of Resident Evil, completely with a mute and ghastly guardian without a face called the Caretaker. Coupled with the heist quest, these new stages offered a style and experience that was different from the game at launch too. The revelations Geralt uncovers as he tries to piece what tore a once loving couple apart are downright Shakespearean.
The romance for Hearts of Stone sees the return of a popular character with Shani, a significant character from the first Witcher video game, who finally makes her return here. Getting to interact and hang out with Shani again was another great part of this expansion. She’s another strong, fully realized female presence and partner to Geralt. The scenes where they interact are some of my favorite in the game, along with the scenes where a wily spirit possess Geralt’s body and attempts to woo and seduce her. Shani is a great addition to the game through this expansion, and there is a great sense of closure for the relationship that had been missing beforehand. The integrity of a character like Shani is impressive. She is someone who chose to go into the medical profession in a land that seems to constantly be at war and filled with strife. The connection she shares with Geralt is beyond compelling.
The great thing about Hearts of Stone is that if players were collecting all the master crafted armor throughout the main game, Hearts of Stone will provide some harder enemies and challenges. In particular, the toad monster boss fight was quite challenging. Thankfully, there are some new weapons and armor sets that can be obtained through playing the expansion. The Viper school armor provides a nice boot and immunity to poisons. Still, playing through the expansion doesn’t seem like it will raise your level about two places higher.
One of the enticing new features for Hearts of Stone is the addition of the Runewright. After meeting the Runewright, Geralt can go on quests to help build up and finance the Runewright’s operation. Once that’s done, the Runewright will affix permanent enchantments on Geralt’s weapons and armor. These enchantments include perks like preserving armorer’s table and grindstone bonuses, armor deflecting all arrow shots, etc. It can be quite expensive to buy some of these enchantments. As a result, selling backlogs of items and getting all those extra abandoned smuggler caches in Skellige are a must. Some of the enchantments from the Runewright are nice, but I also prefer using some of the runes instead.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone is really one of the better major expansions ever released for a game. After having such an experience for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that was absolutely sublime, it’s great continue these adventures with Geralt. It seems Blood and Wine could very well top the flavor of Hearts of Stone as it will provide players with a completely new area built from scratch to explore.