Role playing games live or die on the quality of their storytelling. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt succeeded at balancing a weighty, overarching adventure hook with interesting stuff to do outside of the main adventure. You’re always given opportunities to either dictate the direction of the story or to let your ingenuity shine in combat. Playing as Geralt of Rivia never felt dull nor did it feel tedious.
But not every single quest or character was perfect. In a game this size, you’re bound to come up against some dud storylines, but The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt manages to keep that to a minimum. Why? The writing and characterisation was deep, methodical and yet agile. The writers would often eschew the obvious trope for something better. Also while the production values for the cut scenes aren’t at the level of a Naughty Dog game, they weren’t taken for granted either. Each story feels as if it has been carefully plotted and then presented in game for maximum effect.
The Hearts of Stone expansion pack might start to seem a little quaint and an unnecessary deviation from the sheer amount of quality questing that exists in the base game. Content that many players may not have even reached yet. In fact, on the surface this expansion appears to be a lot more Witcher 3 for you to play.
Having a good game extended by another ten plus hours is not in and of itself a bad thing. But for players looking for a radical departure from the base game, they will be disappointed. Instead, Hearts of Stone builds on the pillars of Wild Hunt’s strengths and distils that experience into a worthy self-contained adventure. While there have been some changes and improvements, they tend to be subtle, but thankfully where it counts.
After kicking off the Hearts of Stone campaign with a monster contract in the sewers of Oxenfurt, you’ll come up against one of the new monsters that have been added to the roster of things to not get killed by. Since Hearts of Stone is designed for level 30 and above, the encounters feel more deadly, which adds to the tension of being a professional monster slayer. Patterns of attack that might have worked in Wild Hunt can be nullified by a monster’s ability to stay out of your silver sword’s range, often while taking a chunk of your health with it. You’ll need to expand with the times and learn new strategies for taking down enemies.
Hearts of Stone introduces ‘Runewords’ and ‘Glyphwords’ to help you devise new tactics in combat. These enchantments apply to any of your weapons and armour that have three slots. The upgrade also comes at the cost of those slots, making the effect permanent. You will receive buffs that go beyond the normal limits of the game and when chained together can provide a powerful level of customisation for Geralt and his gear.
One example is the Glyphword Deflection, which imbues your armour with the ability to deflect all arrows. This means you can now free up ability points from that skill (particularly if you weren’t keen on investing in combat skills) and can focus more heavily on skill trees that matter to you. By combining Geralt’s abilities with the right gear, you can either compliment your approach to combat or ameliorate the vulnerabilities of your skill tree.
The other significant reason why you would play the expansion is for all the new stories and adventures that have been added. The main story pivots and weaves around a complicated figure, the immortal prince turned bandit captain Olgeird von Everec. Geralt is forced to fulfil three of his wishes after striking a bargain with the shady Gaunter O’Dimm. However, the wishes that Olgeird has set for Geralt are deliberately obtuse and impossible to carry out. This pushes Hearts of Stone in to some unusual situations that really deviate from the tried and true fantasy playbook.
During one of those impossible wishes, you’ll be drawn into a high stakes heist on one of the Northern Realms most secure and infamous family vaults. Geralt has to choose the crew, convince them to join, often for quid-pro-quo and then execute the steal under cover of darkness. This is all to be accomplished without drawing the attention of the Redanian army. This quest shows how flexible Geralt’s adventures can be in the right hands and that fantasy tropes aren’t always the best option for building a quest.
In fact, Hearts of Stone seems set on softening the edges of Geralt’s personality and questioning the dogma that Witchers have no capacity for human emotion. Later in the game, you’ll attend a wedding with Shani that shows Geralt in a lighter and more jovial mood. He’s also flirts outrageously with Shani throughout the wedding feast. If that sounds weird, that’s because Geralt agreed to be possessed by a dudebro ghost for the evening. The experience leaves Shani wishing Geralt could express himself more. In fact, Geralt resembles Olgeird in some ways.
In contrast, Olgeird’s immortality, courtesy of Gaunter O’Dimm, has left him callous, indifferent and cold. It was an unacceptably high price that he paid for the bargain. Much like the Bloody Baron, we’re presented with a grotesque and dark figure of nobility, cursed with a tragic history of his making. Over the course of the game, you’ll discover Olgeird’s past in great detail and learn his reasons for going to such extraordinary lengths. What you make of the man will set the compass for the end game. It’s a decision that feels like it adds real weight to the trajectory of the narrative.
Hearts of Stone is here to extend the life of a critically acclaimed game by distilling the best elements of the base game into this expansion pack. You get a compelling main story with complex characters, extra side quests, monster contracts and the option to experiment with an additional layer of customisation. While what works in the base game has not been radically altered, there is enough refinement along with the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s signature storytelling to make this game worth checking out.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone Expansion was reviewed on PS4 using a publisher provided code.