The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone – Careful what you wish for – Review

Gare – Tuesday, October 27, 2015 8:16 AM
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Dues need be repaid, and he will come for you
All to reclaim, no smile to console you
He'll snare you in bonds, eyes glowin' afire
To gore and torment you, till the stars expire

The Witcher 3 was undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable games we played this year, a fact we made quite clear in our review a number of months back, calling it a new standard to be followed in the realm of open world gaming. That, however, was hardly the end for Geralt of Rivia, professional monster slayer, as CD Pojekt RED announced not one, but two full expansions for the already massive open world RPG – the first of these, titled Hearts of Stone, takes Geralt to a number of thus far unexplored regions in Velen over the course of a brand new adventure of about 10 or so hours. The question is: does it hold up compared to the vanilla campaign?

Well, I won’t keep you in suspense: yes, yes it certainly does. In fact, it does this or that a touch better than the original, but we’ll get to that in due time. Hearts of Stone is an expansion meant for late-game characters of at least level 32 or above, but that doesn’t mean newcomers – or those who still haven’t quite finished the main game – are excluded: the game does give you the option to jump right into the expansion with a pre-made, high-level Geralt custom-tailored for the occasion – additionally, the main storyline’s quests are all disabled if this option is selected, allowing you to basically play through the expansion as a standalone experience.

Evil’s Soft First Touches

The adventure begins with a quest to track down and kill a giant frog creature in the Oxenfurt sewers, but as you may expect, things don’t exactly go as planned, and our ashen-haired monster slayer ends up having to fulfill three wishes of dubious nature for a man who cannot die. If that sounds extraordinary, that’s because it is: Hearts of Stone shifts its tone from fantasy adventure to a carefully crafted supernatural mystery, a change I welcomed with open arms, especially around this time of the year. Indeed, Hearts of Stone’s October release may have been no coincidence at all: one jolly and comic relief-laden wedding scene aside, this new mini-campaign’s storyline appears to be awfully Halloween-ish in nature, complete with a haunted manor, spooky woodlands, tormented ghosts and a storyline that certainly has a darker edge to it this time around. In many ways, Hearts of Stone feels very much like a twisted fairy tale, a witchery version of American McGee’s Alice or the stories of the Grimm brothers, if you will, magical and mysterious and wickedly fascinating. It’s a quality that was already present in the original game, true, but one that is made to shine in this expansion, from that first meeting at the crossroads to the stereotypically fairy tale-esque method Geralt uses to eventually overcome the impossible in the expansion’s finale.

Dead Man’s Party

As a result, Hearts of Stone, I must confess, often felt more intriguing than the vanilla campaign itself, featuring an extremely memorable character who appears genuinely menacing all throughout the narrative. Gaunter O’Dim is precisely the kind of man you should never, ever sign a contract with – a mysterious granter of wishes and collector of debts –, but that’s exactly what happens, and the further you progress the expansion’s storyline, the more evident it becomes that behind the jovial tone and all the smiles, there lurks something truly sinister, something worthy to be feared. That is not to say the whole of the new adventure is without its breathers: the above-mentioned segment, in which Geralt and returning Witcher 1 character Shani both attend a local wedding, allowed the writers of CD Projekt to flex their creative muscles with dialogue and character-building that felt both entertaining, funny and meaningful. Remember that one time in the main storyline where Geralt had the option to attend a party with Triss? Well, this is kind of like that, except ten times more fun, packed full of laughs and personality.

A Gifted Man Brings Gifts Galore

While Hearts of Stone does feature some recurring locales – the city of Oxenfurt, for one –, the vast majority of its campaign will take place on fresh soil, offering fresh content: a decently-sized area to the east of Novigrad, previously inaccessible, is now opened up, revealing a number of new villages, woodlands and plains to be explored, complete with new points of interest and a handful few side quests. Some of these areas won’t even act as a part of the main storyline, but simply serve as atmospheric side regions ripe for exploration – the Deadwight Wood, for example, gives home to a haunted, abandoned castle and some other monstrosities, despite being a completely optional area as far as the expansion’s storyline is concerned. Hearts of Stone also introduces a new crafting mechanic in the form of enchanting (allowing you to apply powerful effects to weapons and armor), as well as several new pieces of gear to fatten your sizable collection with, though how much you’ll actually need this is another question. Nonetheless, the star of the show remains the main storyline, with the handful of side quests and treasure hunts that were thrown into the mix acting more as forgettable filler than anything.

What did, however, prove to be a pleasant surprise was the difficulty. As I mentioned above, Hearts of Stone is an expansion for high-level characters, and this ought to be taken quite seriously: other than a handful new enemies – swiftly charging boars or frustratingly agile spiders –, the campaign also boasts of a few respectably challenging boss fights that were notably more difficult to overcome than even some of the late-game encounters of the original game, which was, all in all, quite the breath of fresh air. If you worry that your fancy late-game equipment and sizable collection of potions and bombs wouldn’t be put to the test, worry not, this expansion has you covered for the most part, especially on the harder difficulty settings.

Hearts of Stone

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone is exactly how I imagined an expansion to a game like this – in fact, it is what most expansions/DLC campaigns should strive to be. At its core, it’s more of what you already liked, but with an extra twist or two to it that makes the whole, self-contained package feel notably different in tone and atmosphere, keeping things fresh even after 120 hours of the original. And if that’s not a true testament to the creative talent at CD Projekt RED, I don’t know what it is.

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