The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is easily one of the best games released not only this year but this generation. CD Projekt Red not only delivered on its promise of a vast open world experience that you can spend over a hundred hours in, and still not experience everything it has to offer, but also on its commitment to support the game after its release. Throughout the year, the Polish developer has released no fewer than sixteen chunks of free downloadale content, which is quite a feat considering most other triple-A titles milk the fans for everything they’ve got.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone is the game’s first paid expansion, and it’s one piece of DLC that you definintely won’t mind paying for. Adding over ten hours of extra content that not only expands the world of the Witcher but brings with it some nice added features, Hearts of Stone can be experienced in three different ways. Firstly, it allows you to jump into the expansion from your last save, which may leave you a little overpowered depending on your level. Secondly, you can restart the entire story from the beginning. Finally, you can jump straight into the expansion without playing the full game. By selecting this option, the game sets you up at level thirty and gives you pre-selected armor and abilities.
Hearts of Stone begins when you pick up a monster contract from the Seven Cats Inn. This contract sends you to the northern part of Novigrad which is mostly blocked out in the Wild Hunt. Geralt sets forth to meet Olgierd von Everec who is presented as the main antagonist, and is easily one of the most complicated characters the franchise has seen. Upon accepting Olgierd’s request to slay a monster Geralt is thrust into one of the most exceptionally thought out stories I have experienced this year. I would go as far as to say the story in Hearts of Stone is better than that of the Wild Hunt.
I don’t want to spoil anything in the story, but it’s presented in a more interesting and darker tone than one might imagine. Although the world of The Witcher is that of fantasy, its story is more like something we would see in horror movies today. With its own version of heaven, hell, demons and demonic possessions the narrative hits close to home, if of course you believe in this stuff. Hearts of Stone also brings back some past characters, such as Shani who will easily win over fans of the franchise, along with another rather important character you encountered back in White Orchid. It also introduces a new race called the Ofieri who I’m sure will play a much bigger role in the game’s second expansion next year.
The story also brings a lighter tone to Geralt thanks to the return of fan-favorite Shani who was last seen in the first Witcher title. The red headed medic makes her much anticipated return to the Witcher world and does so in great fashion. Shani asks Geralt to accompany her to a friends wedding and, without spoiling much, Geralt’s personality takes a much lighter tone which makes for some of the most entertaining dialogue in the game.
Although the wedding brings a nice change to the monster slaying of the Witcher, Hearts of Stone brings with it other great missions like recruiting members for a heist – Grand Theft Auto V style. There also a great sequence that the art team deserves much credit for – all I will say about it is: “have you ever wondered what it would be like to play in a Van Gogh painting?” It’s not all about the story though, as Hearts of Stone brings with it some new Gwent Cards to add to your existing decks, a new crafting system, and some great new monsters and boss fights.
Crafting was a major part in the core title and has received a double-edged addition. Players are now able to take the runes and glyphs they have and combine them to make Runewords and Glyphwords. At first glance the Runecrafting looks great, and delivers some excellent upgrades to your swords and armor but sacrifices the three sockets you already have on your equipment.
These Runes can really overpower the player giving them abilities such as restoring vitality by draining the adrenaline and stamina bar. Another rune allowed me to convert any armor I had to be recognized as heavy armor, or activate Quin before an encounter without costing stamina. You can also use this merchant to add up to three sockets to any of your equipment.
Of course getting such upgrades will cost you, and I mean cost you a lot. In order to get the merchant started on Runewords and Glyphwords it costs five thousand crowns and then doubles when you want to upgrade it to mastercraft. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if money was easy to come by, but it isn’t. It also doesn’t help that crafting a Runeword or Glyphwords costs anywhere between two thousand and five thousand crowns just to make one.
Hearts of Stone introduces some new monsters for Gerlt to slay. Monsters such as the Arachnomorphs. Sure they look like giant spiders but they add a new layer of enemy A.I. The Arachnomorphs attack in groups and protect each other as you go on the offensive. Utilizing hit and run tactics, the spiders attack in groups, and as you go on the offensive they spread out and run from you forcing you to chase them. As you attack one of them the others come to its aid and even shoot webbing to stop you.
Now, let’s talk about the boss fights. Oh boy, the boss fights in Hearts of Stone are great fun. Unlike the core game, where each boss can be killed simply by hacking away and dodging, the bosses here almost require you to use your signs and experiment with different tactics. Those playing on a harder difficulty will most certainly find these fights entertaining. The Caretaker boss in particular is quite good.
Hearts of Stone is how an expansion should be made.The story alone is worth the price of admission, while its cast are instantly memorable and leave you questioning your own moral compass. The new enemies and bosses are a blast to fight, and – despite the high prices – the new Runeword crafting system has strong potential. Hearts of Stone is, quite simply, an expansion owners of the Witcher 3 can’t afford to miss.