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The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone Review – A Prisoner of Contracts

After receiving 16 pieces of DLC and a much welcomed New Game + mode at no cost, having to finally pay for extra content in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt feels weird. But CD Projekt RED is insistent on retaining its high standards of customer satisfaction with its first expansion pack, The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone, delivering up to 10 hours of content for only $9.99. Though it’s rare to see post-release content provide more playtime than most small budget digital titles, Hearts of Stone – unlike Fallout’s Point Lookout or Red Dead’s Undead Nightmare – welcomes players back to the world of The Witcher instead of reimagining the core title’s formula. That said, The Witcher 3’s first expansion pack hardly disappoints, providing more of this well-written, well-realized RPG.

Though the end of The Witcher 3 leaves Geralt’s story open to more witchery with his companions, Hearts of Stone’s narrative is nearly completely removed from the base game outside of a small handful of character references, and one major player that drives the entire story until its very end. Like many of the self-contained arcs withheld in The Witcher 3, Hearts of Stone naturally begins as a mere contract mission where Geralt is tasked with slaying a monster that’s ostensibly become a nuisance. But it’s the second Geralt slays the beast when his routine monster slaying turns into an elaborate contractual binding, and is forced to jump through flaming hoops while bending at the will of others.

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Meet his slave masters: Olgierd von Everec and Gaunter O’Dimm. The former is a new character introduced to The Witcher universe. Hailing from the von Everec family and leading a band of misfits called the “Wild Ones”, von Everec is responsible for hurling Geralt into this mess in the first place. He also tasks Geralt with a number of unreasonable demands that force him to break the laws of time, death, and commerce. He carries himself with a stone-cold swagger that undoubtedly stems from his confidence of being immortal. But as all fairy tales have taught us, immortality comes at a price, and there’s a lot more suffering behind this imposing man than he’d have you believe.

O’Dimm, on the other hand, you may remember from one of The Wild Hunt’s opening missions, Lilacs and Gooseberries. This mysteriously well-informed character from the main game glides into center stage as Hearts of Stone’s most menacing figure. As a vagrant merchant and a man of contracts, O’Dimm (aka the Man of Glass or Master Mirrors) saves Geralt’s life near the beginning of this expansion in exchange for his services to get back at von Everec. Starting out as a mere stepping stone to Geralt’s love interest in The Wild Hunt, O’Dimm is in complete control of the events in Hearts of Stone. In fact, he possesses power and influence so frightening, that you’ll be left wanting to see him again in future Witcher 3 content.

Hearts of Stone introduces new characters and character roles naturally and effortlessly, however its attempt at expanding on the meta-lore by bringing in a new faction is admirable yet incomplete. Enter the Ofier, a new race that has migrated to Velen in search of knowledge in new lands. Those who criticized The Witcher 3’s lack of people-of-color may take notice to the game’s introduction of the Ofier and their clear Arabic influence that isn’t completely demonized as they are in many modern games. While you can surely expect to cut a few of them down, you’ll also get a sense of their culture of philosophers, doctors, mathematicians, thinkers, and knowledge seekers. Even as a black man, I had little expectation that a game based on Polish folklore would feature people of color; but nonetheless, it pleases me to see diverse representation in The Witcher 3. What is disappointing, however, is that the Ofier – a people that can obviously produce a rich history and interesting characters – is painfully absent and only reserved to a damning boss fight and one charming essential shopkeeper. Hopefully more Witcher 3 content will flesh out the Ofieri and explore their roots in greater detail.

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This first expansion pack introduces the Runewright, an Ofieri craftsman that’s capable of adding Runewords and Glyphwords that augment your weapons and armor with more robust properties than your regular runes. While said runes previously only added attributes that offered incremental effects to your equipment, a visit to the Runewright could, for example, add permanence to the enhancement of your weapons and armor or convert life regen into damage against your foes. They’re hardly inexpensive visits however, as even simply initiating business with the Runewright is very expensive. In order to have full access to the entire Rune/Glyphword catalog, you’ll have to fork over a total of 30,000 crowns, not to mention that you may have to buy slots for the Rune/Glyphwords themselves which get more and more expensive with each purchase. It’s hard to imagine that many will have nearly enough crowns to cover the cost from the base game, and unfortunately, the Hearts of Stone expansion itself doesn’t offer that many opportunities to even earn up to over 15,000 crowns.

Instead of scrounging up every coin you can to decorate Geralt in Runewords, your time is far better spent moving forward with the story. Hearts of Stone’s main pillar is built upon a triad of missions that vary in both theme and style. The first of the three illustrates the relationship between Geralt and his old friend Shani, who franchise veterans might remember from the original Witcher. Here, we see a completely different side of Geralt – for reasons I won’t spoil – that unfolds into a character study of the monster hunter as a romantic in a way that’s more honest than his awkward gruff advances towards Yennefer and Triss. This mission even pierces the fourth wall for a moment, asking you to read through Shani’s character profile to learn her likes and dislikes. It all can amount to sex, sure; Hearts of Stone doesn’t seek to change the gamification of video game romance. But putting you (the player) in a position where the end result feels more ‘earned’ than it is protracted, makes this part of the story one of the bravest efforts in The Witcher 3.

The third mission is a highlight as well. Instead of exploring Geralt like the first mission did, it explores the origins and motivations of von Everec himself. It also proves to be the most challenging mission as well, with three high profile enemy encounters that are increasingly more difficult, each requiring a specific strategy in order to defeat them.

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But I refrain from mentioning the second mission because it’s by far the weakest. The set up opens up like a heist from Grand Theft Auto V, where you’re presented with different candidates from the mission. However, in the end, there’s little choice in the matter, and what choice you do have has almost zero impact on the quest as a whole. To prove this, the heist itself is disappointingly limited to strict combat encounters that mostly take place indoors – which were easily some of the most infuriating moments in The Witcher 3 proper. Shuffling around men with shields and men charging with swords still feels claustrophobic and hampering to the Witcher’s otherwise highly engaging combat system.

The remainder of Hearts of Stone’s 10 hours are filled with the same types of side quests you’d expect from The Witcher 3: mini story arcs that are often punctuated with combat scenarios and Witcher Sense ‘detective work’. However there are enough missions that are surprisingly simple when looking at what we’ve seen in the main game. The narratives are less interesting and the jobs themselves can be done rather quickly. Perhaps it’s easier to notice these lackluster quests in 10 hours of content than 200, but proportions matter not as the quality of the missions still feel watered down in comparison.

Ignore the story, and The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone is simply more Witcher 3. The Runewright system is interesting only as far as adding special attributes to your gear, however it’s likely that many players won’t even be able to take advantage of their new features thanks to the high cost. But The Witcher, as much of a granular western RPG it is, is heavily story driven. Side missions aside, the new quest line tries novel story beats that feel distinguishable enough to warrant add-on content, and the characters, particularly Gaunter O’Dimm, simply beg to remain relevant in the Witcher-verse beyond Hearts of Stone. For CD Projekt RED’s first time charging for The Witcher 3 DLC, this expansion pack is a purchase not many would regret.

Back on the horse

CD Projekt RED offers nearly a full game's worth of downloadable content for an affordable price.


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