There are a few things worth mentioning before kicking off with this review. I have a love and hate relationship with CD Projekt Red. Why love? Well, I'm a Witcher fanboy. I've read all the books, played the first two games at least three times each and Geralt is one of my favorite characters in the fantasy creation. I even have a witcher medallion and am very happy with how CDPR handled the series in a way that got the characters and themes right and proved consistent with the already established universe. Regardless of my feelings about the games, I don't like CDPR too much mostly because of the shameless false advertising which preceded the launch of The Witcher 3, out of which I'll mention the downgrade fiasco and their promise to release Redkit, for which they have recently announced they have no plans. It really isn't cool to tease stuff you're not actually going to release even after delaying the game two times. There's also their gradual transition from PC to consoles - clearly seen in the evolution of the games - since that's where the big revenue comes from. After all, the business that they run and taking care of themselves come as a priority, despite their claims of being gamers just like us. This all may sound harsh and we're not talking about EA or Ubisoft here, but they have been caught lying a few times and more transparency wouldn't hurt.
|Here we go!|
The Witcher 3 is my most played game of the year - clocking in at 165 hours on Steam - and is a title that has surprised me greatly. Simply put, I loved it. It featured an engrossing and emotional story, memorable characters, a beautiful world to explore and superb visuals and music. It also felt very faithful to the books, dismissing my worries that CDPR wouldn't get the characters of Ciri and Yennefer right. However, a closer and more objective look at the game revealed multiple flaws such as the arcade combat system, the low overall difficulty even on Death March, poor itemization and repetitive points of interest that hindered any sense of exploration. All in all, albeit enjoyable, the gameplay was pretty poor and the ending section also felt somewhat rushed. Despite all of these flaws, some of which are quite big, I loved the game and the ending left me feeling grateful to CDPR for ending Geralt's story in a great way. It also left me excited to play the first expansion out of the two that were announced, Hearts of Stone, but also curious to see whether they would manage to address the issues from the base game.
Now let's get going with the actual review, since you're probably telling yourself that this introduction lasted forever. Hearts of Stone promised a new 10-hour adventure set in Velen and Oxenfurt, where Geralt would take on a contract from the Man of Glass, an enigmatic figure from his past. This new content can be accessed at any time after hitting level 30 or by using the given option to start a new playthrough which has Geralt start at that level and ready to dive into the action. I'm happy to start by saying that CDPR have really delivered something great with this expansion, providing an experience that goes toe to with the base game and is perhaps more impressive at times.The expansion features two main characters with stories and backgrounds that feel more intriguing and emotional compared even to the Bloody Baron, who is considered to have one of the best quests in the main game. There's also a possible romance - AND SEX SCENE - with Shani, Geralt's old friend from the books and the first game. And to add to all that, we have some additional gwent cards - GWENT!!! - and monster types, a new item upgrading system as well as an expanded map in the north region.
|Is anyone willing to offer me some serious work?|
Hearts of Stone begins in a rather banal way with Geralt investigating a notice board and taking up on a contract for a monster in the Oxenfurt sewers. This is how he meets the man who posted the contract, Olgierd von Everec, the last member of a noble family and leader of a bandit company. During and after his quest to get rid of the threat in the sewers, Geralt eventually encounters both Shani and the Man of Glass, also known as Master Mirror or Gaunter O'Dimm. Through a series of events, Geralt finds himself indebted to O'Dimm, who asks him to perform three impossible tasks for Olgierd to pay off his debt and who also brands his face with a red mark in order to incentivise him to do so. The player finds himself caught between the two main forces of the expansion, Olgierd and O'Dimm, who form a mysterious and imposing duo despite the fact that they are at odds. One of them is a tragic and morally ambiguous character who perfectly encompasses the idea of loss and gives true meaning to the expansion's title. The other one can be antagonised if the player chooses so, and through multiple excellent apparitions during the game in which the malevolent nature that hides behind his chilling smile is revealed, he proves to be a much more terrifying and fleshed out enemy than the Wild Hunt ever were. Although I was initially wary of an expansion that did no longer feature Geralt's loved ones - Ciri, Yennefer, Dandelion, etc -, the new characters are so memorable and intriguing that my worries were proven to be unfounded.
|More terrifying than the Wild Hunt.|
|There's a price for everything in the Witcher world.|
Olgierd's tasks and what follows after take Geralt through a few of the best main quests in the Witcher games. One of them has you accompany Shani and a ghost to a wedding and is perhaps just as funny as the witcher drinking night in Kaer Morhen, whereas another has you planning, recruiting a team and executing a heist, although its conclusion falls a bit flat. Another quest turned out to be my favorite in the entire game and involved a visit to a painted world, which is stunningly beautiful and atmospheric but also evokes great sadness and regret while explaining much of Olgierd's backstory and character. Overall, there are enough choices to be made, out of which the final one reinforces the central theme of the Witcher universe of lesser evil and moral ambiguity. The game has two endings with no final boss fight - since they are abundant anyway, but I'll come to that in a moment -, and one of them features a pretty interesting riddle, which is a more than welcome change.
|Common wedding activity.|
Side quest wise, we have an investigation that can be unknowingly failed if the player doesn't make an extra effort to figure it all out, which is how most of the quests in the base game should have been, since using Detect-ahem, Witcher mode to solve stuff gets old really fast. It's only too bad that this investigation is the only place where this happens. There are also no other contracts beside the one I've mentioned before, which is not necessarily a bad thing after their abundance in the original story. To conclude with the quests, I'll voice my frustration towards a side quest that I was forced to take where the quest giver kept on calling me Puss Peepers. Now why would you force me to accept a quest from someone like that, CDPR? Nonetheless, that issue aside, I was pleasantly surprised and entertained by the quests, so let's move on to combat and see if the game actually challenges the player this time around.
|Painted world, so beautiful.|
Ready for the game's biggest surprise? Hearts of Stone is actually pretty challenging, at least on Death March. I've mentioned previously that there are no contracts except for the one in the beginning, and that is mainly due to the greater number of bosses: six, to be specific, although one can be avoided through a dialog choice. CDPR has clearly put some extra work in the encounter design, as all of them have specific abilities and pose a greater threat than any of the bosses in the main game. Two of them were so challenging that I kept getting a Dark Souls vibe while I repeteadly tried to learn their attack patterns and perfect my strategy until I finally downed them, which felt very rewarding. On the negative side, there is still a noticeable HP bloat that drags fights on longer than normal. The control scheme also fails spectacularly sometimes, as was the case during one boss encounter where I was forced by a mechanic to exit combat and my character would jump instead of roll, which led to multiple one shots from the boss and increasing frustration on my part. Lastly, the skill system has received five new skills, but they're not that impressive and for that reason I didn't change my build at all.
|The final showdown.|
Onto the rest of the new stuff. Shani is back and is romanceable, to the satisfaction of those who did so back in the first game and were dissapointed with her absence from the following titles. She is the third main character of the expansion and provides some invaluable help to Geralt during his quests, as an optional quest objective completed with her grants access to the second ending. Despite the fact that I was never too interested in Shani, the romance that takes place during the wedding quest - pretty obvious, as that provides the perfect opportunity - is fairly enjoyable and carefree, despite my Geralt's frenzied attempts at friendzoning her. It also offers a pretty nice sex scene - no, I didn't romance her, but I had to look it up! -. To wrap up with Shani, I have two complaints: her voice acting isn't that great and I also felt that there are some missing dialog options, such as declining her advances due to the fact that you are with Yennefer or Triss.
|Pretty, but not my type.|
Beside the new character, the map has been expanded in the north and features about 30 points of interest, a few of which are more interesting this time and involve a story about the Order of the Flaming Rose. Some of these feature a new type of enemies, some sort of huge spiders which fight annoyingly well in a group and take forever to kill. Moreover, items can now be customized further with runewrights, a new type of upgrades which are incredibly expensive but offer all types of permanent buffs, such as making burning foes explode or automatic Quen whenever you start a fight. A bit redundant considering how much you have to invest money wise, but it can prove useful for Hearts of Stone and completely overpowered for the base game. I've also noticed that the expansion is well integrated in the main game: you can ask Ciri or Yennefer about the mark that O'Dimm left on your face, there's a new scene regarding Vesemir and one ending provides some great tips about the choices you make in the base original story. The last thing I'll cover is the soundtrack, which is - unsurprisingly, given their previous work - amazing and features eleven new tracks that perfectly encompass the mysterious and sinister themes of Hearts of Stone. One of them (A Gifted Man Brings Gifts Galore) accompanies a powerful scene that hints heavily at the crossroads devil and left me very impressed. Overall, there's a ton of new stuff and it took me 18 hours to go through it all, so the expansion is more than worth it for its current price.
To sum it all up, CDPR proved with Hearts of Stone that less can be more, delivering a new set of memorable characters involved in a story that is more focused and is filled with sinister, emotional and also joyful moments. The expansion manages to improve on certain aspects of the base game by having a better antagonist, multiple challenging boss fights and overall better quality and diversity of quests. All my complaints feel minor when compared to the experience that Hearts of Stone provides and I can't find a reason not to recommend it, considering the great value you get for such a small price. Naturally, I can't wait to see what CDPR does with the next expansion. Blood and Wine will be set in Toussaint, a duchy already featured in the books that I feel will provide the perfect playground for more witchering. Bring it on!
|CDPR's victory isn't bitter this time.|
+ A captivating and intriguing story
+ Mysterious and memorable characters
+ Difficult and well designed boss fights
+ The painted world quest
+ Small scenes that connect it to the main game
+ Plenty of new content that gives the expansion great value for money
+ Amazing soundtrack
- Lack of appropriate replies in a few situations
- Heist quest ends in an underwhelming way after an interesting start
- Shani's voice acting
- The control scheme goes crazy sometimes
- Enemies still suffer from HP bloating
- The runewright system and the new skills aren't that great
- Puss Peepers?!
Written by Wolfe for The Game Slashers.