As with many of Geralt of Rivia’s often unusual adventures, Hearts of Stone starts with a seemingly standard, run-of-the-mill contract seeking the death of a bloodthirsty monster. There are no tricks or convoluted hoops to jump through in activating the expansion. Rather, upon installing the DLC, the quest Evil’s Soft First Touches will be automatically added to the journal’s main entries. As if the name weren’t ominous enough, the title screen itself will shift to reflect the new terrain to be explored in Hearts of Stone, with Geralt meditating beside a creaking, dilapidated gate outside a grim looking estate, sporting a fresh runic scar on his face.
CD Projekt is, as always, highly accommodating towards the players and offers several different options as to how they may want to go about activating Hearts of Stone. The first method is that the player may boot up any of their game files (New Game Plus DLC included), and seek out the Seven Cats Inn outside Novigrad to check the notice board. For a regular game file, you should be fine playing around level 30, however for NG+ be prepared for a long haul to access the expansion, with the leveling set to a staggering suggested level of 65. However, if neither of these options appeals to you, you may create a special Hearts of Stone exclusive file, with Geralt pre-leveled to 32 and given substantial gear, potions, decoctions, oils, and weapons to boot. Unfortunately, however, your Gwent deck will not be properly reinforced, and will constitute the base cards of the Northern Realms deck as seen at the start of a new game. Also, be warned, as by taking this route the Hearts of Stone storyline effectively overrides the original game’s main story, however all other side quests and contracts will be available for you to complete at your whim.
It is a seemingly chance encounter that sets the expansion rolling, however from the start, you’ll get the impression that there are no coincidences in Hearts of Stone. Geralt finds himself drawn to the Seven Cats Inn like a moth to an open flame, only to find several seemingly mundane notices, including a request for an escort to a wedding. While he’s musing over how ludicrous some of the postings can be, a rugged-looking bandit-type donning a loose Mohawk steps up, nail, hammer and posting in hand. It seems a monster is afoot in the Oxenfurt sewers, and his boss is looking for anyone who will slay it.
Geralt is directed towards the leader of this bandit’s company, one disgraced aristocrat Olgierd von Everec, whose men have several laughs at Geralt’s expense before the enigmatic noble-no-more sends him on his way to confront the sewer beast, supposedly to avenge his prized cook’s untimely death. Apparently, a rumor had been circulating that this creature was a prince cursed to take on the visage of a frog, and a kiss was all that was needed to break it. The rumor had proven deadly for many, and upon entry into the sewer system, Geralt finds he may have bitten off more than he can chew, as he often does. It seems he has entangled himself in a plot that is more twisted than a simple fable about a frog prince.
What events follow is a whirlwind of interconnected quests stemming from a singular, ill-considered wish that was granted with more consequence than was accounted for. Geralt finds himself in the discomforting position of champion to Gaunter O’Dimm, a man he cannot begin to know or understand, whose nature constantly contradicts his assurance as being a simple merchant. As Hearts of Stone would have it, Geralt is perhaps confronted with his most dangerous contract yet, and one that is of the more legally binding nature. His brush with a wish-gone-awry indebts him to this Gaunter O’Dimm, and Geralt must endure the painstaking tasks of granting impossible wishes in order to rid himself of his contractual obligations. For those of you familiar with Stephen King’s characters Leland Gaunt and Randall Flagg a.k.a Walter O’Dim, you might have a clearer understanding of what I’m suggesting, when it comes to Gaunter O’Dimm.
O’Dimm’s enriched characterization is not at all unique to Hearts of Stone, as several fascinating and standout characters are introduced that could easily be central to their own story. Although several make only momentary appearances depending on the story arc, they each feel hand-crafted and entirely necessary to the scope of the plot, with such depth of personality that they exude a unique personification and lifelike realism. Hearts of Stone is no different from the original game in this regard, and compounded with phenomenal dialogue, writing, and cast direction, it is able to breathe life into a world that is already renowned for impactful characters and alignments.
Now, onto what makes Hearts of Stone an expansion of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, rather than a piece of art to be analyzed. Hearts of Stone falls perfectly in step with the gameplay mechanics established in the core game, and offers some newfound weaponry and gear to compound Geralt’s progress in the main story. One such set of armor is the New Moon set, which despite having slightly lower stats compared to my master-crafted Feline Witcher Gear, is still a nice addition to any armor collection. It’s a sleek and cutting black that fits Geralt nicely – think Jon Snow’s uniform as part of the Night’s Watch. There’s also plenty of loot to be had, from the addition of several side quests and treasure hunts, to the added variety of places of interest in northern Velen, which blend so seamlessly into the landscape that I wasn’t entirely certain they weren’t part of the original game as well.
On that note, the entire expansion feels a bit too contained within previously established regions, as I would estimate about 90% of it takes place in northern Velen, between Novigrad and Oxenfurt. However, this gives Hearts of Stone a sense of familiar exploration while boldly testing the extent of that familiarity. For example, a good handful of quests takes you back to the city of Oxenfurt, which in my opinion had been sorely underused in the original game and was ever lurking in the shadow of Novigrad. Hearts of Stone manages to transform Oxenfurt through its engaging and well-paced quest lines, granting it a more potent distinction from other townships while giving it a pronounced personality of its own. Just as the murky swamp of Crookback Bog is defined by the relict Crones who dwell there, the expanse of northern Velen becomes interesting in its own way, as Hearts of Stone builds upon a concealed and horrifying secret that Geralt must unearth.
Perhaps my only real gripe with Hearts of Stone stems from the anti-climatic boss battles to be had at the tail-end of some of the quests. Now don’t get the wrong impression – the monstrosity known as The Caretaker was an absolute horror, with an intriguing backstory and face that would fit perfectly in a Silent Hill installment. However, The Toad Prince left a lot to be desired, where it was, disappointingly, just an oversized mutant frog, and both of these bosses suffered from rather unimaginative battle tactics. I can forgive lackluster design and even lackluster boss mechanics where a story is so beautifully constructed, except that these fights were so clunky and tedious that they were not as enjoyable as they could have been. I suppose I might have been asking for frustration, as I was playing on the Death March difficulty, however I’m also a seasoned player of Dark Souls, so I generally know how to handle such a challenge.
The Caretaker was little more than a health sponge, that no matter how craftily I managed to exploit his weaknesses, he could easily regenerate all of his health even when I’d barely made a dent in his HP. A certain wraith employed those very same tactics, leaving me to shamefully lower the difficulty in order to tide a building fury that was slowly overriding my sense of rationality – to say the least, I really didn’t want to break my controller. The Toad Prince, on the other hand, was not as challenging, but coupled with his infuriating tendency to leap around and prove a difficult target to catch (that is, until you learn of his exploit), he wasn’t at all fun to deal with. I will say that regardless of my personal feelings regarding how CD Projekt handled the designs of their boss fights, they at least implement an Achille’s heel for each and every one. So if you intend to play on a higher difficulty, it isn’t impossible to beat these bosses, but be prepared for the grueling amount of time you might have to spend doing so.
Going off of my earlier mention of Silent Hill, however, I would like to note that there is one gloriously creepy and unsettling boss to be fought that, for the sake of spoilers, I won’t mention by name. However, it just screams Silent Hill in that surreal, twisted sort of way, as the boss chamber is warped to reflect its otherworldly nature, Geralt’s elongated shadow joined with the boss’ as they clash by gloom of firelight. It was perhaps the most symbolic battle of the entire game, and presented a struggle that felt near-paramount in importance to preserving one’s degraded humanity, creating a gritty, uneasy atmosphere.
At $9.99 and well over the slated 10 hours of gameplay, Hearts of Stone is a shining example of how to not only expand upon the physical dimensions of a game, but to further expand on the very themes that breathe life into its story and world. There’s folk in need of saving or ignoring, plenty of new Gwent cards to serve as momentary diversions, and monsters in want of slaying. While some might be looking for a DLC that is entirely different from Wild Hunt, Hearts of Stone manages to distinguish itself from the original story while remaining true to the themes that make The Witcher series unique to other fantasy settings.