There’s been a fair bit of consternation and grumbling about The Witcher 3’s Hearts of Stone. Is it just DLC, or is it a full-blown expansion, as its makers, CD Projekt RED claim? It’s an easy and fair question to ask in these times of unfulfilling season passes, and expensive post release content.

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Back in the before times, before the internet was quite as prolific as it is now, an expansion – particularly one to a Role-Playing Game – was exactly as it implied; an expansion. New stories, new characters, new weapons, new areas; very much new everything other than the engine it ran on.

The Witcher 3’s Heart of Stone, in truth, falls somewhere near the middle. It doesn’t add much in the way of mechanical features, nor any real new acreage; set as it is, largely within the confines of the Northern Kingdoms you’ve likely already explored. What it does add is a 10 more hours of gameplay, some of the best writing the series has seen, and a wealth of levity and humour. It also gives us a look at a more human, affable side to the usually gruff and grumbly Geralt. Beyond that, it really is just more Witcher 3. It starts off, as stories of this ilk often do, with a quest that has Geralt looking for a monster. Sent in by the anarchistic Olgierd von Everec (A fellow who looks like David Beckham sporting a dastardly villain’s twirly moustache) to dispatch a monster in a sewer. That’s child play to a Witcher as esteemed as Geralt, so taking the job isn’t even in question. Things, however, go a little awry with the monster hunt not quite going as expected. It sees Geralt stripped of his gear, and hauled off on ship, destined for a faraway land.

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It’s on this ship that we meet a familiar face; Gaunter O’Dimm, The Master Mirror, who you probably encountered within your first hour of Playing the Witcher 3. While he seemed like he may have been a minor, unimportant character then, he’s front and centre here – and along with Shani, Geralt’s red-haired medic friend from the first game and the aforementioned Olgierd makes up a triumvirate of some of the most interesting characters in the Witcher games.

Saying too much more would spoil the story, but the quests contained with Hearts of Stone are largely interesting and often silly and irreverent. Where else but in the Witcher can you party it up with a ghost?

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It’s worth noting that Hearts of Stone really respects your time as a player. The mission requires that you be at least at level 30 before undertaking its quests, and to that end allows you to start from where you left off in your main game and use the Witcher you’ve created, auto-levelling him to 30 if you’ve not quite reached that mark. If you’ve lost your save for whatever reason, you can have the game create a new level 30 Geralt for you, so you can jump right in to the action without having to play the game again.

As I said earlier, Geralt ends up stripped of his gear, but in most games that involves inevitably starting off weak and eventually finding all of your equipment as part of a quest, but there’s none of that here. Once you’ve freed yourself from your captors, everything you had before is right back in your inventory. It doesn’t make much narrative sense, but it makes a heck of a lot of sense to somebody like me with limited gaming time.

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As for the mechanics? Nothing’s really changed. Roach is still as erratic and odd to control as ever. The combat’s as divisive as it’s ever been. Some people love the parry, strike dodge, sign cycle of combat, but it’s never really tickled me much. I wish there were a few extra skills or talent and appropriate trees, but there’s nothing of the sort. The only real mechanical addition then is the Runewright. Introduced relatively late in the game, the Runewright (who’s refreshingly not creamy white if you’re concerned about things like representation in games) helps you enchant your weapons or gear in more significant ways than before, really helping you tune your character to your playstyle.

The world itself seems a little more barren this time around, and there’s a strange disconnect in the game’s setting if you’ve completed the game, as it really feels like it belongs in the middle, as part of the base game.

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Whatever minor gripes there are, they’re made up for by strong cut-scene driven narrative with superlative writing. It’s CD Projekt RED letting themselves have a bit of fun and letting Geralt have a bit of fun in the process – and I’d wager you’ll have fun with it too. If you’ve been looking for an excuse to return to the Northern Kingdoms, this is an excellent motivator, and one of the best bits of DLC in recent memory; certainly worth its asking price.

 

Last Updated: October 19, 2015

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone
It’s more of the same, then – but when you’re getting more of one of the year’s best games, that’s not something to complain about.
8.9
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone was reviewed on PlayStation 4
90 / 100

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