For us here at Level-Clear, May’s launch of The Witcher 3 presented something of a gamble. Vague memories of a convoluted tutorial section and clunky gameplay in The Witcher 2, somewhat put us off the idea of a sequel. But the seventy-plus hours playtime we’ve clocked up on Wild Hunt so far have been simply incredible, making it a strong contender for our Game of the Year.
With that in mind, the first paid-for expansion to the monster-slaying RPG had some high expectations to live up to, and we were keen to see if Hearts of Stone’s £7.99 price tag represented good value for money. With medallions humming in anticipation, we dove straight in and were far from disappointed.
On installing the new content, a pop-up window at the main menu offers players a number of ways to begin the expansion. Those looking to start afresh can begin a new game and crack on with HoS at any point after the prologue. Players with existing saves will find the questline already added to their journals, and a ‘Hearts of Stone Only’ option offers a specifically geared and levelled Geralt to enjoy the new content with. Regardless of your choice, the story beings in the same way, with a seemingly run-of-the-mill monster hunting job posted on one of Novigrad’s rural noticeboards.
To go into too much detail would spoil Hearts of Stone’s superbly written plot, but following Geralt’s introductory bit of Witchering, the bulk of the DLC splits into three distinct sections; each a unique experience in itself and part of a gripping, overarching storyline.
The first narrative chunk takes place at a party, with Witcher 2’s Shani making her Wild Hunt debut as a new ally and potential love interest for Geralt. Players who enjoyed The Witcher 3’s sillier side will love how much scope there is for messing around here, and immersing themselves in a world that’s not all about death and destruction. Drinking, dancing, pig-herding and pond-diving are but a few of the distractions available, alongside party guests at various stages of inebriation with whom to enjoy some great back-and-forth. There are some exceptionally funny dialogue options to choose from, and we’d highly recommend chatting with as many guests as possible before moving onto Hearts of Stone’s more serious missions.
In perhaps the weakest section of the DLC, the next part of the story sees Geralt participating in a heist at an auction house. The set-up involves recruiting a rag-tag bunch of acrobats, thieves and retired demolition experts to assist with the sting, but the conclusion feels a little flat considering the impressive build-up beforehand. Your choices don’t really matter and the events that play out feel like they would have happened regardless of how you planned the job. Ultimately though it’s still good fun (albeit in a somewhat campy ‘Oceans Eleven’ kind of way.)
An otherworldly investigation into the past makes up the third part of Hearts of Stone’s story, and sees Geralt exploring some gorgeously creepy environments, dripping with atmosphere and eerie ambience. It makes for quite a change from what we’ve come to expect of The Witcher 3, bordering on survival-horror as much as fantasy-adventure. There are some gruesome new enemies to deal with here and bosses that’ll need some real thought and skill to successfully vanquish (making a nice change of pace from the usual ‘wail on it until it stops moving’ approach to combat.)
Facilitating the narrative is a diverse cohort of new NPCs, but there are two in particular who make Hearts of Stone a truly memorable experience. The first of which is Olgierd von Everic, the noble-turned-violent bandit leader. Olgierd’s moral ambiguity and world-weary demeanour set him up as an excellent antagonist, but his character becomes increasingly easy to empathise with as Geralt uncovers his tragic backstory. Those that enjoyed the character arc of the Bloody Baron from the vanilla game will love discovering von Everic’s tumultuous past. The other standout cast member is Gaunter O’Dimm, who eagle-eyed players will recognise from The Witcher 3’s opening mission, ‘Lilac and Gooseberries.’ His reappearance in Hearts of Stone is initially a welcome one, as he aids Geralt in his escape from a set of Oferi gallows, but his assistance comes at a price. O’Dimm’s pleasant smile and quietly philosophical nature become increasingly obvious as a front for one of the most memorably sinister characters we’ve encountered in The Witcher 3 so far.
With the exception of the new quest line and cast however, there’s very little in HoS that really feels ‘new.’ Whether or not that’s a bad thing will depend on your experience with the vanilla game, but ultimately it boils down to more monster slaying and investigation in The Witcher 3’s signature, dark fantasy style.
There are a couple of new side quests to tackle, including helping out an Oferi Runewright to imbue your gear with unique abilities (for a significant sum of coin.) You’ll need some serious cash to unlock all of his available options however, to the point where their value for money becomes pretty questionable. 5000 Crowns unlocks the most basic tier of abilities, with an additional 10,000 and 15,000 unlocking tiers two and three. Committed players will definitely want to invest in the unique buffs the Runewright’s work provides, but the vast majority will never have the spare cash to unlock them.
Overall, this first paid-for expansion for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a brilliantly gripping narrative in itself, and a welcome addition to the core Witcher 3 experience. Whilst there are only a handful of new ideas on show, the old ideas are so well executed, they still manage to feel fresh and exciting. For fans of the vanilla game, picking up Hearts of Stone should be a no-brainer, as it’s classic Witcher storytelling with a rich cast of characters supporting the superb narrative. There’s a solid ten hours of content to enjoy here, which for just £7.99 feels like great value for money, and has us psyched for expansion number two: Blood and Wine when it releases early next year.