Video Games Review: The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone (PS4, 2015)

After almost 200 hours, I thought I was well and truly done with The Witcher 3. It’s first major expansion, Hearts of Stone, proved that it was Geralt who wasn’t finished with me.

CD Projekt have spent a good deal of time since the launch of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt back in May releasing pack after pack of solid, free downloadable content but Hearts of Stone is the first one they’re asking fans to pay for.

Hearts of Stone aspires to be more than simply another 12-15 hours of a game you already played (although it could easily be just that and get away with it). The stuff you liked in The Witcher 3 is here – new side quests, more monster contracts, fresh gear to track down. The story takes Geralt deep into No Man’s Land and later Oxenfurt, familiar to those who’ve played the base game but expanded now to include more for the especially inquisitive adventurer.

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This expansion wants to add some new features of its own to the mix too, however. The first mission in the game is a perfect example of the gusto with which CD Projekt have tackled their new ideas so I’ll recount some of it here. Spoilers, obviously, will follow so skip the rest of this review if you’d rather avoid them. 

After picking up a new quest from a notice board, Geralt of Rivia finds himself working for a man named Gaunter O’Dim, who also goes by Master Mirror. O’Dim wants Geralt to make three wishes come true for second weirdo named Olgierd von Everec. The first thing Olgierd wants is for Geralt to take his brother Vlodimir out on the town. Small problem: Vlodimir is stone dead and it would appear that’s been the situation for some time now.

Good to his word, Geralt finds a way to summon Vlodimir in spectral form and continues trying to find a way to entertain the poor guy. Geralt also benefits in his quest from the help of Shani, a lovely doctor who we last saw way back in the original Witcher game. Geralt and Shani make their way to Vlodimir’s grave and resurrect him, only to find that he’s a swaggering peacock like his brother. Perhaps still smarting from the events of Wild Hunt involving Yennefer, Geralt isn’t having any necromancy on his watch. He reaches a compromise with the ghost: Vlodomir can possess Geralt’s body for the night in order to attend the wedding of one of Shani’s friends. Vlodimir/Geralt will then pose as Shani’s date and everybody wins.

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Here’s where things get really fun. With the possession in place, the game makes it clear that you not to roleplay as Geralt for the time being. Instead, it wants you to play as Vlodimir. This is fantastic for a number of reasons: Vlodimir is a noisy, ill-mannered twerp and, for people who like to play Geralt straight down the line, he is a boisterous breath of fresh air. I couldn’t help wondering if everything I was doing as Vlodimir was going to have repercussions for me later, though. If I pushed Shani’s buttons too much as Vlod, was it going to ruin any chance of a romance with Geralt down the line?

The actual event itself is terrific fun. You arrive at the wedding reception and the game urges you to have some fun. You are then free to bomb around the reception as you like, harassing revellers, drinking frankly irresponsible amounts of ale before chasing a pig around or simply show these plebs how it’s done on the dancefloor. Best of all, Geralt (as Vlodimir) gets a new walk animation that has him strut around the party, hands on his hips, like he owns the joint.

Here’s the thing though – while the quest initially feels like a bit of out-of-character fluffery, complete with Geralt mincing around the party being a complete, delightful boor, there comes a point where you realise that Vlodimir is pushing Geralt outside of his comfort zone and the normally dour Witcher is actually having a pretty good time. It’s incredibly smart character work on CD Projekt’s part, finding new ways to build on Geralt’s character even after hundreds and hundreds of hours worth of quests and dialogue. The effect is profound and even begins to rub off on Shani.

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The whole quest was supposed to be about giving Vlodimir a night to remember but without even realising it was happening, suddenly it was vitally important to me that Geralt have a night off. He was put through the wringer in Wild Hunt and no-one’s earned a boozy night more than this guy. Vlodimir, of course, tries to pull the wool over Geralt’s eyes and remain in control beyond his midnight curfew. O’Dim emerges from out of nowhere and banishes the spirit back into the nether realm, rather venomously pointing out that Vlod was a lump of wasted potential who never managed to get out from under his brother’s shadow. Vlod sticks up for himself to begin with but quickly backs down and confesses his agreement. He confides to Geralt that his brother had been telling everyone that he died in battle, a hero, when in fact he died broken and callow, alone. It’s so. fucking. sad. and after the great time I’d been having, it really knocked the wind out of me.

This expansion is held together by a lot of very similar interactions – small character moments that have a big impact, flourishes that work together to paint a much more detailed and believable world. Shani is a total sweetheart and far more down-to-earth than the high-maintenance women Geralt frequently chooses to get close to. She’s straight up with Geralt about the nature of their relationship and what it means to her. I like her an awful lot and I hope we get to spend some more time with Shani in future expansions.

This quest is a perfect example of the sort of things this expansion gets really, really right. You get some new baddies, there’s a little magic, some sex and a couple of really top-shelf reveals and character moments. It does the seeming impossible at this point and shows us something new and interesting about Geralt and the people he cares about. Hearts of Stone grows the story but Geralt grows too and it’s a real feather in CD Projekt’s already impressive cap. This is exactly what you want out of a paid expansion and more.

Review Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Great story and quests; still so damned pretty
Lowlights: If you haven’t played in a while, there’s a brutally large update waiting to download so prepare yourself for that
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Publisher: CD Projekt Red
Released: October 15, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

 

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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