By Tom Tolios / November 24th, 2015
Gaunter O’Dimm may be familiar to some players, and with good reason. He’s a key NPC in a storyline quest in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt called ‘Lilac and Gooseberries.’ You may not remember it because it happens very early in the game, but, if you go back and look at your quest log, you can review exactly what he talked to you about and how he influenced your path. It’s nice to see Gaunter make a return here, as he was a very charismatic NPC with a lot of untapped potential that really comes to the fore in Hearts of Stone. He’s an interesting fellow; exactly the sort of person that a hero like Geralt can respond to as friend or foe at any given turn based on their goals and ambitions. Gaunter is a brilliant element of Geralt’s world, perfectly placed and utilized. He’s both charming and a little frightening all at once.
The other character in this expansion that longtime fans will recognize is the doctor Shani, who first appeared in the final act of the original game in the series, The Witcher. She was a quest giver in that game and could also be romanced (this is The Witcher, after all) and she’s back now, much more mature, with greater knowledge of her trade and in the employ of the Redanian army to help with their war wounded. Shani is a key NPC in Hearts of Stone, helping you learn more about what’s really happening, exploring certain areas with you and, if you like, you can try to pick up where you left off with her romantically. Shani is a welcome sight in Hearts of Stone in a number of ways, most importantly lending some extra depth to Geralt by conversing with him about things that Gaunter and Olgierd can’t. It’s not just about the ‘will they or won’t they’ suspense of the amorous subplot, it’s also in the relationship they have with each other, recalling old events together and having a shared familiarity that helps humanize Geralt. While The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt does a great job of making Geralt sympathetic all on it’s own (as anybody that plays the game will easily see), Shani’s interactions with Geralt here make all the difference for Hearts of Stone. Especially when you find out what’s really going on between Gaunter and Olgierd. That human element is needed to make the events more sympathetic, to involve the player to a greater degree and see the crux of the conflict as more than just another job or a grudging obligation. It helps you see the tragedy of past events in the way CDPR wants you to see it, and that’s important. You can still draw your own conclusion, but the more heartwrenching aspects of the storyline work better when you’re in a suitable frame of mind.
As for the gameplay, you get formulas for new gear, a bunch of side quests and areas to explore, new Gwent cards and opponents (make sure you talk to every new NPC at any given opportunity or you might miss out), some new monsters to face and the ability to enhance any weapons or armor with three rune slots with all new powers. The old enemies are scaled up for this expansion and will present a challenge if you’re playing on the Hard difficulty setting. You won’t be able to mash buttons to get through combat and will frequently face bands of soldiers and knights that have gone bandit, as commonly happens in medieval wars when order and structure break down. These fights can be quite difficult and you’ll spend a lot of time dodging, parrying and counterstriking if you want to do well. Of course, you can always rely on your potions to carry you in times of need, but there’s nothing quite as satisfying as cutting down a group of trash-talking highwaymen with finesse, precise timing and skill.
The most impressive addition to the combat, however, is the introduction of some new boss encounters that are unlike anything else in this series. I am not going to draw comparisons to Dark Souls here in terms of difficulty, but as for mood, aesthetics and tactics, it’s clear CD Projekt Red has studied From Software’s book of punishing game design and found a way to implement those ideas into The Witcher 3. I was very pleased with how the boss encounters worked out in Hearts of Stone. Even more than that, I absolutely LOVED the final quest. It’s not at all what I expected, but it is so very much in keeping with the spirit of the series that it was easy to embrace. It is, perhaps, the most well-designed climactic encounter in a video game I’ve ever played in terms of narrative, theme and complexity. It really IS that good. Oh, and there are multiple endings to this expansion, as well, and they are equal parts haunting and satisfying in their own way.
I’m not going to beat around the bush here. In my review for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I proclaimed it the greatest video game I’ve ever played, which naturally makes it the greatest video game of all time. Is it perfect? No. No game is perfect. But it does so much in making up for its shortcomings that it rises to the top of the heap well ahead of the pack. And I have to do the same thing here for Hearts of Stone. Is it the best expansion DLC of all time? You bet your ass it is. CD Projekt Red has accomplished the inconceivable: they’ve designed a DLC that is a ‘must-own.’ Most DLC can be skipped. Hearts of Stone is not to be missed.
It’s ten bucks, or can be bought as part of the season pass. You can get a physical copy of the expansion, but don’t misunderstand what you’re getting if you buy it. You don’t get the DLC on physical media but a digital redeem code and a limited set of two physical Gwent decks so you can play with a friend for real if you want; an admittedly cool pack-in item. At this point, CD Projekt Red could sell me a pile of rocks, and I’d know it would be the best flippin’ pile of rocks I’ll ever own. They do it with skill, precision, dedication and, most importantly, affection for their work and their fans. I’ve heard that the two paid DLCs for The Witcher 3 (the next one is due out next year) combined will be larger than The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (which was the best RPG I’d played in years up to that point). And, if Hearts of Stone is any indication, the combined DLCs for The Witcher 3 will also be better than The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. That is saying something. Buy this game. Buy this expansion. Do yourselves a favor. This is a once-in-a-generation event in gaming.
Review copy provided by reviewer
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