In many ways, Hearts of Stone is a ‘best of’ experience. Imagine all the best moments of the Witcher 3’s campaign – the battles, the repartee, and the romance – all boiled down into a tight 10 hour experience, and that is what the expansion delivers. It feels like a victory lap for developer CD Projekt RED, an opportunity to once again display the refined storytelling and gameplay of the base game.
It is in the storytelling that this refinement is most evident. The story of Hearts of Stone is an intensely engaging, varied, and often tense journey through the occult realms of the Witcher universe. A seemingly run of the mill Witcher contract takes Geralt down some of the most bizarre and fascinating paths the series has ever explored.
What’s most impressive is how skillfully it juggles the intricate lore of the world with complexly emotional and psychological themes. It uses surreal situations to explore very human ideas in more sophisticated ways than would be possible under any other circumstance.
Part of what makes the storytelling so impactful is the excellent pacing. As was the case with the final act of the base game, the main story of this expansion is best enjoyed without the distraction of side quests and events. Though the expansion does come with side quests, they are introduced right at the beginning, leaving you free to complete them before diving into the meaty main story. Each of the quests flow neatly into each other, building emotional tension so well that you will be running to initiate the next part of the story.
Each quest is varied in both tone and content, taking Geralt from an extremely eventful wedding to a wickedly complex haunted manor. The approach and challenge of each varies widely, with some quests requiring deft social decision making, while others offer puzzles and intense combat scenarios. These gameplay types are implemented in diverse ways, keeping the experience fresh and different throughout the expansion.
Hearts of Stone introduces a new crafting mechanic: Runewords allow you to add extra benefits to your armour and weapons by combining certain runes. Some of the benefits are excellent, such as imbuing your sword with the sign you just used for your next hit.
However, the process of gaining access to and then crafting these benefits is not easy, or cheap. Gaining access to the highest tier of Runewords costs 30,000 crowns, and it’s likely that even those who have finished the campaign will have near that amount, which makes the whole system seem like an arbitrary way to justify the weak economy systems of the game.
Though the expansion doesn’t come with many new assets, it does come with some haunting new bosses, the design and challenge of which far surpass anything in the base game. Aesthetically, the developers have stepped outside of the categories of the bestiary to explore some new and horrifying enemy types.
The challenge is stepped up significantly also, requiring every ounce of your skill and knowledge of the combat systems to complete. Though the expansion is available at any point in the game, it does recommend you be at least level 30 before starting it. This is sound advice considering that the challenge of all enemies is significantly higher than anything in the base game.
In fact, it would be advisable to complete The Witcher 3’s story before starting Hearts of Stone – not because the stories are tied at all, but because the story is significant enough that if played amidst the base campaign it is sure to distract you.
Hearts of Stone is a great way cap off the Witcher 3’s epic adventure. It’s a experience chock full of interesting characters, poignant ideas and gripping action, that reminds you that the world doesn’t need to be ending for this to be an amazing universe for storytelling. It may be just another day at the office for Geralt, but it’s a bloody great experience for us.