Look, everyone, there’s a new piece of The Witcher 3 content out! And you know what that means, right? Right. It’s time for me to review the previous piece of The Witcher 3 content. Apparently this is how we handle The Witcher 3 these days. (And it seems to work quite well, judging by the… vociferous response to my previous review. Clarification: The Witcher 3 is great. It just has issues, and I wanted to point them out. Let’s not fight anymore, okay?)
Annoyingly, I can’t really do the same thing with Hearts of Stone, because it’s a sizeable chunk of DLC that manages to avoid the majority of the issues that niggled me during the base game.
Let me put it like this: you know how pretty much every big RPG has at least one side-quest or vignette that sticks in the mind? It might have some sort of unique mechanic, or some really good dialogue; you might be putting on a play or trying to bluff your way through an outpost. Well, Hearts of Stone is basically that spectacular side-quest, in feature-length form.
It’s got an interesting premise. It very, very rarely devolves into Kill 19 Of These or Grab Four Of Those (not with a forehead-slapping lack of grace, anyway). It has boss fights that require thought and strategy. It has an antagonist with actual character, menace, and mystery, who shows up more than once. It’s pretty much composed of those memorable little side-quests. And that, I should add, is simply the new “main quest.” There’s also the actual new side-quests, and the runecrafting, and so on.
It also has giant spiders, because CD Projekt RED just had to fucking ruin it somehow, didn’t they?
This time around, rather than saving the world from naughty inter-dimensional ice conquerors, Geralt is simply doing witcher stuff. What starts off as a relatively routine assignment to deal with a rather hefty beast lurking in the sewers winds up with him making what is, to all intents and purposes, a deal with the devil. Geralt finds himself as the tool of a mysterious and absurdly powerful individual who grants wishes at a terrifying price; in return for his aid in a truly dire situations, Geralt is employed to help out with another of O’Dimm’s pacts.
Basically, folklore and legend. Meeting with the affable devil-like guy at the crossroads at midnight. Completing tasks that are, to all intents and purposes, impossible. Wishes at a cost. You can throw a rock and hit a fairy tale containing at least one of these elements, and it’s really nice to see Geralt’s take on all of this.
The star of the show is Gaunter O’Dimm, an unassuming, weaponless man who is very, very clearly more than he seems. Faustian bargains and clever wordplay are his stock in trade, and this makes him infinitely more menacing than a guy in armour with a sword. He crops up routinely throughout Hearts of Stone to shepherd Geralt around, offer advice, and make you wonder exactly who – or what – he is, and he manages the wonderful trick of being incredibly menacing and weirdly likeable. He steals the spotlight pretty much every time he turns up.
The other major player is Olgierd von Everec, a man who had previous dealings with O’Dimm and is now essentially immortal. He’s the one with the impossible requests, and it’s at O’Dimm’s request (or perhaps demand, as Geralt doesn’t really have much choice) that Geralt winds up trying to solve them. As for how it all shakes out – well, this is a The Witcher game. That’s largely up to you. By the time you’re done, though, you’ll have fought new enemies, battled bosses with unique mechanics, and taken part in all sorts of exquisitely crafted set-pieces designed to strain your moral compass.
Finally, there’s Shani. She’s not nearly so important in the grand scheme of things, but it’s nice to see the other love interest from the first The Witcher game making a return, and she’s got plenty to do.
Despite it having been out for awhile, I really don’t want to talk in too much detail about any of the elements that really surprised or impressed me, because they’re too good to ruin. Let’s just say that I was pleasantly surprised by all but one of the boss encounters – including the final one, which is tense, exciting, and extremely fitting – and I had an awful lot of fun both discovering how to complete the impossible labours, and what weird curve-ball Hearts of Stone would throw at me next.
It does fall into a couple of the RPG DLC traps, though, in that a few elements don’t quite work due to the very nature of the thing. First and foremost is that this is going to be post-game content for most people, which actually devalues quite a lot of the content. It’s all high-level stuff – the initial quest recommends you be somewhere in the low-30s, if memory serves – but this means that a lot of the rewards aren’t really rewarding. Hooray, a new sword! What’re you going to use it on? You’ve out-levelled the game.
The other issue I have is with Runecrafting, the new system of… well, crafting. These let you combine three runes/glyphs into a “word”, which can be placed on a weapon or piece of armour to give a major and unique boost, like “start every fight with Quen active.” These are obviously pretty great.
There are two downsides. The first is that it’s staggeringly expensive; other than the side-quest you need to undertake to unlock this stuff to begin with, levelling up the Runewright fully will cost around 30,000 crowns. That is a bloody ridiculous sum of money at any point in the game, even parcelled out into smaller instalments.
The other is that, considering the quest and the money required, you’re probably going to be – again – fairly far into the game by the time you unlock this stuff, and you cannot have a runeword/glyphword active alongside basic runes and glyphs. Decent as the buffs are, they’re almost never as good as simply having three top-class runes embedded in your sword. I’ll probably go for extra attack power, armour piercing, and a chance to cause stun or ignite or bleed over having fatal blows restore a bit more stamina. This, unfortunately, limits their use pretty dramatically.
Also, there are giant spiders, and they can fuck right off. Not least because the very first encounter I had with them quite literally dropped me into a pitch-black pit full of the bastards with absolutely no warning. Fuck off. (For the most part they’re not actually that dangerous to fight, but they can fuck off regardless. Piss off back to every other fantasy RPG out there, you scuttling nightmare machines.)
And, uh… hmm. The horse is still a bit rubbish?
No, I’ve pretty much run out of loud complaints. There are a couple of areas where the pacing is slightly off and things go on a little bit too long, and there’s one boss fight which is just utterly dreadful, but for the most part Hearts of Stone is utterly brilliant. It dodges pretty much all of the pitfalls of the base game – villain, interesting quests, good bosses, making combat feel skilful – and provides a really, really good slice of bonus gameplay. Hearts of Stone is an essential pickup if you’re playing The Witcher 3.
Now to get on with playing Blood and Wine and not reviewing that for half a year.