A motley crew.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone is at once a horror story, a romance, a character study, and a classic fairy tale. And somehow, these disparate parts mesh to form a cohesive whole.
This is CD Projekt Red's first paid expansion for its masterful RPG, and it fits seamlessly into Geralt's narrative. Although it's meant for late-game characters around level 30, it's available at any point in your playthrough. And like many experiences in The Witcher 3, the expansion's main draw is its twisting storylines and vivid inhabitants.
It's difficult to talk about these elements without ruining the experience as a whole. CD Projekt Red presents its own dark take on weddings, haunted houses, and the story of the prince and the frog. Quests never resolved how I expected them to, and seldom how I hoped. They even ventured into metaphysical environments, and gorgeous as they were, there's a haunting presence to them. Hearts of Stone runs the gamut of fantasy tropes, but subverts every one. It's this willingness to take successful risks that sets these quests, and the story they compose, apart.
Many of these storylines trace back to one man: Gaunter O'Dimm. Geralt calls him the Merchant of Mirrors. Others know him as the Man of Glass. He's a character who makes you feel uneasy with a glance and, even when he seemed relaxed, I always had my thumb hovering over the attack button. You get the sense he knows far more than he lets on. Hearts of Stone paints him in a complex fashion, melding his odd behavior with a strange charm, thereby creating someone who doesn't fit any archetype.
For all of its storylines, and all of its varied combat, Hearts of Stone houses deeper themes. Matters of regret, apathy, death, and the passage of time pervade every character's motivations. One woman laments the monster her husband turned out to be. "I've stopped wondering what you feel about me anymore," she says. "I don't feel anything," he replies. And in an intimate moment between Shani and Geralt, the former asks the Witcher if he worries about never falling in love. The response is up to you.
This thematic pulse elevates an already great batch of content. Hearts of Stone feels just as much a part of the narrative as any of the main game's quest lines, but stands on its own as a memorable adventure. It may have its negative moments and the pacing may be broken at certain intervals, but The Witcher 3's first paid expansion is well worth the return to the Northern Kingdoms.
There's a point when a character whistles the boss fight music. And just when you're sure one such encounter is coming, he walks away to that haunting tune, without so much as a fistfight. This is what Hearts of Stone does best. It takes our expectations and runs with them.
- Clever dialogue and cinematic storytelling
- Shani is a bright point among a cast of vibrant characters
- In combat and out, the quests are engrossing
- Deeper themes permeate character actions and plot points
- Obtrusive mini-game and detective sections
Score: 9/10 - Superb