The promise of The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine’s Toussaint, with its injection of colour and Arthurian bent, tempted me back to the game that could be argued to be last year’s best. I’d never made time for the first expansion, The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone, rolled out last October. I’m more than glad that I decided to play through it before running headlong for the mountains of Toussaint: Hearts of Stone is, by my estimation, The Witcher 3 at its best.
The Witcher 3 was at its best when you were uncovering new and exciting stories in the world. The game is rife with dizzying twists and subversions to the fairy tales and legends from which it draws inspiration. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel; all manner of myths and legends askew through the filter of smart philosophical examination and a uniquely Eastern European perspective.
It’s appropriate, then, that Hearts of Stone runs with that strength: the expansion’s story kicks off with a spin on the Frog Prince before diving into a retelling of the Faust legend, or more specifically, the Polish folklore version of the story: Pan Twardowski. Geralt finds himself indebted to the enigmatic Gaunter O’ Dimm, a mysterious and menacing supernatural figure who needs your help. Olgierd von Everec, an immortal man, owes Gaunter payment for their Faustian contract- but first, Gaunter needs a proxy- you- to fulfil any three wishes Olgierd can dream up.
Along the way you’ll attend a wedding with a ghost, pull off a heist, and delve into a twisted otherworldly realm. What’s really impressive is the expansion’s comfort with its own pace. There’s a fair smattering of action, but that mostly takes a back seat to indulge in socialisation, detective work, and exploration. I really admire the fact that you spend a decent amount of time- a couple of hours, maybe- at a wedding where nothing goes horribly wrong and no one dies. And it’s great. CD Projekt Red are so confident in their ability to weave an immersive collection of characters and environments to ingratiate yourself with and it’s damn refreshing to see that self-assurance shine through.
A slight disappointment is the way Hearts of Stone handles its new romance option. Shani, a returning character from the first game, accompanies Geralt for much of the adventure. Their past relationship is brought up, and the two trade will-they-won’t-they flirtations for most of their time together. Not only did this feel less believable than the corresponding relationships Geralt had with Triss and Yennefer due to the relatively short amount of time Shani is about, I also didn’t feel comfortable being forced into this dalliance on account of my Geralt’s dedication to Triss. I wish there was an option to make my romantic situation clear early on to establish clear boundaries rather than endure this dissonant interaction.
That minor annoyance aside, you’ll be hard-pressed to find such tonally rich writing elsewhere. Hearts of Stone is bursting with humour and mystery, and positively packed with dozens of clever quirks and references that one might only spot on a second playthrough.
Hearts of Stone also continues The Witcher 3’s success in, quite simply, creeping you the hell out. The Witcher’s writing isn’t always self-serious, but there’s a fair share of grimness and tragedy that contrasts with the wealth of levity to really emphasise the dire stakes of the situations you’ll become embroiled in. You’re constantly reminded of the dangers of even vaguely associating with Gaunter O’ Dimm and Olgierd von Everec both. The Caretaker standing out amongst new foes for its chilling design. You’ll know it when you see it. There’s this pervasive sense of dread to the latter half of the expansion’s story as you peel back more of the mystery, and it’s delicious.
Alongside the main story there’s a handful of small side quests to dig into along the way, although these serve to complement your path rather than act as truly distinct distractions. There’s added nuance to character progression in Runewords and Glyphwords; these are enchantments that can be applied to weapons or armour with three rune/glyph slots, destroying the slots in the process but imbuing the item with powerful properties. It’s a nice layer of strategy that allows you to tailor your loadout towards your chosen play style.
Hearts of Stone spins a wondrous yarn. CD Projekt Red takes their time to weave a complete and engrossing story in and around the city of Oxenfurt, managing to make fresh and nuanced statements on age-old morality questions to boot- and in a way that’s only manageable in a video game emphasising choice. There’s so much richness and value here: further evidence that CD Projekt Red is a paragon of customer-facing, quality content.