The Witcher 3 finished on a pretty dramatic and emotional note, for me anyway, so it was always going to be a bit of a challenge for the DLC to continue Geralt’s story in an interesting and meaningful way. Hearts of Stone was the first of two major expansions released for CD Projekt Red’s game, and both expansions are now bundled with the base game if you buy the GOTY edition which is currently retailing for £35. This should be an absolute no-brainer for anyone who hasn’t played it yet and who is even vaguely interested in Western RPGs: Witcher 3 is one of the best games of all time, and a single play-through including DLC is going to take you about 200-250 hours, easily. So, money well spent.
That said, only a small portion of those hours will likely be spent in Hearts of Stone, which at 15-20 hours is relatively light on content–by Witcher 3 standards, if not those of the games industry as a whole. Hearts of Stone is set in Velen, adding an extra part to the map in the hinterland between Oxenfurt and Novigrad. I actually liked this, as one of the best things about Witcher 3 was the congruity of its topography and its sense of place, so in a way I preferred them expanding Velen than moving the action to a new location entirely, as happens in the second, much larger, expansion Blood and Wine. Although you might assume the expansion doesn’t make extensive use of new computing resources, I did notice one or two bugs and graphical glitches while playing it; noteworthy simply because during 200 hours in the base game I barely experienced any technical problems whatsoever.
Hearts of Stone is based around a single significant quest, and I’m pleased to say that the writing featured in this story is up there with anything you’ll experience during the main game. Several new characters are introduced: some are completely new, while others are welcome re-appearances of characters from older Witcher games and the wider Witcher universe. As is normally the case with the Witcher, the main story is rather dark and unnerving at times, but is also full of pathos, humour, and poignant and moving moments. As with the main game, the balance of story, setting, pacing, and characterization is exquisite, and makes for a level of immersion almost unparalleled in video games. Hearts of Stone is also notable for containing one of the most entertaining and downright funny sections I’ve ever played, and what’s all the more impressive is how long this section lasts. Some games would sell a quest like that as a DLC in its own right, but here it’s a minor (but extremely memorable) episode in a much longer, winding story.
Hearts of Stone’s main quest is exceptional, but the expansion is relatively light on side content–or at least, some players might have difficulty accessing it. Some of the new content requires Geralt to fork out a lot of cash, which will be a problem if (like me) you blew all your savings on upgrading multiple sets of armour before completing the game. On the plus side, it means there is still some content to set aside for a New Game Plus run, but it does mean that some players will likely miss out on this. One of the reasons this is a bit of a shame is that the characters associated with this content are traveling merchants from the kingdom of Ofier, and whose inclusion addresses the criticisms of “whitewashing” leveled at the original game (which I discussed at length in my review).
Just as I got the feeling a bit more could have been done with the Ofieri, who have a distinctive philosophy and outlook which provides a refreshing take on the game universe, I felt like the ending to Hearts of Stone’s story was a bit abrupt. It’s possible this was the result of choices I made, and another play-through might reveal extra scenes: another reason, as if I needed one, to try and play this whole game again.