Be wary. For wherever monsters and men roam, make sure you have a Heart of Stone.
In an interview with Redbull.com, CD Projekt Red’s senior art producer Michal Krzeminski discusses the studio’s perspectives of downloadable content versus expansions and what fans can expect from the Hearts of Stone add-on for The Witcher 3. In the interview, Krzeminski mentions that “DLCs are pieces of fun, meaningful content” (e.g., new weapon sets, different clothing and armor, or new mechanics) while “an expansion is something that offers significant value for the gamer, and requires a really big amount of work to create.”
Rest assured, Krzeminski’s words ring true, as CD Projekt Red’s first expansion for the The Witcher 3 is an expertly crafted add-on with a significant amount of content, production value, and personality. Hearts of Stone cannot be missed by Witcher 3 owners and fans of the Witcher series.
The first thing to be said about the expansion is the level requirement to start it. Hearts of Stone is meant to be played after finishing the base game. For players looking to continue from their last save, the game recommends players be around level 32 on a first playthrough or around level 60 for those who have started a New Game+ mode. There is also one particular moment that recalls a massive spoiler from the original story, so those who haven’t finished The Witcher 3 may be caught off-guard.
However, spoilers and recommended levels aside, CD Projekt Red still allows all players to partake in the expansion regardless of where they are in the original campaign. Hearts of Stone is playable straight from the main menu. Through this option, quests from the main game are locked and players will use a default Geralt whose gear and items are level-appropriate to the expansion. The developers deserve special recognition for this option; CD Projekt Red manages to reward players who’ve played through the main game by allowing them to continue the adventure they’ve built up so far, but by allowing anyone to start the expansion, they do not alienate fans who have not progressed as far as other players.
Hearts of Stone begins simply enough. After searching a local notice board, Geralt finds a contract calling anyone to slay a large monster in the Oxenfurt sewers. The Witcher then seeks out the contract’s creator, Olgierd von Everec, the charismatic leader of a bandit war-party—and the most important character in Hearts of Stone. Delving into the story from here, even though it’s early on in the expansion, touches on extreme spoilers. The contract is merely the catalyst to an amazing string of quests that pits Geralt against the impossible. Hearts of Stone breathes a unique and thematic identity into an already lore-intensive world.
The Witcher series has always had a knack for twisting fairy tales to fit its universe, and CD Projekt Red does it again, weaving a disfigured mythos into Hearts of Stone to create an intriguing and compelling main quest line. Beating the main story may take up to anywhere from eight to 10 hours, but going through the whole expansion can definitely rack up more playtime. Not to mention, player choice, exactly like the base game, affects the outcome of the story.
Once players are reeled back into the world of The Witcher 3 and begin their journey into Hearts of Stone, they can look forward to meeting new characters, fighting new enemies, and discovering a new mechanic involving enchantments. One of the new outposts houses two foreign Ofieri merchants, one of whom provides Geralt the ability to enchant his weapons and armor with runewords and glyphwords. By combining certain glyphs, the runewright merchant can enchant powerful, unique abilities into Geralt’s gear. The rune and glyphwords certainly add more dimensions into crafting, but it isn’t necessary to get through the expansion. A few familiar characters from the Witcher franchise make an appearance in the expansion, such as Shani from the very first Witcher game. CD Projekt Red even managed to have a very minor character from The Wild Hunt play an extreme role in Hearts of Stone.
The explorable world is also slightly bigger due to the addition of several villages and the von Everec estate. Monster nests, hidden treasures, and a Witcher contract can be found in the expanded areas.
These pieces of content, which are sprinkled throughout the expansion, don’t make much for an add-on by themselves. However, when paired alongside the excellent narrative, Hearts of Stone reminds its players just how immersive The Witcher 3 can really become.
Hours can melt away in The Witcher 3‘s main game, just from navigating the map, visiting undiscovered locations, and searching for ingredients to craft items. While nowhere near the same scale as the base game, the same thing can be said about Hearts of Stone. The expansion, with new areas, armor diagrams, and quests, easily immerses any player ready for adventure. The promise of a brand new journey lulls players back into the world, but the already-solid combat mechanics, as well as excellent sound and visual design, tethers players to the game for hours on end. Second only to the fantastic narrative, this is Hearts of Stone’s greatest accomplishment.
If there is one gripe about Hearts of Stone, it is the difficulty curve on the boss battles. However, since the expansion was meant to be played after the main game, preparing the correct formula and oils easily solves this dilemma.
After 16 free DLCs post-launch, CD Projekt Red finally delivers Hearts of Stone, a true expansion amongst a sea of content malpractice and microtransactions. The developers distinguished what they believe to be worth their fans’ time and money and utterly deliver. For only $9.99, or $24.99 for the season pass, Hearts of Stone is a perfect expansion that will have fans hungrily anticipating Blood and Wine, the next Witcher add-on.