The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone sets out to expand on CD Projekt’s seminal open-world RPG, and it does that somewhat convincingly. The “expansion pack” (don’t call it DLC, please) delivers a weighty quest line with a handful of side quests, and a new crafting mechanic via an additional merchant: the Runewright. There’s an extra bonus point awarded because the expansion brings in people of colour to The Witcher 3’s world – something that the base game was criticised for lacking shortly after its release.
Hearts of Stone ticks all the right boxes insofar as contemporary expansions go, but it’s the base game in which it finds itself that highlights how underwhelming of an expansion it can at times feel like. The Witcher 3 is already enormous, festooned with so much content and detail and distraction that adding “more” to the game feels like an exercise in superfluousness. The result is that Hearts of Stone never really constitutes as having an “expansion pack-worthy” impact on the game.
Don’t misunderstand me: there’s a lot of good on display in the expansion, and the main quest line exhibits some standout moments and genuine humour – the latter being particularly difficult to find in the base game. However, the vessel within which Hearts of Stone is presented to us is already so full of incredible content that it makes it difficult for this expansion to find its voice. It’s the DLC equivalent of adding Flake sprinkles to an ice-cream sundae that’s already smothered in Nutella and LSD: it’s a nice gesture, but largely inconsequential in the grander scheme of things.
The 8+ hours of new quests centre on two main characters at odds with one another: the roguish Olgierd von Everec and the enigmatic-but-totally-a-bad-guy Gaunter O’Dimm, who really should always be called by his other alias “Master Mirror” because it’s just such a cool name. Exactly why these two are at loggerheads is part of what makes this seemingly dull quest line more interesting, so I’m not going to go into it. I will say that about three-quarters of the way through this quest I was getting thoroughly bored by what I was being subjected to, but the finale was quite unsettling, and therefore memorable. Bottom line: the story of Hearts of Stone has highs and lows, and likely more lows than highs, but by the time you’ve wrapped things up and reached your conclusion (there are choices to make, so endings will differ) the whole offering is rather satisfying. It’s nowhere near as enthralling a quest line as the superb “Bloody Baron” sequence from the base game, but it’s still good.
The structure of the main quest flirts dangerously with the generally loathed fetch-quest variety, especially the final task you’re given by Olgierd. There are some unique aspects and boss encounters that lift this penultimate quest from pure fetch-quest obscurity, but the sequence drags on too long and features some horrendous difficulty spikes that saw me dropping the game’s difficulty level after I’d been killed for the umpteenth time. What’s more, the final boss encounter of this third task (you’ll know it when you get to it!) takes place in a rather confined space which meant that on top of battling a really tough boss, I had to fight the game’s camera as well. This stood out for me because it has never been a problem in the base game. The result was that for the first time in my nearly 100+ hours of playing The Witcher 3, a boss encounter broke the game’s established natural flow. It was jarring and left me feeling a little grumpy.
As is the case with so many of The Witcher 3’s quest lines, it is the characters embroiled in the plots and subplots that make things memorable. Hearts of Stone is no exception to this, and while main characters like the aforementioned Master Mirror seem insipid at the start, true colours are shown towards the end that imbue many of the seemingly inconsequential characters with some notable gravitas. One of the nicest additions to the game’s cast of characters is Shani, who returns from the original The Witcher from 2007. Shani plays a role in helping Geralt unravel what exactly is going on between Olgierd and Master Mirror, and she forms a new love interest that culminates (if pursued) in another cringe-worthy and wooden video game sex scene.
On the surface it seems that Shani is yet another female character deployed into Geralt’s world in order to titillate male players, but she is more than unashamed eye-candy. Shani is one of the more relatable and believable female characters in the game. She’s a super-intelligent doctor who runs her own practice and who has saved countless lives. She’s also no pushover; something that becomes undeniable when she and Geralt attend a wedding in the company of Olgierd’s brother Vlad von Everic. Vlad is another standout character that Hearts of Stone introduces. He does, sadly, fall into the “lovable misogynist” archetype, but he also provides some incredibly amusing dialogue that luckily isn’t exclusively to do with bedding women. He constantly tries his luck with Shani, who constantly rebuffs his advances, albeit in as polite a way as possible.
I went into this expansion concerned that Shani had been added in so as to tick a “New Romance Plot” checkbox, but her character is treated with more care than that, and I was pleasantly surprised considering the bad rep this franchise has with female representation. Scenes like the one in which Geralt scolds three Redanian soldiers for considering an attractive AND intelligent woman an oddity, feel like deliberate placements by CD Projekt to show that yes, they get what people are going on about with regard to the series’ treatment of women.
Lengthy quest line and memorable new characters aside, Hearts of Stone also brings that aforementioned Runewright craftsman. If, like me, you accumulated heaps of runestones and glyphs throughout your initial playthrough of the base game, they’re now actually useful thanks to the Runewright. This new craftsman can turn combinations of runestones and glyphs into runewords and glyphwords that impart very powerful effects to swords and armour. You can only apply these new runewords to items with at least three enhancement slots, but you can also pay to add additional slots to equipment that lacks the required amount. For example: I paid the Runewright 1,318 pieces of gold to add a third enhancement slot to a Relic sword I was using. The more powerful the item, the pricier it is to add an enhancement slot.
Some of the runewords that can be applied to items offer powerful effects. For example, the “Preservation” runeword makes the temporary grindstone and armourer’s table buffs permanent. Another runeword adds a chance for burning enemies to spread the fire to nearby enemies. Essentially, the runewords add effects and buffs to your equipment that are far more immediate and impactful than runestones and glyphs could ever hope to be. Goodbye dull old percentage modifiers; hello tangible and useful effects.
Naturally there is a short sequence of quests before the Runewright is ready to work for you. You’ll also need a substantial amount of gold if you want to level him up to Master level in order to access the most powerful runewords. But, by the time you hit this point in your Witcher 3 playthrough, you will likely have accumulated more than enough gold anyway. You do need to be over level 30 in order to tackle this new content, but if you haven’t already finished the main story, or you haven’t hit that character level, you can choose to play Hearts of Stone in “standalone mode”. This mode will give you a pre-levelled Geralt with a high-level set of equipment to tackle the expansion’s quest line. A word of warning: going this route will set the base game’s main quest story to “completed”, and there’s a couple of minor spoilers that crop up in the Hearts of Stone story.