According to the achievement tracker in GOG, it has been four months since I trundled the dusty roads of Velen. It takes a few minutes for things to become familiar to me again, finding the weapon wheel and getting used to the controls. It doesn’t take long before I start to feel like I am home again, wandering the countryside towards a new quest, a new Witcher contract. As you can imagine it involves an old friend and goes horribly wrong.
Hearts of Stone puts Geralt on the back foot. He owes someone a debt, someone terribly powerful, who wants him to jump through hoops. The mystery keeps you pushing through, even though you get set some almost impossible tasks.
Get ready to spend a lot of time exploring aspects of the game that aren’t solved by using a sword. While there are many challenging battles even for those with really good gear, a lot of focus is put on talking your way through situations or exploring your surroundings to find clues. If you enjoyed the masquerade ball you attended with Triss in Wild Hunt, you are in for a real treat with a similar setting involving a wedding and a ghost.
Whether planning a heist or hunting for new diagrams for crafting, Heart of Stone is just a lot more Witcher, adding some 10 hours to an already massive game. A lot of the game happens in and around Oxenfurt, adding several monster dens that will give you a challenge. After running around at level 30 in Wild Hunt for so long, enemies stopped being a challenge, making most encounters boring. With Hearts of Stone I had to learn how to fight all over again, especially with a few new beasties with cunning tricks. It brings back the feeling of needing to be prepared and not just running in without thinking. When you get killed by a successful ambush by level 34 Nekkers, you learn to be wary of the countryside again.
To help you keep track of things in a potentially clogged quest log, all the expansion quests show up in blue, which helps to keep tabs on what is part of the expansion. Of course, you could just look for the quests that recommend level 32 and higher, but it is a nice touch. If you have coin burning a hole in your pocket, a new Ofieri craftsman offering powerful rune words will improve your gear, if you help him recoup what he lost at sea. It is expensive but worth it.
Hearts of Stone is very separate from the storyline of the Wild Hunt, though it feels like it could have been a part of the base game. This isn’t one of those pointless overpriced DLCs, with extra collectibles or re-textured caves with harder monsters and better loot. It shows that there are things terrible and powerful in the world that aren’t related to the Wild Hunt in any way, further establishing just how dark and terrible the world around Geralt is.
Its difficult to explain without delving into spoiler territory because the DLC is really just one large quest, all neatly contained. It is odd how little Yenn or Triss care about the predicament you find yourself in, or your sudden disappearance from pursuing the end of the main story. It breaks immersion somewhat in that regard but if you pursue just the DLC’s quests, you won’t notice it at all. In fact, you will be hard-pressed to think of anything else once you start the quest and deal with the man with a heart of stone. It feels like the whole of the Wild Hunt compressed and abridged, removing the sprawling dungeons to replace them with a lot of story, some difficult choices and a completely worthwhile experience. The story here is definitely something I would like to discuss once more people have played through it!
When the dust settles you are left wanting more, exploring the world for traces of what transpired, perhaps a book that adds extra colour or explanation? This is how DLC is meant to be done: adding a massive chunk of gameplay in the same style as some of the best quests from the game, making you want to visit otherwise well-beaten roads once again with a new perspective, desperately wanting more.