The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone (DLC) Review
I like to put off playing through DLC/expansion stuff until it’s all out, so I’m a bit late to the party on this one. Still, I can only learn and forget how to play this game so many times before it gets irritating, and my first steps in Hearts of Stone were every bit as embarrassing as you’d expect someone jumping into end-game type content having forgotten how to play to be. I died to everything as I fumbled around, desperately trying to remember how to do simple things like use bombs and potions, and the long loading screens (even on an SSD, weirdly) made that even more annoying than it’d be otherwise. It didn’t help any that I imported a save from my first playthrough, which meant that I was missing a bunch of items and pieces of helpful equipment that I only found on subsequent playthroughs. Despite those embarrassing initial troubles, however, I slowly pieced together how everything worked again as I made my way through Hearts of Stone for the first time.
I liked the story far better than the base game’s
The third Witcher game has won a bunch of awards and been praised all over the internet, but the main game’s story fizzles out in several ways that left me underwhelmed by the end of it all. It didn’t feel like an end to a series of games so much as a book wannabe, and even the series’ trademark moral grayness wound up abandoned when it came to the endgame villains (though sidequests and early-game content fared far better). Hearts of Stone, on the other hand, doesn’t seem like it’s trying to serve as an end to a series, yet it does a better job of it than the base game by tying back to the very first Witcher game at several points. The most notable example of this is the presence of medic Shani, who was unceremoniously forgotten in the second game until a little “oh, things didn’t work out, by the way” got patched in at some point after complaints. She plays a pretty significant role in the early portions of Hearts of Stone, and there are other little touches from the first game that I came to appreciate, as well.
It never forgets that it’s trying to tell its own story, though, and those references thus avoid becoming as shoehorned and awkward as the base game’s book references so often manage to be. Instead, the focus here is very much on the conflict between the inexplicably immortal Olgierd and the enigmatic Gaunter O’Dimm. Early in the game, you end up indebted to the latter and have to pay off your debt by granting three wishes for Olgierd in order to fulfill the contract between the two, something Olgierd very much would like to avoid for reasons that only become obvious as you slowly begin to piece together the arrangement between the two. Because of that, the wishes are designed to range from very complicated to seemingly impossible, sometimes requiring indirect help from Gaunter to make happen.
As is true of the rest of the series, the characters are where the DLC shines. Olgierd is a thoroughly unlikable bastard through and through, and yet I felt compelled to help him for various reasons. Siding with Gaunter is a perfectly legitimate choice, too, and he has a slightly evil swagger about him that causes him to steal almost every scene he appears in. As always, you choose who “wins” their little game.
What makes this work so much better than the base game for me is the pacing. Here I’m not being bogged down in endless sidequests, nor are my efforts met with the same your-princess-is-in-another-castle tedium of looking for Ciri and the roundabout methods you employ to find her. Everything revolves around the central characters with very little distracting you from them (though the DLC takes place in the Novigrad area, so the base game’s stuff could be a problem if you haven’t cleared some of that already and don’t choose the HoS-only option when starting), causing Hearts of Stone to be focused and paced briskly in a way that complements the storytelling.
The best reason to play is for the items at the end
Depending on who you help, you can get different helpful items at the end of the DLC that can be helpful to carry over into the Blood and Wine expansion. Helping Gaunter can earn you one of several magical-type items of varying quality, including something that effectively gives you unlimited food and another item that gives you unlimited liquor to restore bombs and potions when resting. You can also choose less helpful money or hint-type rewards from him that don’t quite compare to the other options. If you choose to help Olgierd instead, he gives you his magical sword, and it’s so powerful that I’m still using it ten or so hours into Blood and Wine.
There are also some interesting features and scenes that make Hearts of Stone worthwhile. The first and most obvious of these is the runewright, a new character who you have to pay an ungodly sum of money to set up with a shop before using, but who can then enchant special effects into weapons and armors that have three open enhancement slots. To be perfectly honest, this is more an amusing novelty than anything that actually benefits gameplay because of how thoroughly useless many of the enchantments actually end up being, but I’ve found two exceptions. First, the “retribution” rune, which has a 30% chance of returning damage to attackers. This even carries over into fistfights you get into while wearing armor (not all fistfights, obviously, but enough for the cheapness to become amusing). As for the swords, I’ve found it worthwhile to enchant them with the “severance” rune, which increases the range of the rend and whirl skills by quite a bit. I don’t use whirl, personally, but rend is a great way to do huge damage on block-happy enemies and having its range extended has proven massively helpful.
Then there’s the painted world section that uses an interesting filter that makes everything look like brush strokes. I was surprised by how good this ended up looking, and the section is also filled with various (easy) puzzles that brought to mind those in a point-and-click. By far the most interesting part of Hearts of Stone, however, is the fact that you don’t end the game with some grand feat of combat. Siding with Gaunter happens through dialogue, whereas standing by Olgierd tacks on a riddle at the end that has to be solved (though this happens through a timed section with some awkward platforming instead of allowing you to simply answer, which struck me as awkward, unnecessary fluff). I really appreciated things resolving in a way that suits the story instead of the developers throwing in some huge fight at the end out of a sense of obligation, that being something far too many games fall victim to.
Especially since I really don’t care for the combat
I touched on this in my review of the base game, but in my mind, the combat in The Witcher 3 is a step back from that in the second game, and that remains true of Hearts of Stone; you can still only have two bombs equipped at a time, there are still no traps, and enemies still tend to be damage sponges. The damage sponge thing was also a problem in the early portions of the second game, in all fairness, but the late-game content was another story, and the viability of finishing entire sections using nothing but bombs or traps was a beautiful thing. Put simply, you could play however you wanted for most of the game and were never forced into any one specific play style.
There’s only one way to play The Witcher 3, though. You dodge and roll, get behind things, use bombs and signs, and smack things with your sword until they die. You’re limited to 3-5 bombs of each type, so you’re constantly (and awkwardly) returning to the menu to switch them out once they’re used. There are no traps to be set in advance because traps don’t exist in this game. Basically, you play the way the developers want you to play, and deviating from that isn’t an option if you want to be successful. No longer are there other, equally viable ways to approach combat, because they’ve all been combined into a single play style you have to adhere to. That’d be great if it was as rock-solid as some seem to believe it is, but even after countless patches, I still found myself getting stuck on objects in the environment during combat. This was an especially bad problem in close quarters, and an inordinate amount of the game seems to revolve around fighting in close quarters.
The rare boss fights are particularly annoying, especially toward the end when you face the Caretaker and a wraith shortly thereafter. The Caretaker heals whenever it damages someone else, which means it can drag out the fight by hitting you and undoing all of the damage you’ve done to it. The fight doesn’t get truly bad until it spawns random shadowy enemies in order to personally kill them to restore its health, though. Adding in an annoying rush to damage these ghost-type things which are hard to see before the boss heals itself entirely is irritating beyond words, and the whole fight becomes a battle of attrition that’s not difficult so much as just tedious beyond description. The wraith fight that happens not long after is slightly less terrible, though it also has a phase where it can heal itself a lot. You have to quickly get to a glowing painting and smash it before the wraith heals too much, and I found the camera to be a huge pain during this section because of how small the hallway you fight in is and how easy it is to—wait for it—get stuck on random objects littered around its edges while trying to get to the painting. Another problem I had against a boss was during an early fight against a giant frog monster. For some reason, the game took me out of combat whenever its tongue attack removed my Quen shield, so instead of dodging away, I’d instead jump in the air while remaining in danger. All of the boss fights were either unremarkable or just plain terrible like that, so I’m glad they proved mercifully rare.
Do I even have to mention that the game’s pretty and sounds good?
The only problem I had with the base game from a graphical standpoint was that the lighting could be a bit flat and unflattering on cloudy days. Hearts of Stone gets around this by having many of the scenes happen during sunny days or at nighttime with pretty torchlight keeping things interesting, so I came to appreciate the graphics here even more than those in the base game. Characters’ eyes in particular seem to have put an extraordinary amount of detail put into them and end up being bizarrely expressive as a result, with Shani and Gaunter benefiting from this the most. There are also some pre-rendered cutscenes, and they’re of such a high quality that it took me awhile to figure out whether they were actually cutscenes or not. As for the soundtrack, I already claimed that the base game had the best soundtrack of all three games, and I think the new music in HoS might be even better. It captures the dark tone of characters’ machinations over the course of the story while being exceptionally memorable at the same time.