The trail for the herbalist’s apprentice had led Geralt to a village all but abandoned, save for a lone elderly couple. They confessed to having seen him a few days prior, but heard the wolves howling that same night.
With the conversation over, the in game quest log automatically updated. Geralt was to report to the herbalist who put out the contract, updating him on the sad fate which had likely befallen the young Halfling. In the upper corner of my screen, the mini-map drew out a trail to get back to the herbalist’s hut from the village, as there was nothing left for me to do there.
But something didn’t sit right with me. Geralt himself had pointed out an inconsistency with the gaffer’s account: wolves would have left some trace, such as boots, but he had found no remains whatsoever. But even before this, there was a certain look upon the septuagenarian’s face, subtle but unmistakably present, placed there by the animators with obvious intentionality, that my every instinct read as concealing something.
I was at an impasse. The gamer logic I had acquired over half a century immersed in the medium told me to follow the trail on my mini-map and check-off the next objective in my quest log. On the other hand, the natural human intuitions I had developed in that same time taught me to read facial expressions and critically consider what other individuals say. I decided to investigate further.
Behind the geriatric couple’s hut, crudely concealed by a stack of boxes, I found door leading to their cellar. Therein I found the body of a Halfling fitting the description I’d been given when I first accepted the missing persons contract. Strewn about him were butchered slabs of meat and hanging above was skinned game. The environment told me the whole story before Geralt’s subsequent confrontation with the cannibals spelled it out.
This brief side quest is emblematic of everything The Witcher: Wild Hunt did right and what the Hearts of Stone expansion continues to nail perfectly. Developer CD Projekt Red is so confident in their ability to deliver narrative through more naturalistic and immersive means (such as facial animation, voice acting, strong writing, clear characterization, environmental clues, etc.) that they use such to subvert traditional video games tropes, trusting in the intelligence of the player to see past their misdirection in the mechanics.
In addition to a handful of side quest similar to the one above, Hearts of Stone is centered around five larger main quests that chronicle the conflict between the stone-hearted Olgierd von Everec and the enigmatic Gaunter O’Dimm.
The total time it takes to complete such is about equal to the length of the Bloody Baron quest line or the search for Dandelion from the original game, which veterans of The Witcher 3 will know to be longer and denser than many full triple-A games. For comparison to another recent release, the Hearts of Stone expansion pack alone took me longer to complete than the entirety of the Destiny base game, The Dark Below, House of Wolves, and The Taken King expansions all combined.
Of course, the quantity of time spent is of less importance than the quality of the time spent, and herein lies The Witcher’s greatest strength. While it is possible to go for a relaxing jaunt around the outskirts of Novigrad and Oxenford, mindlessly slaying ghouls and destroying monster nests, such a grind is never necessary to progress through the core content of the game. And even should you decide to spend a few hours searching for enemies to kill out of simple enjoyment of the game’s rich swordplay and spells, CD Projekt Red still finds ways to contextualize such combat into a memorable narrative. What started as slaying nameless ruffians encountered throughout the world quickly proved a multipart side quest to systemically destroy a band of knights turned medieval meth dealers, an amusingly anachronistic homage to Breaking Bad that fit perfectly within the universe Sapkowski created.
Said universe is best described as “fucked-up fairy tales.” The first of the five main quests see Geralt taking a contract to slay the famous frog-prince, albeit in this world the maidens seeking to break the curse and secure themselves a royal marriage pay far greater a price than kissing a pair of slimy lips. The revelation of who cast the curse and why is the catalyst for the rest of the events to follow.
While these events never reach the epic scope of the Witcher 3’s main story, which sees its protagonists hopping through strange science-fiction dimensions and playing central roles in the battle of Ragnarok, Hearts of Stone succeeds in matching the base game’s deep level of characterization. Olgierd von Everec is every bit as fleshed out, if not more so, than Yennifer, Dandelion, or even Ciri. His tragic tale is peeled back slowly over the course of many hours, but is truly brought to life in the superlative penultimate chapter, in which Geralt enters the gorgeously rendered world of an impressionist-style painting.
The other stand out character is Shani, a field medic that serves as the expansion’s primary romantic option. The Witcher 3 has long been noted as a significant advancement of the medium’s ability to depict the various contours of adult sexuality fully and maturely. Sex scenes are not merely an incentivizing reward for clicking the correct conversation choices along some game-spanning side quest, as per the BioWare model. Geralt has, from time to time, engaged in anonymous sex and frequented brothels, with the resulting relations reveled in by the game’s camera (though such never quite rises to the level of erotica, or even titillating, it is always far above pornographic smut). But he has also had more complex and emotionally engaging relationships. The main game successfully encapsulated a dispassionate yet irresistible lifelong love in the character of Yennifer.
Shani is an attempt at something lesser, a mere mutual compatibility and enjoyment of one another’s company. Perhaps it is the commonality of such romances that allowed CD Projekt Red to so successfully capture it. Geralt’s date with Shani to a wedding is the new standard for realistic depictions of romance in games. Though it is perhaps less successful than a game such as Persona 4 in actually engendering affection on the part of the players themselves, it is far and away more successful in portraying the player character’s amorous emotions.
Of more minor importance but worth noting nonetheless, Hearts of Stone corrects one of the few flaws in the base game: the loot. Too often Geralt had run around Velen and Skellige hideously garbed because the stats on such attire necessitated such. But whether wearing the new Olfiri duds or Viper armor, Geralt is always dressed to the nines while min-maxing throughout the expansion.
If Hearts of Stone has any flaws, it’s a severe lack of Gwent. In talking about The Witcher 3 to friends, I often described it as a fantastic card game with a 200+ hour open-world role playing game on the side. A few of the new non-player characters were willing to play a round with me, but I was really hoping for Hearts of Stone to overtake Hearthstone as the most popular collectable card game.
Not since Citadel for Mass Effect 3 has a piece of downloadable content as substantive and engaging as Hearts of Stone. Had The Witcher 3 itself not been released in May, this expansion pack would be near the top of my list for Game of the Year contenders. CD Projekt Red surpassed all expectations and truly outdid themselves with the base game, continued to do so with the sixteen pieces of free DLC, and have done so once again with Hearts of Stone.