Throughout the course of the year, you will find people throwing out the phrases ‘Game of the Year’ or ‘Best XXX Ever’. Whilst The Witcher 3 may not be the best game of 2015, it is certainly, in my opinion, in the top three. So how does CD Projekt Reds’ first DLC for the title fare?
Since I finished the original campaign, I’ve been wondering what would happen in Hearts of Stone. With so many possible outcomes and character fates, I knew that the DLC would unfortunately be omitting most of the people I have come to love and loathe. Geralt would still be Geralt though, and luckily for me he seems to have returned to normality since his slight break from reality at the end of my game. So what better way to get back into the swing of things, than with a good old contract. Killing a beast for money. That’s the life. That’s the Witchers life.
And that’s how we are introduced into Hearts of Stone, a familiar bounty board in Novigrad. Whilst you will recognise Novigrad, as it featured prominently in the base game, CDPR have expanded it beautifully with new towns, new areas, new monsters, and new characters. It was so seemless, I found it hard to tell which hamlets were there previously to installing the DLC.
This contract leads us to a new focal point, the charismatic Olgierd Von Everec, leader of The Wild Men. Hearts of Stones’ main quest line revolves around the relationship between Olgierd and the mysterious Gaunter O Dimm. We’ve met Gaunter before, but so to not spoil things, I’ll leave it at that. Gaunter and Olgierd work wonderfully together. Throughout the whole DLC you are wondering who’s side you’re actually on, who’s good, who’s evil, are they both evil, are they both good? Is there a victim? An instigator? Or are both men, both. It works exceptionally well, and puts your emotions and your conscience to the test as we follow them on a journey of betrayal and intrigue.
CDPR truly outdo themselves with the two main characters we are introduced too, but they don’t stop there. We get more, and with my personal highlight being the ghost Vlodomir. Funny, charming and crude, Vlodomir steals the show in one of the quests, and despite knowing he isn’t a very nice guy, you can’t help but love him. It’s things like this that really tie you into HoS, pulling you in and not letting you go.
For those of you, who like me, managed to destroy any chance you may have had to spend your life with Yen or Triss, fear not, for we do get an optional new romance in the form of Shani. Witcher veterans will recognise the name, as it is the one and the same Shani from the original Witcher game. Shani has now blossomed into a beautiful adult with a heart of gold, a medic helping the needy on the front lines of the war. Shani is also a breath of fresh air when compared to the sultry Yen and the overwhelmed Triss. Fun, footloose and carefree, she adds an extra dimension to interacting with Geralt, as we don’t get to see him deal with positive emotions all that often.
The standard of the writing continues into the quests. Despite the combat not changing, nor the standard main quest/side quest formula, the style of quest is what truly makes Heart of Stone shine in comparison to the base game. Each of the main storyline quests is vastly different from one another, as well as being different to anything contained in the base game. From heists to weddings, to alternate dimensions brought to life by the paintbrush of a dead woman on some canvas, I would have to say I would rate each HoS quest greater than anything in the main game. The quests seem to reach out on a deeper level this time around, with the painted world and the wedding offering a great insight into Olgierd and Vlodomir respectively. It’s the recurring theme of, are these really bad guys, or just misunderstood. Its up to you to make that choice, as the game will present you with choices, and at times you may have to pause and really think about what you are going to do. The problem is, there is just no right answer.
And as always, the ending truly matters. It makes a difference. You have to know you didn’t spend hours helping people out and fixing mess after mess to be left disappointed by your reward. The ending of HoS doesn’t disappoint here either, offering multiple rewards of a high standard that can truly impact the game. Your choice at the end, I predict, is going to have serious consequences in the future.
The final addition, which is uniquely new, is the introduction of the Runesmith. After performing a few quests, and injecting a serious amount of cash into him, he will set out his stall and offer you runes. These offer exceptional bonuses, such as grindstone buffs never expiring on weapons. However, it is offset by the exorbitant amount of Orens you will need to invest into the business. Most average players will not have enough gold to fully upgrade him though, as he costs in the region of 25,000 to unlock fully.
Unfortunately for the Gwent lovers, following the announcement that the rumoured standalone Gwent game isn’t happening, there is also no new Gwent tournaments within the game. There is new cards featuring HoS bosses and characters you can improve your existing deck with, which make the tournament at the Passiflora that little bit easier. Plus they look cool. Really cool.
Combat hasn’t changed with the introduction of the HoS. There are no new skills or techniques, only new gear to match your increased level. However, for those who like a challenge, here one may be found. Despite finding no documentation to prove this, Death March is now, harder. Much harder. I breezed through the original game on Death March with rarely a death…..on HoS, I was dying, a lot. Some of the boss fights will have you pulling your hair out if you try to tough it out (try earning the ‘When it’s many against one’ achievement on DM difficultly), and regular mobs with their irregular movement now pose a serious health risk.
For gamers interested in the achievements and trophies, HoS features a pleasant list with nothing too taxing (unless your on the aforementioned Death March). There are some missables included as well as random miscellaneous achievements thrown In to compliment the campaign related ones you will obtain along the way… Nothing should stop you obtaining the completion though.
Nothing has really changed with this DLC. It has stuck to the tried and tested formula that made the base game what it was, and for me, that’s a good thing. The question that is always asked regarding DLC, is ‘was it worth the money’. Coming in at £7.99 for a solid 10-15 hours of enjoyment, it’s a resounding yes. This addition is a masterpiece and it’s all about the story, the characters, and the emotions. The writing is perfect, and in an ERPG that already has the mechanics nailed, that is all you need. The DLC integrates into the base game seamlessly, so even if you aren’t at the recommended level 32 that the DLC suggests, you can roam the new areas of Novigrad at your pleasure, galloping with Roach across the plains. Just be warned, your leisurely gallop may turn into a frenzied sprint if your level seven Geralt stumbles across a mob of monsters he isn’t quite ready for.
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