No developer has impressed me so much this year as CD Projekt RED, and this was a year with some really impressive games. It’s not so much The Witcher 3 that was impressive on its own. It is a great game and all, but what made me so happy was the downloaded content that CD Projekt RED released. There have been over 12 DLC content packs released so far, all for free. We touched on this a bit in our Witcher 3 GiN Lounge podcast, because not a lot of companies would do that. Granted, a lot of the content packs were small things like new haircuts or art for the Gwent deck, but some of them were mini-adventures too. If it were most other companies, we would be paying something like 99 cents or $4.99 per DLC. Heck, I didn’t even know I had them till I checked the list of available downloads and saw the incredible list that the developers have pumped out since the game’s release.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone is the first DLC that is actually being sold for the game instead of being free. But don’t worry, it’s more than worth it. Hearts of Stone could almost be its own game. I think the developers really took their time with the DLC and added in some unique content that perhaps they wanted to put into the core game. They really stretched things a bit, and for the most part, quite successfully.
The core of Hearts of Stone starts innocently enough, with Geralt answering a notice for a witcher contract. However, things go quite crazy from there. Geralt ends up getting involved with one Olgierd von Everec, a bandit captain who is a total tool to everyone, even Geralt. But von Everec is also immortal, so you can’t just lop off his head. Instead, you end up getting involved with another strange character whom you met briefly before, the Merchant of Mirrors who helped point you in the direction of Yennefer in the game’s White Orchard prologue. And you thought he was a minor character? Nope, he’s a very powerful being who steals souls in return for granting wishes, so sort of like how the devil is traditionally depicted.
Geralt has little choice but to work with him, but instead of stealing your soul, you are instead forced to help him unravel the spell protecting von Everec. You see, it turns out that von Everec made a deal with the Merchant of Mirrors and is now immortal. The Merchant does not like this, and wants to revoke the deal, but can only do so when von Everec has three wishes granted. To complicate matters, The Merchant by contract can’t complete those tasks himself, but must choose a scapegoat, er, proxy to perform them. That proxy is Geralt. Given that von Everec has no real desire for anyone to actually be able to finish those tasks, he gives players three impossible missions. These are not things like slaying big monsters, though you will have to do a lot of that too, but instead stuff like showing his (long-dead) brother the time of his life.
Completing these tasks will introduce some new gameplay elements into The Witcher 3. It almost seems like CD Projekt RED borrowed some of the best moments from other games and applied them to The Witcher 3, but in unique ways. For example, in one mission you will have to assemble a team of thieves to pull off an impossible heist, which felt very much like a medieval Grand Theft Auto V. There was even a cork board on the back wall with various choices and possible recruits laid out. I don’t want to cast too many spoilers here, but another mission in the Hearts of Stone DLC recreates one of my favorite side missions from Oblivion, though without the need for solvent to fight trolls (hint, hint). In fact, each of the three main missions in the DLC adds a pretty cool element that should make for some good Witcher memories.
Boss fights in this DLC are also really tough. I swear that one fight was taken right from the Father Gascoigne cemetery boss battle in Bloodborne, but it’s much more fairly done here. In any case, each of the bosses have tells, and knowing when you are actually able to hit them without getting creamed will take skillful observation. Some bosses can even be weakened by destroying things in the environment around them, which is yet another new element. Boss fights sometimes took me over five minutes to complete, though I loved every minute of them. They were challenging and forced me to use my head, but also fair.
There are also a few side missions as well, including one that you really have to work to find. As a hint for that one, be sure to bring enough coin to fully participate in the auction. You may be able to buy a new mission with some in-game coin.
Other extras include a new romanceable character, well, actually an old friend from the first game, Shani, who makes a new appearance. I love seeing Shani because back in the original Witcher I choose her over all the other romance options. Then she was totally gone from The Witcher 2, so it’s nice to see her back. Her character is also really cool and well fleshed out, so she adds a nice touch to the game even if you don’t choose to get romantic with her.
You actually get to spend a lot of time with Shani on a couple missions, but for one of them you end up at her friend’s wedding and get to do all the wedding activities with her. There is more to it than that and it involves a ghost and some possession problems, but for the most part, you spend an evening dancing, drinking and playing cards, as well as other odd wedding traditions like diving for shoes and pig wrangling. Plus, you are spending time with Shani, which is always nice.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone has a few other extras, like new Gwent cards for your decks. My Northern Realms spy-heavy deck can beat just about any other one I run up against, but it’s even more powerful and versatile now with the new Hearts of Stone cards, which you can earn by defeating new opponents.
Everything about The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone is fun. Just when I was starting to miss playing the core game again, the DLC pops up to thrill once more. And given everything the developers did here, I can only wonder what we have in store for the coming Blood and Wine story. I’m not sure that Hearts of Stone can be topped, but I’m sure excited to see CD Projekt RED try.