Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone review


    The expansions of The Witcher 3 have some big shoes to fill.

    The Witcher 3 was a welcome helping of grimdark after the rather unfortunate shift of the Dragon Age franchise from dark fantasy to straight up high fantasy. Unfortunately, despite being one of the best games I've ever played in my entire life, it did have a few problems: the game was wide-open areas of nothing in particular, some of the villains were bland and one-dimensional, plus the final third of the game was extremely rushed. I hope they will release an enhanced edition to pave over some of these cracks, even if said cracks didn't ruin my appreciation for what I thought was an amazing experience.

    So, what about Hearts of Stone?

We get a return of "fractured fairy tales." Something I'm always grateful for.
    Hearts of Stone is, for the most part, a expansion which directly tackles the main game's flaws heads on. It's not a perfect gaming experience due to the exaggerated difficulty I'll discuss later on but, bluntly, is extremely good. The writing is among the best in the franchise and while it doesn't have anything to do with the main campaign, I'd say it's an excellent tribute to Andrzej Sapkowski's world. It reminds me very strongly of The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny collections which told of Geralt's adventures before he met Ciri.

    The premise of the expansion is Geralt finds himself taking on an unusually difficult contract which turns out to be a variation on the Frog Prince. After things go utterly to hell, he finds himself indebted to Gaunter O'Dim. O'Dim showed up briefly in the main campaign as a mysterious traveler who knew more than he should. O'Dim wants Geralt to repay his debt by doing three impossible tasks for Olgierd von Everec, a ruthless mercenary captain who seems to have no fears.

    As usual, everyone is lying and hiding things from Geralt. The confusing mixture of who is good and who is evil is balanced by the return of Shani. The beautiful red-haired doctor and Geralt's former love plays a substantial role in the story and offers another romance option for our favorite Witcher.

Shani is gorgeously designed and I'm not usually a fan of the pixie.
    There's some flaws with this premise. The storyline draws heavily from Medieval and Renaissance Christian mythology with crossroads, deals with the Devil, pacts for souls, and even Hell. This is kind of off-kilter for the Witcher world as the setting is thoroughly agnostic. Geralt, himself, speculates a character is "just" a demon or Djinn but this doesn't quite fly given what we see.

    I'm a man of faith myself but it's kind of off-putting to see a literal godlike being in a setting which has always made it clear the only thing which separates from the Crones from any other monster is the faith of the locals. Still, I'm willing to overlook a lot and it's not like they said such character is THE Devil. They just implied it heavily.

    On the other hand, part of what I really like about this expansion is the combat is drastically de-emphasized. The number of fights Geralt gets into in the story can be counted on with two hands. The majority of the expansion is social interaction, investigation, and exploration. Some of the stuff goes a little too long like, for instance, a wedding where you have to play a bunch of party games in order to proceed. Despite this, I felt it added an excellent contrast to the rest of the game.

Olgierd is one of the most dangerous opponents Geralt has ever faced--and you don't even have to fight him.
    Unfortunately, the difficulty spike is quite a bit more than I expected. After having become used to my 30th level, Masterwork Cat-School Armor spec-ed Geralt being an unbelievable badass, it was quite a shock to have him repeatedly killed. The fact we have 30th level Drowners and Wolves is kind of ridiculous. It makes sense to have enemies like the Order of the Flaming Rose be tougher than normal bandits but there's a happy medium the developers could have shot for. Still, for those who enjoy strategy in their boss fights, this is probably going to be right up their alley.

    Gaunter O'Dim is a great character and one who makes up for the disappointing one-note characterization of the Wild Hunt. He reminds me very strongly of Crowley from Supernatural with a side order of Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The fact his name is a reference to one of Randal Flagg's aliases from The Dark Tower series also makes the story more amusing. I also enjoyed the character of Olgierd von Everec. Despite looking like David Beckham and being an enormous psychopath, his story reminds me of the Bloody Baron's but more original. He is one of the more tragic and nuanced characters in the franchise.

    The Shani romance is probably the best done of all three romances in the game. The problem is that it is very much meant as an interlude and I think many players will decide the normal, down-to-Earth, and pleasant Shani is much-preferable to the two witches in Geralt's life. Unfortunately, this is not that sort of romance. Still, I loved her character and I think CD_Projekt Red did an amazing job in selling her character. I believe even those who didn't play the original Witcher will want to "go on a boat ride" with her.

"Pleased to meet you Geralt. Hope you guess my name."
    I can't get too much into the story without spoiling events and part of what makes this game so entertaining is the fact it goes in unexpected directions. I will say, however, that the games include attending a wedding with an undead guest as well as an Ocean's Eleven-style heist which poor Geralt has to arrange. There's also a The Haunting-esque encounter with a house that stretches Geralt's own considerable ghostbusting abilities. I genuinely felt for all of the characters and if there's a flaw in the writing, it that the DLC makes the main campaign's villains look pale and uninteresting.

    Hearts of Stone is a game which goes a long way to patching up the flaws of the original edition of The Witcher 3. Many of the empty areas of the game are filled in, particularly in the Northeast of Novigrad, while more material is made available for the 30th level time both before as well as after the final third of the game. The combat is a bit too difficult but encouraging strategy instead of button-mashing isn't something I can come down on to hard.

    I also appreciated all the callbacks to the original Witcher game with Shani and the Order of the Flaming Rose being welcome additions. I regret we don't see Saskia, Iorveth, or more of the Scoia'tael but that's not really the Expansion's fault. The best part of the game is the excellent storytelling, true human emotions, and use of folklore to tell an engaging story. They even add, GASP, some nonwhite characters to the game.

10/10

5 comments:

  1. If I understand correctyl (I haven't played HoS yet, but I've read some reviews) - the story is based about Polish legend of Pan Twardowski - a noble that signed away his soul to a czart (slavic folk version of devil based both on Christianity and on Slavic mythology).

    Czarts were often even the good guys in Polish legends (like the legend of Czarcia łapa - Czart's paw - where corrupt court verdict in Lublin was fixed by czarts doing it over).

    It's connected to christianity in some way, but it also ewokes pagan vibes in Polish readers, so it doesn't feel out of style for fantasy, but I can understand the confusion in western readers ;)

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    1. That's an interesting bit of folklore and thank you for sharing it!

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  2. If I msut say something, while I loved hte expansion my only problem with it -and this is a pet peeve- is that I think CD Projeckt abandoned some of the gray morality on this expansion. I mean, the characters still make the WIld Hutn one doimensional but it constantly hamemrs you in the face with the fact that O'dimm is evil, and that Everec is the "good" guy so to speak of the sotry (or at least, that's what most youtubers I follow and what the Witcher reddit showed me) so I wish they had more scenes which expanded Gaunter a little bit away from his "analogue of the Devil" role.

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    1. To be fair, I don't think the Witcherverse has ever been "Gray vs. Gray" so much as "Gray vs. Black." Also, Gaunter O'Dim may be Nyarlathotep/The Devil/Q but he's a character who is entertaining and always abides by his word--which puts him above a lot of the mortal characters you meet. It's also noteworthy the final moral choice, "Do I save Olgierd or not?" isn't as clear-cut as you may think it is.

      Ultimately, Olgierd isn't an innocent victim in all of this as he murdered his own brother for the gifts he was given. He may have been cursed as a result but he was a real scumbag to begin with. It's kind of like the 10th Doctor Christmas Special with Kylie Minogue. The only guy the Doctor ends up saving in the end is the complete ******.

      I did it but it's interesting to think I did it to spite Gaunter O'Dim and because Iris still loved him, not because I think Olgierd deserved any sympathy.

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    2. Well, to be fair, I am not in the group that considers saving Olgierd as the "good ending", I am more or less presentign what i have seen is the general reaction of the public to the expansion.

      I agree with you on the poitn when you say that Olgierd isn't an innocent victim, yet I have seen peopel defend his actions by saying "Oh, but if he hadn't been cursed by O'dimm then he would have made none of those actions", whiel forgetting that Olgierd -curse or no curse- used to be a bandit capain that tormented the redanian peasantry.

      I might not have explained myself properly, because i agree iwht a lot of the poitns oyu have made in regards to O'dimm and Von Everec. In the end, my main problem is that peopel seem to think that saving Olgierd is a "good ending" because he made a wish that had unforseen consequences and as such he is deserving of our pity and should be saved, goign away without any punishment (apart from the psychological scars he might have gleamed, which, with time will probably heal)

      In the end, I think it boils down to the fact that I beleive that Olgierd deserves a punishment worse than havign to live with a guilty consciene due to the fact that he firs and foremost ruined the lives of thsoe he claimed ot love with his wish, not to mention that he ruined countless other lvies as a bandit captain.

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