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.|
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.|
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.|
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."|
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.