The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone review: The devil went down to Novigrad

The Witcher 3's first expansion is more wild romp than wild hunt, and that's a good thing.

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone

Hearts of Stone is the first of two expansion packs for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Ten bucks gets you ten hours of stuff, mostly filling out the heretofore suspiciously empty northeast corner of the Novigrad/Velen map. It's not the worst piece of Witcher 3, nor is it the best. It's average, or maybe bit above the average. "More Witcher 3," for lack of a better term.

Which could be where this review ended.

And yet I find myself fascinated by Hearts of Stone. Not because it was particularly troubling or thoughtful or complex. Not more than the original game, at least. Hearts of Stone is intriguing because it's (unintentionally) a perfect example of something I discussed in my Witcher 3 review earlier this year: The vignetted world. In other words, Hearts of Stone is Witcher 3 unburdened by its apocalyptic main story.

Perfect timing

When I reviewed The Witcher 3, I spent quite a bit of time discussing story structure. “The Witcher 3 is maybe the best open-world RPG ever made,” I said then, and I stand by it now. It’s truly a masterpiece—as close to a living, breathing world as the genre's ever gotten. And yet I was annoyed.

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone

Annoyed because, for all it did right, The Witcher 3 still had a habit of forcing false urgency upon the player. Geralt's daughter-in-all-but-blood Ciri is being chased across Velen, across Novigrad and Skellige, and the Wild Hunt's hot on her trail...but surely Geralt's got time to stop and help some backwoods village with their ghoul infestation for petty cash. Or play Gwent for a few hours.

This is a well-worn bit of game logic, a legendary trope, but that makes it all-the-more frustrating (to me, at least) in a game like The Witcher 3—one which eschews tropes and takes the hard route on numerous occasions. To have such a glaring bit of artifice crop up even in such an extraordinary world was a bit disappointing.

So, Hearts of Stone. There's something fascinating about playing The Witcher 3's first expansion post-credits. Divorced from the stakes of the Ciri storyline, what we're left with is a short, self-contained look into what it's like to be Geralt-The-Monster-Hunter on a normal day. You know, when the world isn't ending and your daughter isn't in mortal danger.

And guess what? It's still great.

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone

Much of Hearts of Stone is taken up by one lengthy quest involving a certain Olgierd von Everec, ruffian leader of a band of pseudo-outlaws and revelers and drunks and...just all-around sort of unpleasant people. He's in debt to the impish Gaunter O'Dimm, who you've already met in The Witcher 3 even if you don't remember it—in White Orchard's inn, at the very beginning of the game. Oh, and you also coincidentally owe a debt to O'Dimm, so by collecting on von Everec you'll wipe your own slate clean.

One problem: Gaunter O'Dimm promised to fulfill three wishes for von Everec before settling the debt. Literally any wishes von Everec can think of. You quickly learn von Everec is going to be an asshole about this whole affair, coming up with three “impossible” tasks for Geralt to complete on O'Dimm's behalf.

Hearts of Stone is The Witcher 3 at its best. Not necessarily because it's the best-written part of The Witcher 3, nor because it has the best combat encounters or set-pieces or anything that simple. In fact, the new boss battles are a contrivance I could've lived without.

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone

What we have here, though, is a story that in another (lesser) game would be the main campaign. It's certainly lengthy enough, at ten hours. You do everything from tomb raiding to attending a wedding to learning about art. You meet a dozen or so important characters, many with conflicting motivations. There's a love interest. You get to hear Geralt laugh.

In other words, we witness all facets of Geralt: The mercenary, the salesman, the socialite, the comrade-in-arms, the loner, the dupe, the mastermind. The Witcher 3 had a few questlines on par with Hearts of Stone—the Bloody Baron quests being the obvious example. Long, with multiple red herrings, we were given the chance not just to kill some monsters (although that's still Geralt's job) but to get to know the Baron. For better or worse.

These lengthy, self-contained stories are the best part of The Witcher 3. Whether they tie into the Ciri story is largely inconsequential, because they're compartmentalized enough to be referred to in shorthand. “Finding Dandelion” is another, off the top of my head.

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone

In my mind I imagine a Witcher 3 without Ciri. One which embraces Geralt's wandering nature, his inclination towards short-term contract work, and relies on these ten-hour plots. A world the size of Novigrad/Velen/Skellige but filled with all manner of quests from one-off contracts to—on the other end—these heavily character-driven vignettes of a witcher's life.

The “Main Quest” is a largely arbitrary and outdated notion from an era when games were designed to be completed. Given that more than half the people who bought The Witcher 3 still haven't finished it—and that CD Projekt plans to make Cyberpunk 2077 even larger—maybe it's time to reexamine the idea of the central story at least as far as these enormous open-world RPGs are concerned.

Hearts of Stone proves you don't need to sacrifice character-building or world-building by constraining stories to this shorter model. And in doing so you get a more fluid, more modular world, free from the artificial urgency of “The World Is Ending.” You get Geralt, the person. Not just Geralt, the video game character, condemned by destiny.

Bottom line

Yeah, you should get Hearts of Stone. It's pretty good.

This story, "The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone review: The devil went down to Novigrad" was originally published by PCWorld.