An immortal with a heart of stone, a mysterious demi-god, a cursed prince, and a grumpy Witcher. CD Projekt Red pulls out all the stops in the first expansion for The Witcher 3, Hearts of Stone.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone takes us back to when we were younger. Buying an expansion for a much-loved game was almost as exciting as getting a brand new one. We were always eager for more of the same, as well as being able to explore new places and become more powerful. Sometimes, as was the case with Morrowind's Bloodmoon and Baldur's Gate's Throne of Bhaal, we'd get more than we could have dreamed of, and ended up with an experience that far exceeded the original game. The Hearts of Stone expansion for the Witcher 3 brought a piece of that childhood thrill back.
If we break it down to pure numbers what you get is an estimated ten extra hours of story content, new side missions, an expanded Novigrad map and new schematics for more powerful weapons and armour. If we look beyond that, however, you get to go even deeper into a brilliantly fleshed out game world.
The main narrative of Hearts of Stone casts Geralt into dealings with some truly creepy individuals. The world of The Witcher isn't a nice place to begin with, but some of the characters you come across in Hearts of Stone make the riders of the Wild Hunt seem pale by comparison; pun intended. There's the titular individual with a heart of stone, of course, and a man who calls himself Master Mirror. I won't give away any of the particulars but CD Projekt were on top form when writing this plot and have managed to weave a story that's both menacing and thrilling, and it manages both within a very short space of time.
Hearts of Stone also introduces a brand new culture, the far away nation of Ofir. It blends influences from Africa and the Middle East and comes across as an Arabic Byzantine nation in its prime. We enjoyed speaking with the few Ofieri characters you can find in Hearts of Stone and learning more about them. It gave us the distinct feeling that the Witcher universe isn't just about Nilfgaard and monsters, there are people who are doing just fine elsewhere. The Ofieri culture isn't just there for fluff, either. With it comes the new enchanting art of Runewords which allows you to forge runes into words which give more powerful effects. As Geralt puts it, it's pretty self-explanatory. There are also new schematics for master-crafted gear written in the Ofieri language that need to be found and translated. If that doesn't satisfy your need for new gear, Hearts of Stone also features a unique collector of Witcher artifacts who can be persuaded to sell schematics for School of the Viper armour.
Hearts of Stone also expands the map quite a bit. The border north-east of Novigrad is moved to reveal new villages, bandit holdouts and manors to explore. The area is ripe with rivers, dark forests, hills and fields dotted with little secrets to be found and monsters to slay. We actually enjoyed just riding around in the new area and taking in the sights. The city of Oxenfurt is featured heavily in the expansion as well, which pleased us no end. We found it to be one of the most interesting locations in the Witcher 3 yet felt a bit useless because you were only ever passing through. This time around you get to clear out its sewers of monsters, attend a lavish auction (in which you can actually bid on useless curios), involve yourself in a new romance option, and new reasons to visit its tavern. Our only gripe with the expanded map is that based on the kidnapping scene in the trailer we did actually expect to be able to go to a whole new map location (which is not the case with this expansion).
In terms of difficulty the expansion is recommended for characters at level 30, but you can be anywhere in the main story when you jump into Hearts of Stone. There's an option to start a brand new game with a level 30 Geralt and the main story switched off. We tried it on hard difficulty and within the first hour we experienced two of the most frustrating and challenging fights we've ever come across in The Witcher 3. During the second fight against a band of Ofieri elites we literally survived by the skin of our teeth, having exhausted all of our bombs, potions and food stuffs, with just a sliver of health remaining. It was insanely frustrating, but also incredibly rewarding. With a fully-geared, properly-levelled up Geralt we're sure Hearts of Stone won't be quite as difficult, just stay away from the pre-levelled new game version.
Hearts of Stone is, in our opinion, the closest you can come to an ideal expansion in this day and age, or as CD Projekt Red would put it, an old-school expansion. It offers more of the same gameplay experiences that we've come to love and at the same time it kicks it up a notch in terms of story. We get new content, new areas to explore, new toys and new characters. All the while Geralt is as grumpy and mean as ever, and we wouldn't have it any other way.