“The quest you’ve chosen would take too long to solve in the time span you have,” remarks a slightly concerned PR representative. “Maybe try the other one when you get the opportunity?”
I take this as a good sign. The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone [official site] is the first 'proper' piece of DLC for CD Projekt RED's already vast RPG, and comes after the release of umpteen freely available new clothes, minisodes and weapons. While Hearts of Stone isn't concerned with adding new areas or mechanics, it's a thrill to learn that it's of a grander scale than I can reasonably see in the few hours I've been given to play it. In fact, the developers from Poland predict it'll offer around ten-hours of new quests to play come release on October 13th.
On the colossal television screen in front of me, Geralt has just introduced himself to a much older woman. She’s well-dressed, poised, and dripping with pomp. Neither Geralt nor I are particularly impressed, especially after she’s introduced as a collector of Witcher-related paraphernalia. What we are, however, is interested. She looks like she has a story to tell. Everyone in the room looks like they’ve got a story to tell.
“Thank you,” I tell the PR representative, finally, as Geralt reveals Vesemir’s fate. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
And I do. Throughout the remainder of my hands-on session, I find my thoughts returning to the road not travelled. Without being too specific, I wonder whether partying with a dead man would have been a better use of my time. Although that would have meant not attending the auction, not having Geralt roll his eyes at a man dressed ostentatiously in all-black, and most importantly, and not orchestrating a medieval Ocean’s Eleven. (Yes. It’s pretty much what you imagine.)
The upcoming expansion is underscored by a mythic quality, in no small part thanks to the machinations of Gaunter O’Dimm, the mysterious Man of Mirror, who you might remember from early in Wild Hunt. Again without giving too much away, he’s a deliciously ambiguous figure -- the perfect embodiment of the Trickster archetype. For the most part, CD Projekt succeeds in keeping him subtle, a bald man with a perpetual smile and a bag full of mysteries. Which is fantastic, because everything else in Hearts of Stone is a little over-the-top.
It starts out easily enough: with a notice board, an exasperated Geralt, and the only advert of interest in a sea of menial requests. I take what it offers, of course, and trot northwards to discover a band of Wild Ones lounging in a manor. After being ribbed by soldiers, I'm taken along to meet Olgierd von Everee, a rapscallion of a bandit king with a taste for destroying art. He shuttles me along to hunt down a toad in the sewers of oxenfurt - it’s apparently been devouring women who have been keen on turning it back into a man.
I eventually discover a bevy of clues and a particular red-haired Shani who some of you may recall from previous games. As such things go for Witchers, events quickly crescendo with an encounter against the boss amphibian, and then it gets properly fable-like.
Passing tangent: The Witcher 3 received a bit of flack about its lack of racial diversity, and I’m happy to report that the expansion features people who look distinctly non-Caucasian. Unfortunately, they also play lightly to a number of tropes. It’s nothing ground-breakingly offensive, but I definitely hope the full playthrough will reveal more depth. I’m reasonably confident that it will, but I thought I’d just put that out there for those who are concerned about such matters.
Moving on, the game chucks me into the brig of a ship and the Man of Glass makes his appearance. A devil’s deal is struck and poor Geralt, who is already a nest of scars, is branded with another. But the uglification comes with benefits. We escape after another boss battle, and ride back to von Everee, who then quickly demonstrates a new and surprising dilemma: he’s immortal.
What follows is a delightful vignette steeped in traditional fairy tales, and Geralt soon leaves with two Herculean tasks, all of which he must accomplish as the latest link in a snarl of favors. From there, the quest branches out into two options: party with the dead dude, or acquire the deed to a very rich man’s house. I’m not certain if it’s a universal trait but for the branch I chose at least, Hearts of Stone drops its Grimm approach in favor of humor and sly, quick nods at contemporary pop-culture.
What I really liked about my options here, however, was how few of them involved fighting. Like so many other Witcher 3 players, I had to learn to tolerate the finicky combat system, so it came as a joyful surprise that I didn’t really have to hit things save for a few uppity rogues. The rest of it was talking, wandering, convincing people that it was far better to sell their captive than to obey the letter of the law, and failing to talk a profanity-spewing, dynamite-ringed dwarf from his place in the rooftops.
And that was glorious. Witcher 3 has always been about the people for me. Virtually everyone’s a caricature, sure, but more often than not, they also carry shades of something human - an idea or an easily identifiable ache. The dwarf I’ve mentioned is hilariously foul-mouthed, sure, but his matrimonial woes are not inconsequential. Similarly, even von Everee’s crew isn’t just a tumble of scallywags. At least one of them is human enough to gruffly worry about a friend-lover-brother-person-of-significant-importance.
Hearts of Stone offers more of The Witcher 3's same strengths, and then a little bit more. It feels like a tonal experiment, venturing away from series' usual grimness. The structure and mechanics that define the series, however, remain omnipresent, and there’s a new Runeword mechanic for the min-maxing power player who needs to get more out of their game. I didn’t get to dink about with that. Instead of trundling after the straight and narrow, I ran off to sell a Van Gogh-esque painting to a bookseller in town - and I was happy for it.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone is due for release on October 13th for $10/£8.