Look, to spoil anything in The Witcher 3 is a crime. A game so rich in idiosyncrasies, twists and downright fuck-knows oddity should be experienced, not gushed about by smug writers basking in their experiences. Which presents a bit of a problem, given that Im here to tell you about my three hours with new story expansion, Hearts of Stone.
Set amongst the main game (although youll need to be level 30 to take part, whether by getting there naturally, or starting a new game that auto-levels you appropriately), HoS feels to me like a micro-version of the main experience, a refresher course in just how good CD Projekt Reds masterwork was.
The thing is, I dont want to spoil a thing, leaving me in something of a quandary (something I share with CDPR, it seems, given that theyve pixelated parts of their own screenshots). As such, you can rest assured that I wont be mentioning a single plot point that isnt covered after the first 20 minutes of the DLC - but I will talk at length about how Hearts of Stone takes almost every excellent facet of the main game and somehow squeezes it all into a (relatively) tiny 10-hour package. Here we go.
Hearts of Stone does not mess about. Your first main quest takes you to the sewers of Oxenfurt to fight a massive toad with anger issues and the bifurcated lower jaw of one of those mutant vampires from Blade 2. And its a proper, pattern-led boss battle, something that was few and far between in the bulk of The Witcher 3.
In my three hours of play, I came across two more major fights - both optional, brutal and brilliant. They required multiple retries to get a handle on how my overpowered opponent worked, and what their weakness might be. Hearts of Stone clearly puts a premium on its balletic combat - a welcome change from a game that often made fighting feel like something of an afterthought.
The Witcher was never scared to switch up its tone, but I dont remember many moments from the main quest that were as consistently chortle-worthy as one of the early jaunts in Hearts of Stone. As per my brief, I wont give anything away, but if you see an opportunity to give someone the night of their life, take it as soon as possible.
Its a quest that eschews almost everything the Witcher does best - then reveals that CD Projekt Red could almost certainly write a ghoulish sitcom and come away with critical plaudits. Apart from anything else, eralt voice actor Doug Cockle gets (and clearly relishes) an opportunity to do some voice work that doesnt sound like a man trying to speak while drowning in thumbtacks. Magical stuff.
If there was an overriding feeling to The Witcher 3, it was that everything was screwed and that trying to change that fact would only make things screwed-er. Part of that was the games unnerving commitment to no right answers politics, but more of it came from the fact that this was a world imbued with dark magic set against you at every turn.
The Crones always had a backup plan, the monsters always got more dangerous, and everything was grotesque, just to mess with you. The DLC follows suit - bad guys have Geralt in chains (both tangible and intangible) from the very beginning, and everythings as gross as youd hope for. Prepare to feel bad, and feel so good about it.
The main game refused to let go of many of its deepest, darkest secrets for (at least) tens of hours of play. Hearts of Stone holds its cards close to its chest in similar fashion, with everything from the identity new nations and reasons behind personal grudges kept tantalisingly out of your reach.
The best indication of this is the appearance of Master Mirror. Dont remember him? He initially turns up in White Orchard, the main games tutorial area, to help you out. Now hes back, and he wants favours repaid. If you, like me, sunk quite some time into the original game, this is a mystery at least 100 hours in the making. Thats commitment.
One of The Witcher 3s most overlooked triumphs is its cinematic take on the RPG, a genre that often has the cinematic flair of a dog thats accidentally turned on an iPhone by licking it. Regular side-quest conversations are often framed beautifully, through windows, with lingering landscape shots. CDPR know how to make a conversation about Nekker extermination feel important.
Hearts of Stone flies out of the camerawork gates, with beautiful cutscenes, doing everything it can to keep you interested (even though you already will be). Distorted perspective, visual jokes and good old-fashioned use of the beautiful world all come together to make something that feels a bit more high-end than you might expect.
The Witcher series has always prided itself on making your decisions feel like they matter. Far from the colour-coded morals of lesser stories, CDPR revels in offering you situations that might benefit you, but cut at your conscience, or asks you to stand in judgement with limited evidence. The upshot of decisions like these is that youll often find yourself in situations that your friends never do, a feeling that even if you make what might seem like a bad decision, you end up somewhere interesting as a result.
At least one moment in Hearts of Stone already looks hugely divisive. After playing, I bounded over to some fellow players to ask them what they thought of a particular boss battle (not the one shown above, chill out) and its outcome. Theyd never seen it. We quickly realised that a specific decision takes you down completely different routes - and one of the two keeps a particularly important revelation a secret for a bit longer. The DLC seems happy to make its players feel adequately involved in their own stories - wed expect nothing less.
Unusually-accented romantic interests
If youve played the first game in the series, you might just remember Shani, a battlefield medic and another part of Geralts rich, unseemly history with implausibly North American redheads. She pops up very early on, and clearly acts as a major cog in the rest of the DLCs storyline.
I cant say too much, but Shani doesnt necessarily follow the pattern of incredibly powerful woman who falls for Geralt for seemingly no other reason than seeing his big, big swords - making the DLCs romance plot one of the most interesting in the game, even early on.
Battles against multiple generations of ghosts from the same dead family
Oh, wait, Ive never seen that one before. Oops.