The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone (PlayStation 4) – Give him his due

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Our best-reviewed game of the year is The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, meaning that the bar for 2015 was set high and early. There’s a reason for that, which you’ll know all about if you head on back to read the original review. But once you’ve put in the 200-plus hours and found most of the interesting things there are to see, what can you do next? How do you go back to normal games after an experience like Geralt of Rivia’s bout with the Wild Hunt?

That’s a trick question. You don’t. You go and get your hands on Hearts of Stone, the Witcher 3 expansion that adds several more hours of quests, activities and more Gwent cards to be collected. As well as a few other very expensive additions… in-game expensive, that is. Not Electronic Arts microtransaction expensive.

The Story So Far

HoS1It all starts with a frog and a quest to rid the city of an oversized version of one. The quest is given to players by one Olgierd von Everec, whose name is a lot easier to say than spell. Something goes badly wrong, because von Everec is somewhat of a bastard, and Geralt ends up in service to a nasty chap called the Man of Glass. And with a very big scar on the side of his mug. In order to get to this point players will have to have completed The Wild Hunt‘s main quest or thereabouts, because taking on Heart of Stone‘s enemies will require your monster slayer to be about Level 30. That… could take a while.

An Impossible Goal

HoS3Once you’re done levelling up, you can embark on this stunningly-told standalone quest series that actually plays best when the main story has concluded. Geralt meets up with a few old friends and a couple of enemies, who hark back as far as the events of the original PC-only Witcher release. He is sent to fulfil three wishes, like some sort of monster-destroying genie. The problem is that the wishes are… nigh impossible to complete.

But that’s your task and you’ll have to beg, borrow and steal to make things happen the way that there should. There’s humour woven throughout, even though the subject matter by the close is about as serious as it gets in Geralt’s line of work. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments but these are all told through cut-scenes, a mechanic that Hearts of Stone exploits too heavily. If only everything could be told the way it was at the wedding… you’ll see.

An Imperfect Return

HoS2Hearts of Stone spends time storytelling though pre-rendered scenes but they could have done it just as well through gameplay. The dev team have proved that with the main game, time and again. The main quest also seems oddly rushes, which is weird for a mission that can take several hours to complete. That’s about all I can really criticise. The additional content, aside from the new story, might also seem sparse but if you think that you’re just being a git. There’s plenty here that is new.

Players can recruit and upgrade an enchanter, who charges a lot for his services but who makes your chosen steel or silver weapons forces to be reckoned with. As if they weren’t already. There’s a new horse race to win, new gear from over the seas for Geralt, his steed Roach, and new enemy types to play with ranging from oversized arachnids to wild boars. At least the boars charge at you and don’t scamper off out of range all the damned time. Then there are a few side-quests to explore aside from the actually-lengthy story, plus the fleshing out of the northern part of Redania above Oxenfurt. If you need an atlas, there’s one in-game.

Verdict

If you played the first Witcher, then Hearts of Stone will make a lot more sense than if you only joined the party when Assassins of Kings was released. There’s some back story and characters who come directly from the first title, making Hearts of Stone perfect for long-time fans. But it has its drawbacks, like the over-reliance on cut-scenes and limited outcomes for your choices this time around. It ultimately doesn’t matter though, as most problems with Hearts of Stone are the result of The Wild Hunt‘s successes – it did everything far too well the first time around. If you’re after more Witcher 3 action, you’ll find it here. That’s what counts. Next up, Blood and Wine. 2016 can’t come soon enough.

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