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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Hearts of Stone (PlayStation 4) artwork

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Hearts of Stone (PlayStation 4) review

"I was sold the minute I found out I'd be able to keep playing Witcher 3."

When the time happily came to expand Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, CD Projekt Red adopted a strategy similar to the one Bethesda employed with its Elder Scrolls releases and provided two additional batches of content that each require numerous hours to clear. The larger of those additions takes place in a whole new area, complete with its own plot and a variety of optional activities. The smaller one, called Hearts of Stone, merely adds a new quest chain containing a final series of tasks that players must complete within somewhat familiar confines.

The vast majority of Hearts of Stone takes place within the northeastern part of the Velen/Novigrad region, with the city of Oxenfurt serving as the primary "familiar confines" you visit in the early going (at least if you're smart). The expansion is meant to be played after the main story campaign has already been completed, and any urge to tend to things out of order could potentially mean disaster for the sort of adventurous chap who once took a look at a map of the vast region and thought it'd be a great idea to stroll the world in search of trouble. There's nothing like reaching level 10 with Geralt, only to immediately blunder into several knights at level 31 and get one-shot killed before the disparity in power even has time to register in one's brain!

Given that painful personal history, I followed directions and waited until after I finished the main quest to finally revisit that section of the map and have my revenge. Those once fearsome knights no longer proved deadly, and after wiping out a few collections of enemies, I decided I was ready to sink my teeth in the expansion's main quest.

One of the local town notice boards tells of a nobleman who needs help dealing with a particular monster that has been causing problems for the citizens of Oxenfurt. While Geralt of Rivia's meeting with Olgierd von Everec is a bit on the weird side, a contract is a contract and he heads to that city. Fans of the first game will at this point possibly rejoice, since he runs into a familiar romance option in the form of Shani the healer. More importantly, he runs into his quarry: a gigantic frog-like demon who proves quite tough to eliminate. Even more importantly still, that frog demon turns out to have been a cursed prince. His countrymen were busy wandering the sewers in an attempt to remove their liege's curse. Now decidedly unhappy with the unexpected demise of their royalty, they abduct Geralt with plans to take him back to their homeland for execution.

However, an unexpected savior intervenes. You may recall that in the very beginning of the main game's campaign, when you first visit White Orchard's inn, you have a conversation with a "seems to know more than he should" guy named Gaunter O'Dimm. You then don't see him again... until now. While Gaunter claims to be nothing more than a random, inconspicuous traveler, it doesn't take long to discover he's far more. Let's see… He enjoys holding nocturnal meetings at crossroads, loves making deals that inevitably backfire on whomever he's dealing with, looks at souls as prize currency AND he possesses reality-bending powers. Yeah, Gaunter is the sort of bad news that guys like Faust could ramble on about at length. But after the strange fellow plays a big role in getting Geralt out of his current predicament, the Witcher feels compelled to at least hear him out.

And so, you'll find out that Olgierd previously had conducted a meeting with none other than your new benefactor. He has no intention of surrendering his soul as he agreed to when granted the gift of immortality after that conference, however. Geralt is thus recruited to be Gaunter's assistant in claiming the prize. It won't be easy, though, as he'll have to fulfill three of Olgierd's wishes to simply make the whole feat possible. The wily noble understands this predicament very well, and his wishes range from merely super-duper-tough to likely impossible to grant.

Overall, I consider the actual wish-granting one of the best quest chains Geralt takes on during Witcher 3's entirety -- and that's true for a different reason with each wish. Fulfilling the first request results in Geralt being possessed by a ghost who needs to be shown the time of his life. This leads to a lengthy collection of shenanigans at a wedding where the gruff, stoic Witcher's body is commandeered by a boisterous, fun-loving rogue. It's times like this when a person can truly appreciate the amount of work that goes into designing the various aspects of a game. Geralt's voice actor delivers his lines in a manner completely different way from the norm, while his character's body language and facial expressions are freshly animated so that he conducts himself much differently from how you're used to seeing him carry himself.

After that, you'll participate in a Witcher-meets-GTA heist where you have to collect a couple of allies to steal a well-guarded artifact. And then, for the final wish, you'll travel to the seemingly-abandoned von Everec property to travel through one very haunted house -- a place dominated not only by the negative emotions of its past residents, but also by enough demons and ghostly apparitions to provide three different boss fights, each with the potential to offer a good amount of challenge.

The climax of the expansion pack doesn't quite reach those same lofty heights. As you explore the history of Olgierd's life and learn more about the events that led him to deal with Gaunter in the first place, you find yourself eventually forced to choose between serving as ally to either the amoral noble or the devilish dealmaker. Pick the latter and the expansion's final quest is quite anti-climactic. Decide to help Olgierd and you'll at least take an atmospheric detour on your way to the final meeting spot, before being forced into a riddle that takes the form of a timed scavenger hunt -- with the souls of both Olgierd and Geralt at stake. Sure, that was a pretty tense affair for me where I found what I was looking for mere moments before my time had expired, but winning a bet against a powerful force is not quite the same as actually defeating it in battle.

That might just be me, though. Geralt's potential method of defeating Gaunter is at least more consistent with old folk tales of people outwitting devils than whipping out his silver sword and hewing off limbs ever could be. Far more problematic were the glitches I encountered along the way. Now, I think all of us who've played a few Western RPGs know that glitches are part of the package deal. We've all had unexpected crashes, seen quest markers refuse to disappear and so on. In the main game, I particularly remember a time when I had to reload a previous save because I was starting a horse race, the screen froze and went grey for a couple moments and then returned to normal with me having lost the race. That's the sort of thing where if you're not digging the game, you'll find yourself one step closer to abandoning it; but if you do love it, you'll swallow that annoyance and try again, hoping for a better result.

Of the two major glitches I encountered in Hearts of Stone, one was more weird than bothersome. Near the end of the heist, I was in a fight that had the potential to be pretty fun, as one of my comrades switched sides, turning things into a four-on-two battle where the odds weren't in my favor. I got in a bit of trouble and was trying to regenerate some health by dodging and letting hastily consumed food have its effect. Suddenly, the fight ended with my side declared the winning force. Maybe my ally killed the main enemy and that triggered a cutscene, maybe not…but it's really weird to be in the middle of a big fight and have it end for seemingly no reason, with the game's encyclopedia of characters saying both named characters fighting against me had perished in the battle.

More seriously, while most of the side-quests are little more than quick diversions, one of them is a surprisingly meaty treasure hunt where you hunt down those knights, kill them and find a collection of equipment diagrams that you can deliver to a merchant. Except in one particular cave, if you are playing on a PS4, it's very likely that one of those diagrams will not appear in its chest. That leaves you with a quest it's impossible to finish. When an expansion is based heavily around its main plot and most of the optional stuff is short and simple, having one of the best side quests ruined by a goof-up that never got patched really annoys me.

Overall, Hearts of Stone was a pretty great experience that was able to extend my Witcher 3 play time by a number of extra hours. That's a win in itself. The glitches were a bit annoying, and I thought the ending moments felt somewhat lackluster after the awesome quests I cleared getting to that point, but the parts of the experience I liked do stand alongside the best moments I spent playing the game as a whole. Things might not reach the level of excellence the main game achieved, but it also is far from the sort of forgettable add-on that a person might play once and then discard forever.

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (January 20, 2020)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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