If you liked The Witcher 3, come on in to Hearts of Stone: the water's fine.
If you finished The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and thought to yourself "Dang, I wish there were more games like that," then Hearts of Stone is here to save the day. It's more than just a game like that, it's more of the same game.
"I never stopped wanting to play Hearts of Stone. At no point did it stop pulling me along, seducing me into pushing on to see the next set piece, face the next challenge, solve the next puzzle."
Except for the fact that Geralt's not constantly under a cloud due to the looming end of the world, Hearts of Stone feels of a piece with Wild Hunt. That's not to say it feels like a missing piece, something that ought to have been in the main storyline from the get-go; it is entirely discrete, telling a self-contained story with few ties to the rest of the game's content.
But despite its standalone nature, it's very much embedded in the world. The quality of the storytelling and mission design ranks alongside that of the main game. At no point do you feel like you're playing something developed by anybody other than the original creators. The same loving fingerprints are all over it. Every time somebody made a reference to someone else having a stick up their arse, it was like coming home.
This is an elegant and unusual feat, and speaks well of CD Projekt RED's development approach and project management, but it's doubly impressive in that it manages not to be boring. Too many expansions and DLC packs add in more of the same, with the unfortunate consequence of making you realise you didn't want it. You didn't want to tick off another 45 fetch quests or collect another 150 figurines. Too many add-ons just feel like padding, filler content, non-essential, missable; an invitation to keep playing, without providing any motivation to do so.
I never stopped wanting to play Hearts of Stone. At no point did it stop pulling me along, seducing me into pushing on to see the next set piece, face the next challenge, solve the next puzzle. Although the mystery at the heart of the story is only shallowly buried, it remains a pleasure to dig up. If you are the kind who listens closely and pores over optional materials, you'll likely be even more intrigued by the tangled flurry of plots and subplots that Geralt navigates, either subtly and with cunning or with the slicing edge of a blade.
In this regard, Hearts of Stone is, perhaps, better than Wild Hunt itself. Wild Hunt was a story I wanted to see through to the end, but its sheer length made it impossible for my enthusiasm to gallop on completely unchecked, and it didn't always manage to keep up the momentum on its end, either. Hearts of Stone is a powerful argument for shorter, perhaps even episodic content in video games - stories meaty enough to sink your teeth into, yet easily digested before your next birthday.
When I took survey of my adventures in Hearts of Stone I realised I'd actually spent very little of my time fighting my way through dungeons. Most of my interaction with the world came not at the end of a sword but with a pointed quip, shaping my story by giving Geralt a voice and perspective unique to my reading of his character (Witchers do not go back on contracts; Witchers do not give false comfort; Witchers are nevertheless pretty funny people). It's impressive to see a developer willing to ask players to devote time to engaging with the setting, events and characters rather than just bashing away idly at enemies because that's what focus groups tell us gamers want, or whatever.
But there is that bashing out there, and plenty of it. Going in with a level 34 character and endgame gear, I nevertheless managed to find plenty of challenges and new loot to explore. CD Projekt RED has helpful populated the map with more open world markers complete with high level beasties to test your new tricks and tools against.
"Hearts of Stone is a powerful argument for shorter content in video games – stories meaty enough to sink your teeth into, yet easily digested before your next birthday."
Your mileage may vary here. As with all open world RPGs, there comes a time when there's little point doing more - you are so powerful everything tumbles before you, and now you're gaining extra ability points and tuning your build ever more finely for - what? The sake of it? You're collecting the last few markers because they're there, to clean them up and pick them off.
Even if you enjoy the basic combat and exploration of The Witcher 3, as I do but many others do not, you may find this tiresome. Perhaps you'll find yourself longing for another chain of story missions to fling yourself against. You may feel, in other words, much as you felt at the end of Wild Hunt - that all was complete, but you weren't ready to farewell this world and these people.
This is yet another indication of how well Hearts of Stone fits with Wild Hunt, in that it produces, in miniature, the same emotional journey - from "who are these people?" to "I can't believe these people have nothing else to say" to Googling the release date of the next story drop.
CD Projekt RED has indicated that it is done with Geralt of Rivia after this one, which means its next expansion pack - or perhaps an unreleased future expansion - will have to find someway of closing this feelings loop. Or maybe it won't. Maybe going out wistfully wishing for even more is the best exit we can hope for.
Gonna fire up the expansion? We've got everything you need to know about The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone.