Monday, March 5, 2018

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone - Review

The main game for Witcher 3 takes roughly fifty hours to complete, with more than 100 hours if you take your time and explore. After completing the main game, I had two DLC notifications sitting in my quest log that I could not bring myself to delve into just yet. I felt burnt out from the main game, and was ready to take a break. Recently, I brought myself back to explore the first of the two expansions, and was completely surprised by how well it all came together.

Hearts of Stone does a number of things that not only mixed up the expected combat, but provided a refreshing take on the series as a whole. New characters, new items, new areas; it all paved the way for a wonderfully written, intriguing approach that hooked me back in to Geralt's tale.

You will both hate and love this guy

The primary characters of Olgierd and the Master Mirror are way more interesting than anything the wild hunt had to offer. Olgierd has much more personality to him, an intriguing backstory of failed love, vengeful enemies, and the curse immortality has taken on his soul. On the other hand you have the Master Mirror, an all powerful mysterious entity, capable of bending the world to his will like a cunning genie, wording wishes and contracts to his terms. Geralt's interaction with them felt like it was ripped from the books, a fun tangle with blades and words as Geralt vents frustrations of being tied to Master Mirror's demands by an imprint and his sympathy to Olgierd's overall plight.

Despite the huge open world of Witcher 3 taking you to a slew of crypts, mountainsides, and large cities; Hearts of Stone still opens up to some interesting locales. Fighting a band of Ofieri on the sandy beach, tackling shadows in a painted realm, even chugging back drinks at a colorful wedding; each felt rich and unique in their own way. You do not have a stand alone area and will have to revisit a few cities for some quests, but the new locales keep it fresh.

Bob Ross was not the final boss, sadly

Quests are similar to Witcher 3 in base approach, offering a main objective with some branching paths in your choices. Standouts include using your body to let a ghost have fun at a wedding, assembling a team for a heist on an auction house, and investigating an abandoned mansions' occurrences. A few new enemies make their appearance, including arachnomorphs which prove to be much faster spiders that keep their distance and require the Yrden sign to trap.

Gameplay remains similar but boss encounters are much more satisfying. A giant frog boss leaping over your head, an undead caretaker that heals with every strike he lands against you, and a demonic specter that possesses multiple bodies are just a few of the challenges you must face. Encounters felt more thought out and involved beyond simply casting a Quen shield and hacking away. The difficulty was also ramped up considerably from the last time, as Death March became difficult again. This made for more interesting encounters that required more planning and effort to overcome.

Inventory used to boil down to getting a set of witcher gear and upgrading it, but the game does well in providing alternatives that were stronger than the sets I was currently running. Enchanting items also threw a new ability to unlock sockets for weapons and armor, making them on par with the powerful mastercrafted gear. Additionally, runes sitting in your inventory can be reworked to provide stat bonuses to your current gear, providing opportunities for new builds all around.

Monsters are way easier to deal with than hostage negotiations

For what it was, Hearts of Stone is more Witcher 3, but I say that loosely. It had a more interesting narrative, better boss encounters, and more involved missions than the base game. Compared to the size of the next installment Blood and Wine  (currently playing through) it pales in comparison in terms of scope, as you can knock this out in less than ten hours. But the antics of Geralt and new experiences kept me hooked to its satisfying conclusion.