The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Hearts of Stone is downloadable content done right. After being supported for weeks after its initial launch with free bits and pieces, the open world role-playing game's first of two expansions is here, and it's absolutely essential for anyone who enjoyed Geralt of Rivia's main adventure.
Hearts of Stone is basically made up of around five bulky chapters that are gathered under one central story. As always with our grizzled hero, Geralt gets tangled in a series of events that soon spiral away from his control, resulting in a grand quest that branches off in many different directions before coming to a poignant and satisfying conclusion. The pacing of the plot is downright masterful, and its punctuated by revelation after revelation.
In some ways, the expansion presents a more focussed narrative than the core release, as you're not dashing from one side of the map to the other. Hearts of Stone takes place almost entirely within the region East of Novigrad and Oxenfurt, which has actually been expanded in order to accommodate a handful of new locations. Indeed, you won't be travelling to distant lands with the DLC, but you will be journeying into fresh territory that houses its own sidequests.
The sidequests themselves are your standard Witcher affairs. There's a new contract to tackle, and a couple of broad tasks that have you ride around the countryside seeking treasure and destroying a band of baddies, but these asides are merely the icing on an already delicious cake. As mentioned, Hearts of Stone's story is superb. Lasting around the ten to fifteen hour mark, it's an engrossing and very clever tale of mysterious characters and daunting challenges, and Geralt is the catalyst that makes it all kick off.
Player choice permeates throughout the narrative, as you decide the fate of the cast and of the Witcher himself. In terms of making tough decisions, Hearts of Stone is right up there with the very best scenarios that the main title has to offer, but given the runtime of the expansion, you tend to see the impact of your actions much more quickly, which results in what often feels like a tighter experience. Because of this, fans who thought that the base release was perhaps a little disjointed will likely love the more direct approach to storytelling.
Like we've hinted, though, the plot isn't made up of one linear storyline – it's divided into several different, smaller narratives that link into Geralt's central quest. Each individual story features its own involved characters, complete with twists and turns, and in truth, with an expansion priced at £7.99/$9.99, you feel that just one of these tales is worth the entry fee, but the fact that you get to experience several of them just amplifies the impression that CD Projekt Red has gone above and beyond with this expansion.
Speaking of the cast, Hearts of Stone undoubtedly plays host to some of the most well written and interesting personalities that we've seen not just in The Witcher 3, but in modern RPGs as a whole. Pivotal characters Guanter O'Dimm and Olgierd von Evrec are both incredibly well acted and perfectly realised, and along with good old Geralt, they form a dynamic trio. The only questionable inclusion is Shani – a returning military medic and potential love interest. Shani isn't questionable because of her character – like the others, she's well written and very likeable – but her voice acting threw us off more than once purely because she can't seem to decide whether she's English or American.
When you're not taking part in the consistently brilliant dialogue, you'll be exploring new areas and whacking anything that gets on your bad side. The DLC doesn't introduce many new enemy types, but it does serve up a few very memorable boss fights. One battle in particular stands out because of its Bloodborne-esque pacing, which is a surprising but welcome inclusion.
Meanwhile, on the ever-important loot side of things, there are a few new armour sets and swords to get your greedy hands on – some of which are enticingly powerful. Likewise, the new runeword enchanting system is a nice addition, although it's not quite as deep as you may expect. Some impressive bonus effects can be applied to your best gear by simply filling slots with a specific selection of runestones, and potentially, this lets you further customise Geralt to suit your style of play. Again, it's a thoughtful little system, but it doesn't have a huge impact on the mechanics that are already in place.
Last but not least, we have to mention the stellar soundtrack, which includes a few fresh tunes. As with the original adventure, the music is used to great effect, enhancing the tension during brawls and helping to set the mood during cutscenes.
An utterly engrossing slice of content, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Hearts of Stone is a superb addition to an already incredible RPG, and is further proof that developer CD Projekt Red is at the absolute top of its game. Peppered with memorable moments, it's an expansion that'll have you yearning to step back into Geralt's gritty world to deal with some of the best characters that we've seen in years. Ultimately, Hearts of Stone sets the standard for what we should expect from premium content, and not just because of its price tag. This is DLC that puts many retail releases to shame.