It's rather remarkable that I'm motivated enough to write a review of an expansion pack for a video game, but then again, The Witcher 3 is no ordinary video game, and the Hearts of Stone expansion is no ordinary expansion.
I don't spend anywhere near as much time playing video games as I once did; still, Steam's tracker will confirm that nearly all of my spare time over the last six weeks has been devoted to the enthralling Hearts of Stone adventure.
It's almost as though the base game were just giving the CD Projekt Red team a chance to warm up, and Hearts of Stone was the true expression of their craft. The characters are fascinating; the story is absorbing; the music and graphics and setting are just as beautiful as you've come to expect with this game.
It all starts with a good villain, and Hearts of Stone has a superb one: "Evil Incarnate," as one minor character informs us in a heart-wrenching recollection of how his life was destroyed by this creature.
This villain is one side of a Faustian pact-with-the-devil plot involving ruined aristocrat Olgierd von Everec, who, in a desperate attempt to recover from a youthful mistake and save his threatened marriage, makes a deal whose consequences he surely failed to anticipate.
"Beware of immortality," Olgierd tells us, "it's not all it's cracked up to be."
So what is in this expansion?
- Miles and miles of new territory to wander and new locations to explore
- A giant death-dealing frog in the sewers
- An auction (bring a full wallet!)
- A rune master from a foreign land
- Shani, medic extraordinaire, with a complex story of her own
- A bank robbery, in which you have to assemble a team and execute your plan
- The full-and-detailed exploration of the life and affairs of the above-mentioned Olgierd von Everec, with long and crucial detours into the history of his wife Iris and his brother Vlodomir
And more, much much more.
My absolute favorite part, though, and probably the best-executed part of any video game I've ever played, is the stupendously wonderful wedding scene. Our hero (the witcher Geralt of Rivia) is rather a straight-laced sort who generally plays things quite close to the chest and doesn't let his guard down.
But as the story plays out, Geralt finds himself accompanying Shani to a friend's wedding.
However, Geralt has been "possessed" by the spirit of a rather carefree aristocrat, rather a rake in fact, who takes a completely different approach to attending this courtly event of high society, and the result is glorious! It's no lie to say that the events of the wedding found me laughing out loud at my computer, over and over again, as our hero finds himself (mis-)behaving in the most amusing ways.
It will be VERY hard to top Hearts of Stone, and somehow I think that, for some time to come, other games are going to seem drab and ordinary after playing The Witcher 3.
Happily, there is still next spring's Blood and Wine expansion to look forward to; what will those creative folk at CD Projekt Red think of next?