Hearts Of Stone Is The Witcher 3 At Its Very Best

I only started playing Hearts of Stone because I wanted to level up quickly to wear some new armour. It sounds weird, but the quests around my level just weren’t giving me experience quick enough, so I trotted off to meet Elgierd von Everec before I’d even set sail to the Isle of Mists to rescue Ciri. Little did I know that The Witcher 3’s first expansion would immediately latch its hooks deep into me with a gripping tale of heists, revenge, and giant, poisonous toads.

It’s that very toad that kicks off the DLC, as Elgierd sends you to dispatch the foul creature. Before you can take on the cretinous croaker, however, you run into an old flame, Shani. I’ll come back to her later, as she’s an important part of why Hearts of Stone succeeds so well as a Witcher story. But first, the frog.

This might be my favourite boss fight in The Witcher 3. I love the battles with creepy Leshens in dank forests, tackling numerous vampires across the Continent, and fistfights with brawly blokes in bars, but the Toad Prince beats them all. He beat me a lot, too, but that was a part of the fun. I came in woefully underleveled and even less prepared (no anti-poison potions was a grave error), but still gave it my best shot. Poor Geralt must rue the day I forced him into the Oxenfurt sewers to tackle this oversized amphibian. He succumbed to the beast’s noxious fumes as often as he did its groping tongue as I learned its patterns and tried to avoid the worst of its attacks.

The effort it took to fell the frog was immense, and I planned to simply stop with this quest as soon as I’d bested it. However, as I plunged my Feline Silver Sword (enhanced) into its foul belly, the crusty toad transformed into a prince before my very eyes. The rumours had been true. Unfortunately for me, his compatriots were a few minutes behind me, and found their beloved monarch deceased by my hand.

Thus ensued Geralt’s capture, and his only escape indebted him to a man known as Master Mirror. He wants you to collect a debt yourself, which leads you back to the man who started it all. None of this really matters, at least not at first. It’s an excuse to get you to undertake three disparate missions, involving a wedding, a heist, and a haunted house respectively. But these missions are some of the best I’ve played in the entire game.

We all know that we don’t play The Witcher 3 for the main quest by now, but while the general consensus lands on the Bloody Baron’s quest as The Witcher 3’s peak – and it is good – these might be better. It’s worth noting that, as mentioned above, I haven’t finished the main story yet, and I’ve yet to make my way to Toussaint for Blood & Wine. That said, assembling a crack team of Elven acrobats and Dwarven explosive experts to steal a tiny house? Great fun. Trying to navigate a stand-off with the guards when it immediately and inevitably goes tits up? Perfect. There’s the added benefit that I won a pair of rad glasses at the auction house before robbing it, which completed my new-look Geralt.

If the heist is a bombastic thrill, the wedding is a far more intimate affair. Despite being possessed by the ghost of Elgierd’s brother, you’re trying to make it work with Shani, too. The two of you have a past, and it’s up to you to stop Vlodimir, the eternally horny spirit that has control of your body, from acting upon his desires. In doing so, you’re forced to select the dialogue options that you think will most disgust Shani, as she is aware of Geralt’s possession, but slightly swayed by Vlodimir’s charms. Interacting with a character in this way makes you care about her and Geralt’s relationship far more, it makes you dig deeper into what went on between them, and it endears you to the pair. Geralt is showing he cares about Shani, even if you don’t act upon his heart’s desires. There’s also dancing, drinking, pig herding, and shoe fishing – what’s not to love?

The final mission is even more special, blending the bombast of the heist, the boss battle of the toad, and the sublime character work of the wedding into one stunning mission. You swim through impressionist paintings, piece together puzzles like a triple-A point and click adventure, and ultimately decide the fate of a woman wronged by the world, and yet clings on to the life she has found in death. I’m definitely going to come back to this mission to expand my thoughts in more detail, but it’s an incredible way to wrap up The Witcher 3’s first DLC.

Except you’re not quite done. Master Mirror, otherwise known as Gaunter O’Dimm, is back to collect his debt from Olgierd, and once again Geralt is faced with a difficult decision. It’s not my place to decide whether it’s right to spare Olgierd’s life or not, but if you’re a generous Witcher, the frantic race to out-riddle O’Dimm is a tense and exciting cap on Hearts of Stone.

Nothing that happens in Hearts of Stone matters. You’re not saving the world, you’re not saving your surrogate daughter, you’re not even saving some poor, downtrodden villager. You’re a pawn, used by O’Dimm and Olgierd in equal measure to enact their petty justices and pay their debts to one another. And yet the masterful writing, the beautiful character work, and the sheer fun of the quests elevates these pointless asides to heights higher than they have any right to be.

The recommended level for tackling my next main quest is 22. I’ve played so much m currently level 31. I don’t care, I’ll ramp up the difficulty to make the Wild Hunt a challenge. But they’ve got a lot to live up to.

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