Monday, October 10, 2016

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone - Review

Hearts of Stone -- the first DLC pack for The Witcher 3 -- adds about 15-20 hours of new content to the game, extending the northeastern region of the map, near Oxenfurt, with new points of interest, side-quests, and treasure hunts, in addition to other expansion essentials like all-new enemies, new equipment sets, a new system for crafting and buying unique runes and glyphs, and a main storyline that goes toe-to-toe with and even exceeds the best quests in the base game. Hearts of Stone is, at its heart, a fairly typical DLC expansion that simply takes the familiar formula of the base game and adds more content to it, but it improves upon the experience by directly addressing some of the core issues of the base game, such as combat, economy, and pacing. The mechanical improvements are reason enough to give Hearts of Stone a solid recommendation, but the main quest-line and all of its great characters, stories, and gameplay sequences push it well above the base game and make it one of the best $10 DLC packs I've ever played.

In my review of the base game, I criticized the combat system for feeling shallow and boring because it mostly amounted to repetitive, simplistic button-mashing from beginning to end, against enemies that behaved more or less alike. Hearts of Stone fixes that issue by introducing several new types of enemies with unique AI and attack patterns, all of which require different tactics to take down as well as more attention to things like positioning and timing. Wild boars run circles around you and try to trample you from odd angles, and their lunging double-attacks are designed to catch you in the middle of a dodge if you don't time it right, or don't dodge in the right direction, while their "drive-by" tactics leave you very small windows of time in which to attack them. Arachnomorphs use group tactics, scattering in all directions to avoid AOE attacks and to keep you surrounded, only rushing in to attack when they trap you in their webs or when you engage one of them. Ofieri warriors block, dodge, and counter attacks better than any human enemies from the base game, meaning you can't just spam attacks on them -- you have to bait them into attacking and find an opening in their attack patterns.

Boss battles have been similarly overhauled so that each one is more challenging and requires its own special strategy, while also incorporating the environment into their fights for added uniqueness. The first boss can rain cluster bombs on you that leave lingering toxic clouds on the ground, poisoning you if you move through them, and his really fast beam-style ranged attack will force you to keep moving and dodging through the poison clouds. If you get in close, he'll do a variety of close-ranged attacks, one of which is an AOE ground pound. Most of his attacks also cause stagger and knock-down. Another boss uses a melee weapon with a lot of unblockable melee attacks and ranged AOE magic attacks, and heals himself 10% of his health bar every time he hits you. At certain points he spawns a bunch of mostly harmless enemies so that he can quickly heal back up to full health by killing them, unless you can kill them first. This fight can be literally impossible if you're not smart and careful. In each case, the fight is about positioning yourself to avoid attacks, navigating the battlefield, and figuring out when to attack and when not to attack, and they feel way more satisfying than anything in the base game.

Quests also tend to involve a little bit more player input than what was present in the base game. At one point you pick up a missing person quest and use your witcher senses to follow the trail to a pair of suspects. They act a little suspicious, but you find no incriminating evidence; normally at that point a quest entry would pop up telling you to keep searching the area, but Hearts of Stone doesn't do that. It expects you to figure out for yourself that their story doesn't quite add up and keep snooping around, else you return to the quest-giver and "complete" the quest without ever finding the missing person. In another quest you have to recreate images by placing the correct missing pieces in the correct locations; you have to look at the scene and use your own judgment to fill in the blanks of what should be where. Although it's technically possible to just use process elimination and try every option until you get the right one, it's satisfying to use your own brain and come up with the correct solution on the first try. Later on you have to solve a riddle by exploring a small map; there are no quest markers or witcher sense trail telling you exactly where to go, and it's entirely possible to fail and have to start over.

Another thing I criticized about the base game is that, after a while, you simply ran out of things to spend money on, thereby making money (often treated as a reward) effectively worthless. Hearts of Stone fixes that by giving you an outlet to spend your thousands of coins, in the form of the Ofieri Runewright. By donating 5,000 coins to the Runewright, he can create special runes and glyphs not found in the base game, like weapon runes that extend the range of whirl and rend, or make killing blows regenerate stamina, or armor glyphs that deflect arrows, or cast a free quen sign at the start of every combat. You unlock better runes and glyphs by donating another 10k, and later 15k, for a total of 30k. While it's nice to finally have this avenue to spend your hard-earned dosh, the costs and benefits don't necessarily feel worth it, considering that each of these special runes and glyphs takes up all three slots on your equipment. Is it worth, for instance, giving up +15% damage to be able to spend three adrenaline to regenerate vitality and stamina, or giving up +30% igni intensity to make it cast in 360-degrees and not cause burning?

These upgrades tend to feel less like actual upgrades, and more like gimmicky side-grades. Only a few of them could actually be considered "better" than the standard runes and glyphs, but it is nice that you can now obtain regular armor glyphs that do stuff other than increase your sign intensity, since my combat/alchemy build gained little benefit from the base game glyphs, since I used signs so little. There are some new weapons and armor sets to be found, as well, but these too are something of a mixed bag, usually providing some balanced benefit and trade-off which may or not be of any use to you depending on your build. The New Moon armor might be tempting for a pure melee fighter, and the Ornate Robes might be good for an igni-spammer, but I ultimately preferred the more balanced stats of my mastercrafted Wolven set. You get enough experience from the extra quests to level-up beyond the restrictions of the base game, but since you don't gain extra skill slots along the way, it doesn't do you much good. It's kind of disappointing, therefore, that you can play the entire 20-hour expansion and experience no progression whatsoever.

The other major issue I had with the base game, which the expansion addresses, is that the pacing of both the main story and various side-quests suffered by virtue of the world being so big, with so much to do, that you often got pulled away from what you were doing to go focus on something else. Hearts of Stone takes place on a much smaller scale, dealing with only a handful of characters in a few locations in and around Oxenfurt. There's enough new terrain with new things to explore and side-quests to complete to give you that basic satisfaction of playing an open-world game, with the freedom to go where you want and do what you want, but Hearts of Stone is much more tightly-focused around its main quest-line so that the side content complements it, rather than distracts from it. And the main story, meanwhile, doesn't bog itself down by making you trek to every corner of the world and fulfill a thousand favors for a thousand different people before finally getting over the first hurdle; it cuts right to the chase and builds steadily over its 10 hour play time towards a satisfying conclusion with an interesting hook, strong character development, and an intriguing mystery.

Hearts of Stone begins by picking up a witcher contract from a notice board to kill a monster that's been lurking in the Oxenfurt sewers, which it turns out is actually a bit of red herring (a supremely interesting one, with an amusing twist) for the main story. The actual story centers around a man named Olgierd von Everec, leader of a group of bandit mercenaries all descended from Redanian nobility, who made a deal with the devil to reclaim his family's fortune, win back the love of his life, and live like there's no tomorrow. Per the deal, the devil would only get Olgierd's soul after three more of Olgierd's wishes are fulfilled by a third-party, and when they both stand willingly on the moon. The devil interprets "live like there's no tomorrow" to mean immortality and gives Olgierd a heart of stone, which makes him immortal and, as a side-effect, slowly saps him of his passion and emotion. After the devil intervenes to save your life, following the conclusion of the monster contract in the sewer, he sends you to repay your debt by fulfilling Olgierd's remaining three wishes, which is how you spend the bulk of your time in the main story.

The somewhat generic but spoiler-free review of the main story is that Hearts of Stone has good tension, an effective villain, interesting characters, engaging pacing, and quests that are tonally distinct from what's on offer in the base game. I'll get into the specific details below, so for those of you who want to avoid spoilers, here's my conclusion: Hearts of Stone doesn't really feel like an expansion, but more like a continuation of the base game; it's basically more of the same, but with better quality, and an interesting new story arc set within the confines of the original game. There's nothing all that grand, epic, or exciting about it -- no new continents to explore, no new skill slots or upgrades for high-level characters, no fancy player house -- but it's just such a solid, well-rounded experience that I feel is among the best that The Witcher 3 has to offer. As a $10 DLC pack with 15-20 hours of content and its own self-contained story-arc, Hearts of Stone is a better game experience and a better overall value than a lot of $60 AAA games, so much so that it's almost worth it to spend $50 on the Game of the Year edition of The Witcher 3 for the sole purpose of playing Hearts of Stone, which I should mention can be played as part of the main game or as a separate adventure accessed from the main menu.

From here on out, I'll be getting into heavy spoiler territory in regards to some of the characters, the main story, and the main quests, so you should only continue reading beyond this point if you've already played Hearts of Stone, or if you just don't care about spoilers. You've been warned.

Let's start with Gaunter O'Dimm. He serves as kind of a villain for the DLC, the central agent who drives the conflict and narrative forward, but he doesn't function like a typical video game villain or antagonist. The central plot doesn't revolve around stopping him, and although you can choose to "fight" him at the end, doing so is completely optional. He's more of a third-party, and you're simply wrapped up in his mysterious, possibly nefarious machinations. And yet he works so much better as a villain than the Wild Hunt ever did in the base game because he has a much more meaningful and intimidating presence. Whereas the Wild Hunt was this theoretical threat that you almost never got to see or interact with, Gaunter O'Dimm shows up frequently throughout the main story and teases you with hints of how powerful he really is and how dangerous it would be to cross him. The game doesn't explicitly tell you who he is or that you should be afraid of him, however -- it implies everything through subtle hints that internalize the threat in your mind, slowly building him up over the course of the game and leaving him an intriguing mystery as you try to figure out just who he is and what his motives are.

It begins with staging and camera angles; most of the time, shots are framed so that he's above you with the camera looking up at him, which ominously implies dominance and power. His powers appear in limited fashion to begin with, simply appearing and disappearing at will and summoning a great storm to wreck the ship on which you're being held prisoner (and thus saving you from execution), but subtle lines of dialogue made by other characters after he exits a scene cue you into his identity ("they heave like devils," "what the devil?"). While wandering about, you sometimes encounter groups of children happily singing a nursery rhyme whose lyrics seem to mirror that of O'Dimm offering deals and granting people their wishes, with the final stanza sinisterly suggesting, after he's come to collect his dues, that "he'll snare you in bonds, eyes glowin' a'fire, to gore and torment you till the stars expire." After saving your life, he arranges for you to meet him at a crossroads at midnight, where you enter into agreement to repay your debt.

Gaunter O'Dimm is essentially this world's version of the devil, and the central plot is about dealing with the devil and being careful what you wish for. It's a completely familiar tale, but its execution in Hearts of Stone is fresh and interesting, largely because of the acting and portrayal of O'Dimm and Olgierd, but also because the three main quests offer unique experiences tonally distinct from the likes of what you encounter in the base game, or other games in general, in some cases. In your efforts to fulfill Olgierd's three wishes, you end up going on a heist mission to rob a locked and booby-trapped vault of its contents, attending a wedding reception while possessed by the ghost of a debaucherous hooligan, and reliving the memories of a deceased woman by entering a world held within her paintings. Besides that, you also get to do battle with a giant fairy-tale toad prince, romance Shani (who's back from The Witcher 1), and go to hell to wage wits with the devil himself.

I particularly enjoyed getting to see Shani again, considering my fondness and appreciation for The Witcher 1, and she played a pretty big role in that game, both as a romance option and in the main story with Alvin. I don't think they handled her very well in Hearts of Stone, however. For anyone who's not played the first game or read the books, I can see her romance feeling incredibly rushed and/or a little awkward, because so much of it is based on a past relationship you may have never actually seen or been a part of. If you don't already feel that connection with her when you first meet her in the DLC, then she's a stranger you're basically forced to romance, because all the dialogue options imply feelings Geralt has (or had) for her, even if you try to say otherwise, with no clear or direct way to say that you're just not interested, or that you're already committed to someone else if you romanced Yen or Triss and want to stay faithful to them. Meanwhile, if you're a big fan of Shani and were looking forward to romancing her (again), then you may find yourself disappointed that the game treats her romance as nothing more than a one-night fling, no matter what.

The wedding reception, where you spend the bulk of your time with Shani, is great because we get to see Geralt break out from his usual stoicism to enjoy life as a party animal, albeit as the physical embodiment of a ghost possessing him. Vlodimir, the ghost, is a delight to control; his revelry and whimsical attitude serve as an amusing foil for Geralt, particularly whenever he steps out of Geralt's body to engage in one-on-one conversation. Much like attending the masquerade ball with Triss, the wedding gives you a chance to do something other than be a rough n' tough witcher killing monsters and solving other people's problems, except this time, it gives you things to do besides just walking around listening to people. You can drink with assorted people, play gwent, wrangle pigs, (attempt to) seduce wedding guests, get in a drunken brawl, dance to live music, find the missing fire-breather and lost dog, and go diving for Shani's boot. None of the actual gameplay involved in any of this is all that sophisticated, but it's just such a pleasant change of pace, and it's the most fun I've ever had being at a wedding in a video game.

The heist, unfortunately, isn't as much fun. It plays out like a typical heist movie: assembling a crew, making a plan, setting up the preparations, and improvising when things go wrong. But much like the battle of Kaer Morhen in the base game, once you actually get into it, the whole thing is so heavily scripted with cutscenes and isolated scenarios centered around highly specific objectives, that I didn't feel like I was actually taking part in the heist; I was merely along for the ride, there to pick dialogue options and fight a handful of guards. You'd think, for instance, that there would be tense and exciting gameplay in planning a route through the city to dodge guard patrols and finding a way to break into the manor, using your witcher senses to detect guards and traps, but this entire infiltration process happens entirely in a cutscene. The hostage negotiation scene is fairly tense, I guess, with you having to pick the right dialogue options under a time limit to keep the guards at bay, and there's a pretty big decision at the end about whether to turn against your employer, but I didn't really want to be there in the first place so the major decisions at the end felt mostly inconsequential to me.

Another bit of criticism I can lay against Hearts of Stone is that it deliberately makes both you and Geralt reluctant participants in the story. O'Dimm's a mysterious, all-powerful dude with some kind of hidden agenda whom I just didn't trust, and yet I had no choice but to agree to his terms; Geralt even says as much. Olgierd's another sketchy dude with a troubled history (and the blessing of immortality to boot) with whom I just didn't want to get involved, especially when one of his first quests involves major criminal activity. As a result, it took me a little while to become interested in the story, to reach that point when I wanted to push forward in the main quest-line to see what would happen next. Even before getting to the stuff with O'Dimm and Olgierd, the DLC begins like any typical monster contract, with no apparent reason to care about the quest-giver, Olgierd, and the prospect of exploring yet another video game sewer didn't really excite me. It wasn't until I was over halfway through the main quest-line, doing Olgierd's third and final quest, that I really started to care about what was going on.

Make no mistake, though -- that's not to say the first half of the DLC is bad or uninteresting. The quests themselves are engaging (except for the heist which I just generally don't care much for) and the characters are particularly riveting, but the early goings merely set down the edges of a puzzle that you're slowly building over the course of the main story -- you get hints of what's going on here and there, but you don't have enough pieces of the puzzle until the second half, and so the picture doesn't really start to reveal itself until you get into Olgierd's third and final quest.

Whereas Olgierd's first two quests have the distinct tones of romantic-comedy and crime-thriller, his third quest is that of surreal-horror as you investigate a haunted mansion. Your goal, there, is to retrieve a memento he left his wife when they separated years ago. You patrol the grounds encountering ghosts and battling demonic beings that Olgierd created to maintain the mansion, and eventually discover that his wife, Iris, died of heartbreak a long time ago. Through some strange magic, you end up going into her paintings where her soul has basically been trapped, recreating scenes from her memories and battling ghostly monsters that continue to haunt her after death. You learn about her history with Olgierd, how his deal with O'Dimm (unbeknownst to her) steadily changed him and ruined their lives as his passion slowly left him. It's a touching, tragic sequence filled with utterly unique visuals and some of the best boss fights from the entire game, and had me completely engrossed from beginning to end.

Having fulfilled all of Olgierd's wishes -- three things meant to be impossible, so that he'd never have to complete his contract with O'Dimm -- the final step is to get the two to meet on the moon, which you accomplish by meeting at a temple with the crescent moon carved into its floor. O'Dimm comes to collect Olgierd's soul, who realizes he's been tricked and out-witted by the devil; at that point, you have the option to intervene and try to save Olgierd by besting O'Dimm in a game of riddles, or stay out of it and consider your debt to O'Dimm repaid. And let me tell you, that was probably the toughest timed decision I had to make in 154 hours of playing TW3. On the one hand, I'd grown to sympathize with Olgierd, who'd been manipulated by the devil and tricked into something he didn't want, and what I'd learned about O'Dimm (basically, that he's pure evil) made me feel like I should stop this evil from happening. On the other hand, perhaps Olgierd got what he deserved, and should've known what to expect when dealing with the devil, and perhaps I shouldn't risk my soul trying to save someone I just met from eternal damnation. In the end, I resigned myself to do nothing, reasoning to myself that it was best not to make an enemy of possibly the most powerful being in existence, and turned down all offers of reward, wanting to ensure I had no more possible ties to O'Dimm.

He thanked me and walked off-screen, whistling and playfully tossing Olgierd's skull in the air as the screen cut to black to roll the credits.

It was anticlimactic to be sure, but poignant nonetheless. And strangely satisfying. It felt right to me, appropriate. That ending resonated for me like few other games ever have. After decades of playing video games of this sort that come down to defeating a Final Boss, it was so refreshing to be able to say "you know what, I'm not gonna fight this guy" and have an ending that still makes sense and feels complete, with the story properly concluded. But after a little while, curiosity got the better of me and I started to wonder what would have happened if I'd intervened.

If you confront O'Dimm, you're treated to a rather unique "boss fight" in which you're whisked away to a hellish landscape and challenged to solve a riddle. CD Projekt could have gone the old-fashioned route and have the riddle play out entirely through dialogue, with you picking answers from a list of options, but they did something original by making you solve it through actual gameplay. The scenario gives you a limited amount of time to find the solution in the environment, which involves running around examining things, fighting off demonic apparitions, and trying not to get tricked by distractions (like a vision of Shani dangling off the edge of a cliff yelling for help). Eventually you discover a mirror at the end of a long hallway, and O'Dimm collapses the floor underneath you, leading you down a false trail trying to chase down mirrors before he shatters them. In the end, you have to realize it's not the mirror itself, but the reflection, and so you have to find a way to create a reflection in the environment that O'Dimm can't destroy, which is cleverly foreshadowed by two demons in the painted world who tell you to "seek salvation in glass that can't be broken." There's no dumb waypoint marker or witcher sense trail telling you where to go or what to do; you have to figure things out for yourself.

This ending felt just as satisfying as the other one; the "boss battle" was fun and exciting, and I loved that it served as a final boss that didn't involve me defeating the devil by hitting him enough times with my sword.

As I wrote in my earlier spoiler-free conclusion, it's all this novelty in the story, the presentation of the characters, the unique quest mechanics, and the imaginative scenarios you find yourself in that made Hearts of Stone feel so special to me. The fact that it's also better mechanically, addressing and fixing several key issues I had with the base game, is just the icing on the cake. If you already own The Witcher 3, then Hearts of Stone is a must-buy; if you don't already own TW3, then it's almost worth it to buy a copy just to play Hearts of Stone as its own stand-alone game, with the added value of a 100+ hour base game thrown in for good measure.

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