The Witcher 3 is at its best when it straddles the line between mundane and fantastical, one boot planted firmly on each side. The game’s “Hearts of Stone” expansion, released this week, mostly works for me because it rarely operates outside those two modes. There are no dense political machinations here, no “grand” quests to save the world, no hokey race against time; just everyday work-for-hire, contrasted with a quest from a magic genie.
I say it “mostly” works because as with everything in The Witcher 3, pacing is an issue. Where they could communicate something in five words, they use ten instead. It’s an important caveat, but one that anybody who has played The Witcher 3 long enough to get to this expansion should be used to.
It begins in the most mundane possible way for any Witcher story: with a monster bounty, taken from a bounty board. There’s a beast of unknown type in the sewers below Novigrad, and a dude who looks like David Beckham wants Geralt to kill it. Word on the street was that it’s a prince who was turned into a toad and required a kiss from a fair lady to save him from his curse.
So Geralt heads to the sewers, runs into his old pal Shani from the first Witcher game (in which he may or may not have sexed her) and kills the beast. And it turns out it was a prince who was turned into a toad—it just happened to be a giant one that spits poison. No wonder none of the women who went after him returned. Some foreigners show up to try to rescue said prince but since Geralt already killed it they decide to take him home with them instead. A mysterious dude then appears out of nowhere and saves Geralt, and in exchange Geralt must do some impossible shit for him. And this is where the fun really starts.
That mysterious dude, by the way, is someone we’ve met before—at the beginning of the game, for about three seconds. He’s a magic man who goes by Master Mirror, and he’s basically a genie in a bottle crossed with that button from The Twilight Zone that gives you a pile of money and then kills somebody you love. He’ll grant your wishes, but always in some weird fucked up way that ruins your life. He may or may not have the ability to control time. He certainly does have the ability to grant immortality.
It’s a fun premise, aided by Geralt never really understanding what he’s dealing with. Though that ignorance does grate at some points because we know this story well and an expert in taking down monsters and ghosts and demons like Geralt should probably not take nearly the entire expansion to figure out what’s going on. But confused Geralt, monster expert, stumbling around in the dark is fun nonetheless.
The main thrust of “Hearts of Stone” is three impossible tasks: Geralt must show a dead guy the time of his life, steal a house and recover a rose that wilted and crumbled some significant amount of time prior.
The theft of the house is the worst of the three. Treated as a heist story, this bit has you assemble a team to break into an impregnable vault in the basement of an auction house, but it’s unfortunately rather perfunctory—you assemble a team but never get to know them. It’s a good idea, poorly executed. Having fun with a dead guy is similarly a good idea, not well executed, but in a different way. The scheme Geralt contrives is to allow this ghost to possess him as he and Shani attend a wedding. This is supposed to be a funny little diversion, as this ghost is a sort of ladies’ man and hearing that kind of stuff coming out of square old Geralt’s mouth should be hilarious. But it generally ends up being hilarious only on paper because Doug Cockle, Geralt’s voice actor, isn’t good enough to really sell it. This bit is so mundane, however, that it’s pleasant enough even so. Just chilling at a wedding with no real stakes and nothing to screw up is exactly the kind of thing I want more of.
Granted, the wedding scene is too long, spending too much time on boring activities and not enough on the intriguing ones. And the next scene, where Geralt has to solve puzzles to retrieve a wilted rose from a haunted manor, suffers from the same flaws. Gamers, and The Witcher players in particular, are used to this by now, but it remains an issue.
My ultimate evaluation of “Hearts of Stone”—that I mostly enjoyed it—serves as an illustration of what we’re given to just accept in a game, particularly a ponderous pace. I give this expansion a bit of a pass because its ponderousness is at least in the storytelling, and that storytelling focuses on the best sorts of things this game has to offer, rather than endless battles with monsters or whatever. That said, I didn’t do any of the expansion’s new side quests, so there may be more of that elsewhere.
But the lack of efficiency continues to be a real problem. I was eager to play “Hearts of Stone” because I thought its short length would force CD Projekt to be more efficient, but no. For The Witcher 3, a bite-sized chunk is still way more than the biggest mouth could realistically chew. But thankfully that overly large chunk is concerned primarily with the best aspects of the Witcher universe—the really out-there stuff, and the everyday stuff—so it manages to be a pleasure even so.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.
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