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Don’t get me wrong. All three Witcher games are enormously enriched by being based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books. The world Sapkowski created is so much more interesting than standard fantasy genre fare, full of dangerous creatures and magical curses inspired by Slavic folklore, rather than yet another Tolkien retread. The narratives are also very personal, even when events span the continent, and they offer a wonderful glimpse at how stories become legends, how grim events morph into fairy tales. The Witcher games largely capture the feel of this world, a place where society has grown around magic and monsters, and people — be they kings, soldiers, or lowly peasants — are often worse than either. It makes the games cohesive and memorable, with a flavor that no other games offer.
But, as I pointed out when I nitpicked about The Witcher 3, the games also suffer from being too beholden to Sapkowski’s writing. Whether it’s reenacting prior events from the books despite taking place afterwards, or shoehorning in characters from the novels just to have them appear, The Witcher 3 is too caught up in Sapkowski’s saga to really stand on its own. It’s also trying to act as a sequel to a series of books that already has a great ending. In Hearts of Stone, the first of two story DLCs for the game, the writers are instead free to tell a new story in Sapkowski’s world, and it’s all the more interesting for it.
I said “interesting”, not “better”. Although it is better than the main game in a lot of ways, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it recaptures the things that made the opening of the main game so good. It’s set mainly in a corner of the huge Velen / Novigrad map into which I never had cause to venture before, although parts of it involve the small city of Oxenfurt too. When I rode around the countryside and encountered entirely new enemies, I realized that much of this area must have been added to the map in the DLC. By focusing on this smaller area, adventuring in Hearts of Stone feels more natural, with Geralt dealing with problems as he finds them. There are a smaller number of quests overall, and they’re all at a similar level, so the need to run off elsewhere and return later is reduced, bringing things closer to the level-less version of the game I want. The locale is interesting too, with a nice village by a lake, and old manors deep in the woods. It may be set near Oxenfurt but it feels refreshingly different to the rest of the game.
The story is also intriguing. It starts with Geralt responding to a standard job listing, asking for a Witcher to deal with a creature in the Oxenfurt sewers. But soon it becomes more about the man who posted that job, and his strange history. That history involves another character who appeared early in the main game — so early, in fact, that when he asked if Geralt remembered him, I was able to truthfully say no — which makes me wonder if the story for Hearts of Stone was originally intended to be a side quest in the main game, before being spun off as a separate (and presumably more involved) DLC instead. I’m trying to avoid story spoilers, so I’ll just say that this returning character is an absolute highlight of Hearts of Stone, his every word and gesture dripping with menace. The story is a natural fit to the world of the Witcher, recalling folk tales about meddling with sinister forces. It’s also a very personal story, about a man and the people in his life, rather than some world-threatening evil. As Geralt became entangled in it all, I was forced to investigate a sordid past full of heartbreak and evil deeds, and decide how I felt about it.
This type of story is so atypical for games, especially huge role-playing games, which always fall back on some huge, existential threat. This makes Hearts of Stone wonderfully refreshing, and far more memorable. The tale is a highlight, is what I’m trying to say, and I want to be very clear about that before I start complaining. Because there’s one specific thing that bothered me about the story, and it’s something that came up in the base game too. One of the earliest quests in the base game involves the character known as the Bloody Baron, a former soldier who’s taken control of war-torn Velen by force. When Geralt first meets him, he’s in Geralt’s way, demanding Geralt’s help before he will offer up the critical information Geralt needs. It doesn’t take long to discover that the Bloody Baron has done a lot of horrible things, and players are basically set up to hate him. But then! As Geralt learns more about the Baron’s past, there is a pivotal scene in which the Baron faces up to what he’s done, shows his (genuine) guilt and shame, and tries to make some sort of amends. It’s a notable subversion of typical game writing, which tends to have very clear heroes and villains, and forces players to face the fact that the Baron is simply a man who has done bad things, not some inhuman monster. This arc earned praise from press and players alike and is often given as an example of how the writing in The Witcher 3 is leagues ahead of most role-playing games. It humanizes this villain, making players sympathize with him even as they despise him.
Except… I couldn’t sympathize with him. I could see what the writers were going for, and the scene setting and performances are excellent. But the whole situation — which largely involves the Baron’s failed relationships with his wife and daughter — felt like a perfect example of institutionalized sexism. There’s this implicit assumption that the women in his life should be supporting him, even if he is treating them terribly. Now, it’s no surprise that the Baron thinks this way, because the world of the Witcher is sexist and patriarchal. But it bothered me that the writers seemed to think this way as well. They seem oblivious to the double standard they’re setting for men and women. When dealing with the Baron, Geralt has the choice to indict him, but this doesn’t even indict him for the right reasons. Geralt makes some superficial and flippant comment, instead of condemning the Baron’s abusive and cruel behavior. Do the writers really not get this? There is no way the Baron is the victim in this situation. The MeToo Movement didn’t really go viral until 2017, two years after the release of The Witcher 3, but it’s still disappointing to see these sexist assumptions go unchallenged, and it prevented me from really engaging with this otherwise well executed story arc.
In Hearts of Stone, the writers try to pull a similar trick again. It’s a bit different this time, because now there’s an outside force involved, raising questions about how much a certain character’s actions were truly undertaken of their own will. But I still found it hard to sympathize, and while this time it was quite possible to condemn this man to a harsh fate, it seemed that — like with the Bloody Baron — the writers were hoping players would try to help. Choosing to show mercy and forgiveness leads to a much more interesting finale, although it is one that I found hard to reconcile with Geralt himself. It involves taking a lot of personal risk for the sake of someone he doesn’t know very well, and that’s not something I could imagine Geralt doing, especially after the events of Sapkowski’s novels. Overall, however, I like the writing better than the Bloody Baron’s storyline, and that was already pretty good, despite my criticisms. Hearts of Stone tells a great tale, it’s just marred a bit by the same cluelessness about sexism.
While I’m complaining about the writing, I should note that Hearts of Stone marks the first time The Witcher 3 has included non-white characters. In this case, they are from Ofier, a land that I don’t recall being mentioned in Sapkowski’s works but is clearly modeled after Arabia. At first, they just seem to be random visitors, but later it’s revealed that they’re tied to the main story. That part is fine, but the way these characters are exoticized is weird. When I wrote about the many faces of The Witcher 3, I discussed how the game emphasizes its representation of Slavs and Slavic culture to the exclusion of anyone else. And whenever criticisms about representation are raised for games like this (see Kingdom Come: Deliverance for another example) the developers and fans tend to defend their choice on historical grounds (or, since the Witcher games take place in a fictional world, the established demographics of that world). I can almost hear the developers’ excuses, claiming that the Northern Kingdoms are full of white people, and there’s no reason for other ethnicities to be there.
And so here are the Ofieri. Immediately, they are eager to tell Geralt all about their native land, and the story of how they came to travel so far to the Northern Kingdoms. They talk at length about their philosophy and culture, so distinct to those of the Northern Kingdoms. It’s all very orientalist, leaning directly into known stereotypes. Mostly, however, it seemed a transparent attempt to justify the developers’ position on representing different ethnicities, likely as a direct response to criticisms of the base game. Here, they tell us, some non-white characters for you. See how we had to justify their existence? Come up with a reason for them to be here? But, they really didn’t. The Northern Kingdoms are not completely isolated from the rest of the world, the people there have heard of Ofier and Zerrikania and other distant lands. Surely there must have been some trade and travel between them? Would an Ofieri trade caravan really be such an exotic sight?
The Ofieri also offer some new equipment and services. These seem designed to address criticisms of the base game’s mechanics, giving Geralt something to spend all his cash on. There are new high-level enchantments that can be crafted, and even some equipment that can rival the Witcher gear that so dominates the main game. While it was nice to think about new items again, I found that I didn’t miss this aspect as much as I thought I would. Geralt is an expert monster hunter, and not the type to constantly change his equipment. There was a satisfaction in finally crafting master-level Witcher armor and weapons (and it was also pretty expensive, so I didn’t have the massive gold reserves the DLC seemed to expect of me), so I was actually a bit reluctant to switch to new stuff so quickly.
The developers also seem to have taken pains to make fights a bit harder, which I’m not sure was the right decision either. Sure, even at one difficulty setting above the “normal” one, I was soon steamrolling through fights in the main game, but as I lamented earlier, the role-playing mechanics were not the high point of the game anyway. But I’m sure there were players who complained at a lack of challenge, so here we are. It doesn’t help that the new enemies aren’t very interesting. Wild boars are basically like wolves but more annoying to fight, and the new arachnomorph monsters are just… giant spiders. In a game full of so many imaginative and unusual creatures to fight, it’s a shame to see this boring fantasy staple added in. On top of that, there are several frustrating boss fights in Hearts of Stone, each requiring some special strategy that I was only able to learn through repeated failed attempts (and sometimes looking up hints online, when I couldn’t be bothered to slog through). These, sadly, lose the preparation aspects of the main game’s monster hunt quests, which let players go into the battle with the right tools and tactics. Instead, they are unique battles tied to the story, feeling more like boss fights in other games, complete with the same typical annoyances.
But the quests that feature these boss battles are great. They’re complex affairs about investigating cursed locations, speaking to the dead, or even just attending a wedding. There’s not a formulaic one in the lot (barring, perhaps, a few of the simpler side quests), and most manage to evoke a wonderful sense of melancholy. The quests in Hearts of Stone lean into the best parts of the quests in the main game, emphasizing strong narratives and interesting locations. They’re perhaps more directed, with less reliance on Geralt using his Witcher sense to track down creatures or clues, but since I largely enjoyed the story I was happy to see it so intertwined with the action.
I’ve spent a lot of time complaining here, but just like last time, it’s because Hearts of Stone is really good overall. It has a few things that hold it back from greatness, but overall I really enjoyed its sad tale. With the epic story of the main game done with, it’s nice to have a chance to deal with a smaller, more personal story, one that feels appropriate for a witcher. In that sense, it’s more like Sapkowski’s short stories, that came before the larger events of his novels. I’ve written before about how these stories capture the work of a witcher: traveling the countryside, slaying monsters for hire, lifting curses, sending lingering spirits to their rest. Who wouldn’t want another one of those? That’s what Hearts of Stone feels like, and it’s an excellent change of pace after the end of the main game’s storyline.
Yet I’m still not done with The Witcher 3, because there’s one more story DLC to go. Blood and Wine sends Geralt of to the Duchy of Toussaint for some more adventures, and I’ll be sure to write about that here once I’ve played it. Stay tuned!