A month or so ago, I would have told you I was done playing The Witcher 3. Turns out that's not the case.
This week, The Witcher 3's first paid downloadable expansion, Hearts of Stone, came out. While CD Projekt Red already demonstrated their ability to confidently expand The Witcher 3 with those 16 pieces of mostly terrific (and more importantly, free) DLC, Hearts of Stone is their first proper paid expansion. I've played six or so hours, and while that hasn't been enough to finish -- or even come close? I can't quite tell how far I am -- I've easily seen enough to recommend it.
Hearts of Stone walks a fine line between giving players more of the game they (presumably) already like while also trying new things. It's "More Witcher 3" in the ways you'd expect: There are new monster contracts and sidequests, and there's new gear you can hunt down. There are new story missions that take you across a familiar -- though expanded -- corner of the map. Generally speaking, it's still the same basic stuff: Go to a place, draw a sword, cast Quen, roll around a lot.
But Hearts of Stone has new ideas, too. From what I've played, CD Projekt Red has executed those ideas with their usual confidence. I wanted to talk about the first major story mission I played, because it illustrates the kind of thing Hearts of Stone does so well. Heads up, though: I'm gonna spoil the events of the first big story mission, so if you're hoping to go in cold, stop reading and just go play.
The mission in question is called "Dead Man's Party," so it gets bonus points up front for a quality Oingo Boingo reference. The setup is as follows: After a series of events that don't really require explanation here, Geralt finds himself pressed into the service of a mysterious man (spirit? god?) named Gaunter O'Dim, also known as Master Mirror.
Geralt's task for O'Dim is to fulfil three wishes for another guy, an extravagant brigand named Olgierd von Everec. Olgierd's first wish: For Geralt to show his brother, Vladimir, the time of his life. The twist: Vladimir is dead, and has been for a while.
Geralt goes to summon Vladimir's ghost and try to come up with some clever way to show the guy a good time. He's joined by Shani, a charming doctor he first met (and possibly romanced) back in the first Witcher game. Geralt and Shani head to the Von Everec family crypt and summon forth Vladimir's ghost, who turns up just as saucy and cocksure in death as he was in life.
Presumably burned by what happened with Yennefer in Wild Hunt, Geralt refuses to experiment further with necromancy, so reviving Vladimir's corpse is out of the question. Instead, he and the ghost come to an accord: Shani's friend is getting married that night, so Geralt will let Vladimir possess his (Geralt's) body and accompany her to the revel. Vladimir gets a night out in a real body, and Shani gets a date to her friend's wedding. What could possibly go wrong?
This is the point where the mission becomes interesting -- once Geralt allows Vladimir into his body, we're asked to role-play as him, not as Geralt. Vladimir is a loud, brash boor; he is in many ways the polar opposite of the taciturn, thoughtful Geralt. Even in Vladimir's initial interactions with Shani, I found myself torn -- If Vladimir acted out, would it later come back to bite Geralt? If I wanted Geralt and Shani to rekindle their old romance, was Vladimir going to get in the way?
The wedding itself is a lot of fun -- after you arrive, your quest log tells you, basically, "go have fun at the wedding!" You can go and talk to various partygoers, drink, indulge in some competitive Gwent or pig-herding, or dance. You're playing as Vladimir the whole time, which means Geralt is walking around like this:
At first, the whole thing plays like a joke. Here's Geralt of Rivia, flouncing around a party like a nobleman, hands on his hips, calling attention to himself and generally being an arse. But at some point in the night, it starts becoming clear that, thanks in part to Vladimir's outsized antics, Geralt is actually enjoying himself.
It's a reminder of how generally sad a dude Geralt of Rivia is. A Witcher's life is often lonesome, and Geralt in particular sets himself apart from other people and rarely makes room for fun. As Geralt/Vladimir joyfully dances with (and awkwardly tries to woo) Shani, she begins to light up in spite of herself.
The night started with Geralt trying to show Vladimir a good time. By the evening's midway point, my aims had changed -- I wanted Geralt to have a good time, too. After all he went through over the course of Wild Hunt, the guy deserves it.
As the night draws to a close, Vladimir tries to pull a fast one and extend his stay in Geralt's body past midnight. Just then, O'Dim re-appears and forcibly banishes Vladimir back to the spirit realm. Before he does so, he cruelly calls Vladimir out, saying that he was a failure who spent his life living in his greater brother's shadow. Vladimir initially bristles at O'Dim's accusations but eventually owns them, revealing that while his brother told everyone he died heroically in battle, he actually died a coward. The story's annoying antagonist is really just a sad, lonely guy with nothing left but to return to his sad, lonely afterlife.
With Vladimir gone, Geralt has a chance to reflect on the evening with Shani. In my game, he realised that he still had feelings for her and that Vladimir's antics had made it easier for him to express them. Geralt goes picks some flowers for Shani, one thing leads to another, and the two head off to indulge in some typically awkward-looking (and more awkward sounding) video game sex.
(I later learned that if I'd opted to bring her a bottle of liquor instead of flowers, that rowboat scene would have had a much funnier outcome.)
For all the awkwardness of its consummation, this chapter in Geralt and Shani's romance is defined by the same sorts of small character touches and interesting nuances that defined a lot of The Witcher 3's best characters. Shani is a more grounded person than the all-powerful sorceresses that Geralt usually spends time with, and she's refreshingly real about their relationship and how it fits in with her life.
Dead Man's Party does everything The Witcher 3 did well -- some monsters, some mysticism, some romance, some surprises. By inserting a different personality into Geralt's body, it creatively twists the game's formula around and offers new insight into our hero and the people who surround him. It advances the story of Hearts of Stone, but it also advances the story of Geralt of Rivia, which ultimately helps it feel just as relevant as anything in the base game.
Given how good most of The Witcher 3's free DLC was, it shouldn't come as a shock that the first paid expansion is similarly high-quality. All the same, I wasn't expecting to like Hearts of Stone quite as much as I do. Hearts of Stone does precisely what a good expansion should: It gives us more of what we liked about the original game while expanding on it in interesting ways.
Plus, if you play your cards right, you get to see Geralt dance while wearing big floppy donkey ears: