There is no doubt that I thought The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was an incredible game, so the expectations for Hearts of Stone were pretty high. Getting it out of the way early, if you enjoyed the base game, you will more than enjoy this DLC/expansion—what it is exactly is a bit confused, as CD Projekt RED has used both terms in different places. With an easy 10 or so hours of content, Hearts of Stone isn't just a brand new questline to explore, but wholly offers even more of The Witcher 3 experience.
To explain that last line, Hearts of Stone isn't just a storyline to get lost in, a questline you take to completion and that's that. No, Hearts of Stone is more of the same quality, attention to detail, and non-filler content we all saw in the base game. So, while there is a main plot to follow, there are plenty of other things to do on the side as well. Just as there were some narrative-driven sidequests in the base game, so too are there more to be found in Hearts of Stone.
Hearts of Stone isn't entirely just more of the same either, as it adds in a fairly large new area to explore. It extends the Velen/Novigrad map to the north, northeast, and east, so much so that I would say it is definitely larger than all of White Orchard—quite significantly more. Not all if it is exactly entirely new, as the area existed before on the original Witcher 3 map, but Hearts of Stone actually filled it in with things to do—villages, buildings, people, etc. So you could access these vast open areas before, but wouldn't find anything there.
Combat and gameplay remain largely the same in Hearts of Stone though. The question marks on the map are all filled with familiar things like guarded treasure, bandit camps, etc., so don't expect anything to wow you there. However, Hearts of Stone does make a string of those important in two different side quests.
Regarding the side quests, none are terribly involved or that long, but several of them together give you a picture of one group that makes a resurgence in the Witcher games, the Order of the Flaming Rose. The order played a relatively small role throughout the Witcher games so far; however, in Hearts of Stone we learn both more about them and what happens when a knightly order feels wronged.
The Flaming Rose also happens to be one of the more unfortunate parts of Hearts of Stone as well. Not necessarily the storyline we learn and participate through exploration and side quests, but they have some dialgoue that is jarring the first time you hear it and almost cringey every time after that. Basically, they directly quote the more well-known phrases of the war boys from Mad Max: Fury Road.
The biggest addition to gameplay/combat is the addition of runewrighting. That functions basically as we understand enchanting in most games. Runewrighting isn't something that just does stat buffs, but each has various conditions, such as all arrows being deflected, modifying signs to do something different, each killing blow will restore stamina, and all down the line. The catch is you have to sacrifice your sockets if you wanted to use it, and you can only runewright chest pieces and swords if they have three sockets.
And of course there's some new enemies to be found, some interesting boss fights, new gear, and other things you would expect. Most of that, however, isn't all that different than what existed before; it's just for a higher level. It's worth emphasizing that it is mostly just "some," too, as the new gear isn't all that numerous, and there are just a few new enemies as well. What really shines are the new boss fights, which are definitely different than others in the past, and there are quite a few in Hearts of Stone.
The big part of the expansion that most people will be playing it for is the new story arch to go through. It's not really comparable to the main plot of the base game, as it is definitely on a different scale. To say one is better than the other would be like comparing epic fantasy to fantasy short stories—they are vastly different in scope and intention.
With that said, the journey you experience in Hearts of Stone is still pretty grand. The villain is very compelling in both his mannerisms and in trying to figure out exactly what he is, what his intention are, and why he cares at all. He's quite a mystery that should keep you intrigued, and may just grab your curiosity enough to actually read one of the many books scattered throughout the game.
The story is an incredibly tragic one centered around one character and his family. Geralt slowly starts to discover the source for why the tragedies happened around the character throughout the main storyline. Revenge for those wrongs is the great motivator here, though not for Geralt who found himself forced into participation.
Expect to experience quite a few funny moments, many more dark ones, and some that could be pithily described as bittersweet—more accurately, they are those "heavy heart" moments where the knowledge of such tragedy creates a dead weight sort of feeling that is only slightly alleviated by the closure that comes with resolution. Geralt, and possibly you, will be glad that some characters finally get what they need, but sad in knowing what it took to get there.
So none of the above really describes what the story is about at all, which was on purpose as it is definitely something to experience for yourself. Just expect some memorable momens, well-written dialogue, and interesting situations for Geralt. What's great about the writing is that while much of it is a similar structure that we've seen before, we most definitely experience it in the context of the Witcher world, just like Wild Hunt, in that certain fantastical elements of the world allow for a unique look into something like loss or death. Also worthy of mention is the many, many decisions you can make that will affect the outcome of particular areas along the plot.
There was a lot of story packed into the content of Hearts of Stone, which comes to a near hindrance as the game relies heavily on cutscenes to carry the story. There was far less action going on than watching cutscenes and participating in dialogue. It was interesting to watch and listen to, but it certainly hurts the pacing somewhat.
The final thing I would like to mention is a bug I encountered, which seems to have affected quite a few people as well. At one point there's a cutscene that would crash the game. It did not affect everyone—I used two different computers and it only affected one—but it was still there. You can avoid it by choosing a different dialogue option, but as far as I know it's still an issue for some players.
All in all, Hearts of Stone is exactly what we should have expected from CD Projekt RED after Wild Hunt, and it makes me incredibly excited for the next expansion, Blood and Wine, next year, which promises to be near 20 hours worth of content. To reiterate, if you liked Wild Hunt, you will certainly enjoy your time with Hearts of Stone.
While it stumbles in some places, Hearts of Stone is better than the vast majority of "additional content" that most modern games offer.
The reviewer was provided a copy of Hearts of Stone and it was reviewed on the PC with a controller.