Of Stone Hearts and Blood and Wine: The Actual For Real End of Witcher 3

What’s this about an update to the base game?

Right before the Blood and Wine expansion was released, the developers pushed out a patch that made significant changes to the interface (and a few other elements) of the base game. Except for a bug where my horse’s tail disappeared, these changes were all to the good – the inventory is a lot more organized, all of the menu options are bigger and easier to read, there’s a book that tells you which Gwent cards you’re missing, you have the option to read a note as soon as you pick it up, you have the option to buy crafting and alchemy components directly from the crafting and alchemy screen… I was half way through my second play of Witcher 3 when I installed the patch and I was only disoriented for a few seconds. I liked it a lot overall.

WTF is Hearts of Stone?

Hearts of Stone is the first expansion to Witcher 3 and it’s a new quest series that players can complete either during or after completing the base game, but it doesn’t ultimately change anything that happens in the base game, either way.

The story is, at its core, a retelling of Faust in which players meet an outlaw named Olgierd von Everec who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for something between 3-7 wishes, depending how you count. Witcher is tricked into a contract with the same devil, wherein he has to fulfill Olgierd’s last three wishes so the devil can claim his prize. To try to postpone his day of reckoning, Olgierd asks for three seemingly impossible things, and Witcher is thrown into fanciful, humorous adventures that involve lending out his body to a ghost who wants to taste one last day of life, putting together a team of misfit criminals to carry out a complicated heist, and travelling through a nightmare world inside of paintings to speak to Olgierd’s long-dead wife.

Witcher’s attempts to fulfill Olgierd’s wishes lead him to uncover Olgierd’s secrets and rekindle his romance with a character who was apparently in the first game, named Shani. In addition to the main quests in Hearts of Stone, there are a small number of side quests and treasure hunts to be completed, and players can unlock the ability to upgrade Witcher’s weapons and armour using special runes.

The best thing in Hearts of Stone is, weirdly, a story line about spousal abuse

There’s a nice detail in Hearts of Stone where a bunch of village children sing a creepy song about a man who, at first, promises you everything you ever wanted, and seems to have your best interests in mind, but turns into a monster once he’s ensnared you, and ruins your whole life. On the surface, the song is obviously about Gaunter O’Dimm, the devil Olgierd and Witcher are dealing with, who appears at just the right time to solve all their problems and tricks them into making a pact they regret. There’s another level, though, where this song is about Olgierd.

In the process of fulfilling Olgierd’s wishes, Witcher has to talk to Olgierd’s dead wife and revisit her terrifying memories of their marriage. We learn that, when they met, Olgierd swept her off her feet into a really intense love affair where it was them against the world. When her parents wanted her to marry someone else, he sabotaged the someone else quite brutally so they could be together. After they were married, though, he became resentful that his in-laws had to pay his family debts, and started to keep secrets from his wife and lie to her about where he was and what he was doing. When her parents became concerned and tried to end the marriage, he murdered her father and used magic to make her a prisoner in her own home. He sent demon caretakers to look after her, even though she thought that was creepy and asked him to stop. Eventually he got tired of her and stopped visiting, or showing her any affection at all, even as he continued to hold her prisoner. Now that she’s dead, she lives in a perpetual fog where she doesn’t remember who she is, except when she thinks of Olgierd, and how he used to love her – and then all she wants is to be with him again.

In the end, Olgierd’s change in disposition is attributed to the original pact he made with Gunter O’Dimm, which turned his heart to stone and made him immortal – and, one of the interesting features of the game is that players are invited to like him. He’s a horrible, horrible person, but he’s still kind of charming and, because Witcher was also tricked into a pact with Gunter O’Dimm, you can appreciate the capacity Gunter has to fuck his victims over. Olgierd victimized his wife and brother and countless other strangers trying to get what he thought would make him happy and – like many people who victimize others – he was also victimized himself, by Gunter O’Dimm and by regular people who pushed his family into poverty and ruined any chance he had to lead an honourable life.

The most significant decision players are faced with in Hearts of Stone is in whether to hand Olgierd over to his fate (in hell) or try to save him, in the hopes that he can be redeemed. It’s an absolutely fascinating and deeply unsettling choice.

The worst thing in Hearts of Stone is Shani

I never played the first game, so Shani was a new character for me, but I completely fucking hated her. She stands alone in the Witcher universe as the only character Witcher can seduce whom I actively dislike and don’t want him to have any contact with. So, imagine how pissed-off I was when I accidentally had sex with her because I was trying not to miss any quests at a party.

Overall, Hearts of Stone is a fun but very straight-forward adventure

The one thing Hearts of Stone doesn’t offer that the standard Witcher game does is a series of surprising plot twists involving the unforeseen, horrific outcomes of your seemingly-mundane choices. There were times when the characters’ stories didn’t seem to add up, and I thought we were about to hit a curve, but it always turned out to be a case where they were explaining themselves very poorly rather than trying to mislead. There are no real twists or turns in this – Hearts of Stone tells you up front what the story’s going to involve and doesn’t deviate from that path.

Setting that aside, it’s really fun to play the heist and ghost-possession and haunted mansion sequences, and I disagree with reviewers who thought the ending was not exciting. It was abrupt, no question, but I still found it pretty satisfying.

How to actually do the end

When I was looking online for reactions to the end, I came across a lot of guides that claimed the only way to beat the ending race-against-the-clock sequence is to play it over and over again so that you can learn to bypass distractions and wrong solutions. Not true. You can beat this challenge on the first try just by following the queues the game gives you.

Spoilers, but, in the final sequence, Gunter O’Dimm transports Witcher to a creepy netherworld where he’s in a race against the clock to “solve a riddle.” You will know what the solution to the riddle is right away, because the riddle is not hard. This doesn’t give you any advantage, though, because the challenge is not actually solving the riddle; it’s finding an item that corresponds to the solution within the time limit. Gunter has placed a bunch of red herrings and distractions in Witcher’s path, and each is lit up with an eerie pink glow. The trick to this challenge isn’t to avoid the distractions; it’s to run through them as fast as you can.

In the first stage of the challenge, the pink glow disappears from a path whenever Witcher determines that it’s a dead end – over time, hitting all the dead ends systematically eliminates every path except for the right one, which you can follow to stage two. In stage two, Gunter O’Dimm keeps placing false solutions in front of Witcher and snatching them away as he approaches. It quickly becomes clear that running at the distractions won’t solve this problem, but, if you keep doing it anyway, running at the distractions will eventually place you on a trajectory that leads you to the right solution. By the time you get there, having followed too many dead ends will have triggered a monologue where Witcher thinks aloud about what the solution might be, ensuring that you recognize it when you see it.

You can hit all of the distractions and still finish on time – you just have to run.

WTF is Blood and Wine?

Blood and Wine is the second expansion to Witcher 3. It’s much, much larger than Hearts of Stone and makes the most sense if it’s played after the base game and Hearts of Stone are finished. It takes place in a completely new area and operates as a more self-contained game with a branching set of primary quests, multiple side quests, new monster contracts, and new treasure hunts. Unlike Hearts of Stone, it also ties back into the base game at strategic moments and serves as an epilogue to the whole story.

In Blood and Wine, Witcher travels to the French-seeming duchy of Toussaint, which is under attack from a vampire. The Duchess hires Witcher to kill the vampire, but he quickly gets pulled into a much more complicated story of love, revenge, conspiracy, and betrayal. For much of the story, he’s teamed up with at least one other character – the Duchess, her estranged sister, or a friendly vampire from the books called Regis. Once the full horror of the situation has been revealed, players are presented with a choice in how to handle it, which means selecting one of two different story branches that each foreclose on certain endings and spell unwitting doom for some of the characters.

Like Hearts of Stone, the stakes are much lower than they are in the base game – Wild Hunt was about wrapping up all the major story lines in Witcher’s life and saving the entire world from impending doom. Hearts of Stone is about one man we’ve just met, and Blood and Wine is about one province we’re only a little attached to. That said, there are many more layers to Blood and Wine and many more possible outcomes.

In addition to the sprawling set of quests players can complete, Blood and Wine also introduces a new Gwent deck to collect, new gear, a new mutagen system that essentially gives Witcher superpowers, more slots for skill upgrades, and – perhaps most delightfully – a side project in which Witcher starts renovating a vineyard in his spare time.

However the story ends, it’s capped off with a sequence where one of Witcher’s friends from the base game comes to visit him in Toussaint, and he seems to consider retiring there, now that his long, long series of quests has ended.

How is it?

It’s pretty amazing. The major review sites are reporting that the content adds about 20 hours of additional gameplay, which sounds about right. Blood and Wine definitely feels like the last-last-last instalment in this story. Wild Hunt drew the major plot lines to a beautiful close, and this expansion feels like a way of letting players do a bunch of left-over cool things – like making enemies explode by way of suped-up mutagens, or fighting with a sword that gets stronger and levels up with you as you deal damage, or winning one last Gwent tournament with a brand new deck – before they say goodbye.

The story’s tone is somewhere right between Wild Hunt (which is quite dark and serious) and Hearts of Stone (which is, at times, a much lighter, more tongue-in-cheek version of the Witcher universe). That feel appropriate. There are moments of whimsy and indulgence, but also startling plot twists; just when you start to relax a little, something terrible happens to jolt you back into reality, and that’s the Witcher series I know and love.

One of the strengths of Wild Hunt is that Witcher moves between several distinct political and geographic areas that each have their own flavour but seem to fit together – Toussaint is an extension of that. It’s beautifully-designed and different from the regions in the base game without seeming alien. It is, by far, my favourite of the areas in Witcher 3 and, just as Witcher can see himself retiring there, I could see happily playing many more hours in this weird, chivalric, wine-soaked land full of knights with silk shirts and villas and poets and jousting.

One of the conceits of the Witcher franchise is that there was an event called “The Conjunction of the Spheres” where monsters from alternate universes were able to cross over into Witcher’s world, creating the situation he finds himself in, now. Vampires and elves are among the non-human creatures that crossed over and, while Wild Hunt plays with the elf idea a little, Blood and Wine really manages to convey a sense that vampires are not just sharp-toothed humans. They are creatures from another world – strange, uncanny, disturbing, cool. There’s even a vampire romance that plays out, and it plays out somewhat differently than I’ve seen it play out before, precisely because of that other-worldly not-actually-human-underneath-it-all quality the vampires have.

I also love the female characters in this game. I thought the Duchess was pretty awesome and felt satisfied with her, but her ne’er-do-well sister, Syanna, (who we meet halfway through the game – or later, if we’re trying to knock all the side quests out first) is right up there with my favourite characters ever. Both of them are complicated, interesting, credible, strongly-written characters. There is a dorky moment where the Duchess proves how cool and hip she is by taking off her fancy skirt so she can ride a horse like a man and save one of her underlings from getting murdered – and there is a detail where Witcher can have sex with Syanna, because there always has to be a woman in the story he can have sex with – but I’m willing to overlook that stuff because I otherwise liked the characters so much and because I kind of did want to have sex with Syanna. She’s pretty dope.

There are some other tertiary female characters who I don’t care about as much – my least favourite is the random NPC who kept chasing Witcher around after he won some knight’s contest or something, mostly because she kept blocking the door – but the two main women are outstanding.

The difficulty level also spikes

One of the really cool things about Blood and Wine is that the developers completely understood who was going to play it, and designed the content with that audience in mind. By the time most players pick up Blood and Wine, they will have finished the base game and all of the optional content included in that, and Witcher will be rich and over-levelled. Those are the two main complaints from completists who finished Wild Hunt – after you hit about the halfway point, the difficulty level drops and you have more money than you know what to do with.

Blood and Wine solves both of those problems by introducing a bunch of incredibly expensive things for Witcher to invest his money in, and introducing monsters that are tougher, faster, and smarter than they were in the base game. The big patch that came out right before also introduces an optional game setting that can increase enemy skill level and HP in proportion to Witcher’s own. With all that said, I can honestly report that the final boss battle in Blood and Wine was the first one I have seriously struggled with since hitting the halfway point in Wild Hunt, and that felt really good.

In conclusion

I originally wasn’t all that psyched about the expansions, and felt kind of Witchered-out after completing Wild Hunt. I’m glad I picked them up, though, because Hearts of Stone is pretty fun and Blood and Wine is just as intense and amazing as playing a whole new instalment in the Witcher series would be. There was a small period of adjustment at the start of each expansion where I had to orient myself to interacting with completely new characters and caring about completely new goals that were totally divorced from the rest of the story – which is a stumbling block that seems endemic to this expansion model – but, once I got into it, I really enjoyed both games and got especially caught up in Blood and Wine.

For that matter, my entire journey with the Witcher series started because I wanted to try a popular game and I could get Witcher 2 for $5. I waited a few months to even start playing it because I felt so sure wouldn’t like it, or wouldn’t be able to do it – I could have never predicted how fun and entertaining and thought-provoking this series would be, even if I didn’t love every single part of it.

Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine are a high point to end on, and I’m going to miss Witcher. I have my suspicions that a game about Ciri will emerge some time in the coming years, though, and, after having had some time to take a break from Witchery, I’ll be willing to play if it does.

Image: Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone; CD Projekt RED | July 31, 2016