Of all the adjectives you could use to describe CD Project RED’s The Witcher series, ‘playful’ probably wouldn’t be the first to come to mind. Gritty, bleak, or melancholy, sure. Glib, yeah, flippant, maybe. Geralt of Rivia is a mercenary in a mercenary world. He doesn’t really do playful.
Except, well, he sort of does. The Witcher 3 base game, like all the best dramas, is peppered with lighter moments, where Geralt is forced to act in a piece of street theatre, or finds himself having to talk down to a cockney accented rock troll with the intelligence of a four year old.
But Geralt himself rarely smirks, and he never laughs. Well, not like he does here.
It is with some irony then that the most jocular episode in The Witcher saga to date is named Hearts of Stone. Within the first three hours (the portion we were invited to test), there are a number of genuine, honest to goodness laugh out loud moments. It would be far too spoilery to give the details, but the gist is this – though it’s still The Witcher 3, and it’s still bleak as fuck, Hearts of Stone reminds me of the daft episode of Doctor Who right before the season finale in which someone dies, or is lost forever in another universe, or gets taken over by the Evil Cockbeast of Graaal or something. I suspect Geralt’s final outing, Blood and Wine, will be a lot more sombre.
Hearts of Stone can be started in a quasi-standalone fashion from the main menu, where the game will generate a completed save with a high-level character for you to embark on the new journey, or it can be triggered from within your existing world.
Things start off very business as usual. Geralt gets word of a contract, and Geralt, being a man who enjoys money, accepts. A monster’s been killing people, the usual. It doesn’t take long, though, before the expectations it deftly sets-up in your head are thoroughly smashed, in a way in which it would be a crime to describe without letting people experience it for themselves.
By the time I’d finished the demo I’d killed a giant toad, been shipwrecked, watched a band of wandering New Romantics burn down a mansion and saved a sword-swallower from an angry Jack Russell… and I saw Geralt laugh, properly and heartily, for perhaps the first time in three games.
Hearts of Stone looks to be an essential new chapter in the life of the eponymous Witcher, and potentially one of the most memorable. It is a testament to CD Projekt’s talent that it has created DLC which fundamentally changes the tone of their game – which is known primarily for its violence, sex and Serious Themes – to something more akin to a swashbuckling romp, with loads of jokes and that. A medieval Ballad of Gay Tony, if you will.