Weighing a Man's Soul in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Hearts of Stone
Hearts of Stone has an excellent conflict between an immortal and evil incarnate, ending with more sympathy for the demon than the man.
After making my way through the main campaign of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Hearts of Stone is the first expansion that introduces a new questline centering on Olgierd von Everec, an immortal who has come into conflict with the enigmatic Gaunter O’Dimm. Geralt is dragged between the two powerful figures not of his own will and has to help shepherd the conflict along to its ultimate resolution, a choice between a man and a demon, in which I surprisingly favored the demon.
Quite a few new characters are introduced into Hearts of Stone, most notably Gaunter O’Dimm, aka Master Mirror aka Evil Personified. O’Dimm is intimidating but fascinating: he is clearly a demon in human form, who finds the beliefs of humans a curiosity, but also inspired fear due to his power over time and space. During one scene he freezes time and forces a wooden spoon through a man’s eye simply for interrupting his meeting with Geralt.
Despite his status, you mainly work alongside of (and not against) O’Dimm, so that fear may be present but is never fully enacted upon. Instead, you tread uncertain whether or not O’Dimm will dispose of you or reward you for your actions and help. Throughout Hearts of Stone, I loved the mystery surrounding him and was glad that CD Projekt Red never gives you too many details surrounding his motivations, full abilities, or origin.
While Geralt finds him annoying, Shani, and myself, found him a source of much humor since his possession brought upon a complete change in Geralt’s posture and voice. Though the voice actor remains the same throughout Vlodomir’s occupation, his way of speaking is entirely different and a welcome change from Geralt’s usual sourpuss attitude. Due to his boisterous nature, Vlodomir is very endearing, which makes his pain at the hands of O’Dimm so needless and his death at the hands of the brother he so loves so dismal.
Misery is a theme throughout all of The Witcher 3, something I noted in my guide to its greatest quests, most of which were witnesses to tragedy. Hearts of Stone leans heavily into this with the character of Iris von Everec, Olgierd’s late wife. Traversing through the von Everec estate in both reality and a painted world, you unwind the mystery surrounding the lead up to her death of a broken heart. Olgierd killed his brother to attain wealth, so as to marry the one he loved even more: Iris.
However this cost him his emotions, as he slowly gained a heart of stone. This process led to him killing his father-in-law in front of Iris when being confronted with divorce, being forced to live amongst spirits entrapped in the bodies of a dog, cat, and faceless gardner. Ultimately, her miserable life led to a literal broken heart. Even in death, she found no peace, living a tortured existence until Geralt releases her to non-existence, and therefore, peace.
“The immortal with a heart of stone.”
Both Vlodomir and Iris attest to the status of Olgierd as a right bastard. Even prior to obtaining the so-called “Heart of Stone,” he was a reprehensible individual, killing his own brother for gold. Early in their marriage, you saw that Iris was already discontent with her husband who was more interested in cult-like rituals than reveling in the relationship he so longed for. This process of truly losing emotion, not the suppression that the Witchers claim to undergo, didn’t happen overnight, and served more of a way to show Olgierd’s true nature than to turn him from a good man to a bad one.
He is the reason that the Ofieri prince was cursed and ultimately killed by Geralt. He is the reason his brother is dead. He is the reason Iris suffered both in life and in death. He is responsible for the suffering of countless others, as evidenced by his presence sparking the mansion fire and owner’s death from the beginning of the expansion. And yet, the game pushes that saving Olgierd’s soul is the action to take. The final quest is even titled, “Whatsoever a man soeth,” but won’t let O’Dimm reap what was rightfully placed on the line.
During this quest, if the player has taken the proper optional paths beforehand and learned more about O’Dimm from the blind professor, Geralt can choose to allow this demon to consume Olgierd’s soul or challenge it to a duel of wits, willingly placing his own soul in jeopardy as well. This latter outcome contains a unique location and longer gameplay section, the de facto way of determining how developer CD Projekt Red intended the canon to go. Compare the “Ciri becomes Empress” epilogue against the “happy” and “bad” ending questlines of the base game to see what I mean.
While O’Dimm may be described as evil personified, he certainly seemed to be the lesser evil in the case of Olgierd von Everec. O’Dimm took souls based on agreements initiated by others: his recruitment of Geralt was a means to an end, and should Geralt allow O’Dimm to take Olgierd’s soul and let that bastard die, he is rewarded with risk-free wishes and no ill will towards Geralt. While Olgeird may express regret at his actions once O’Dimm is banished, I remain convinced that he was getting the outcome he deserved, even if I am currently playing on a save file in which I saved him.
“Hard to believe I would side with a demon over another human, but here we are.”
In addition to the otherwise excellent main quests, much of the expanded north-east of the Velen/Novigrad map has been filled with secondary quests and treasure hunts, most of which are pretty decent. Shani, a new romance option in Hearts of Stone, doesn’t stir the strong emotions the way that Triss and Yennefer do, though she is smartly relegated to just a fling you can have before she decides it’s best you both remain just friends.
Rune words is a new crafting system introduced through the Ofieri, a new culture that brought something new to the muck and grime of the Northern Realms. Investing in this new system is very high, and not actually worth the cost, unless you were flushed with cash the way my 100% completion save file was by the time I reached Hearts of Stone. A series of quests features the Order of the Flaming Rose, a nice callback to earlier Witcher lore and a more engaging opponent than the annoyingly nimble spiders that are also introduced through Hearts of Stone.
Stories of tragedy are not rare as well, with the best being the story of a mother who killed her daughters out of jealousy of her increasing age and their increasing beauty. Some humor can also be found, such as a taxman who questions you over potential in-game exploitations, as well as the remains of an attempt to domesticate harpies, laughable for how terribly stupid an idea it was for the now-dead maverick.
Despite the main questline of Hearts of Stone pushing towards an unsatisfying conclusion, it remains one of the best questlines in the entire game. Once you get past the cursed toad (who begins a line of impressively-challenging bosses throughout Hearts of Stone) and are introduced to Gaunter O’Dimm and his relationship with Olgierd, the story really picks up. This is helped by an increase in quality of conversation animations and camera work, with much more dynamic movement and viewing compared to the base game that I had just spent 130 hours familiarizing myself with. Hearts of Stone’s improved quality is quickly apparent and thoroughly enjoyable, an excellent addition to the already great Witcher 3.