Review – World of WarCraft: Shadowlands

World of WarCraft: Shadowlands

Over time, I’ve noticed one thing about established universes. Any and every attempt to explain death is a mistake in the making. Especially when it comes to RPGs, where the existence of death is already a huge issue. Take the famous “Why didn’t Cloud use Phoenix Down on Aerith?” question from Final Fantasy VII. When resurrection magic exists, death simply shouldn’t be a problem. So when it was announced that World of WarCraft’s latest expansion, World of WarCraft: Shadowlands would not only revolve around death, but would actually take us into the afterlife I was more than a bit concerned. After all, while WarCraft’s “soul fluidity” explanation for the revive magic conundrum isn’t the worst I’ve heard, this sounded like Blizzard biting off more than it could chew. 

World of WarCraft: Shadowlands Opening

It begins with a giant blue sky beam, because so does everything else.

Somehow though, I was wrong. Not only does Shadowlands work, it’s one of the most interesting attempts on defining the afterlife that I’ve seen. Sitting right up there with Planescape: Torment when it comes to explaining the planes of existence, a compliment I do NOT give lightly. The expansion’s capital city of Oribos is in itself a clear homage to Planescape’s city of Sigil. Each of the different realms we explore is both wildly diverse and intricately woven into the functionality of the Shadowlands. This is all done while somehow managing to retain the concept of death as infinite and mysterious. We may visit the four pillars of the Shadowlands, as well as the hellish Maw, but it’s still just barely scratching the surface of the infinite realms composing the afterlife.  After all beyond the veil, every soul has its place.

The expansion’s story is rather self-contained and for the first time in a good while, largely original to the franchise. Outside an opening which uses elements from WarCraft III, the expansion mostly uses new lore. Using the power of the Lich King’s Helm of Domination, Sylvanas Windrunner shattered the veil between life and death. In doing so, she revealed her alliance with an entity known only as The Jailer. He’s the ruler of the Maw, the domain in the Shadowlands designated for irredeemable souls. Using his infinite power and reach, significant rulers from across Azeroth were kidnapped and brought into the Maw. The player, alongside the Death Knights of the Ebon Blade, take the plunge after them.

World of WarCraft: Shadowlands The Arbiter

Now why would someone attack a nice fella like him.

In doing so we discover that things are far worse than we realize, and the entire stability of the Shadowlands is under threat. Bastion, the realm of the angelic Kyrian, is suffering from a religious schism. Maldraxxus, the military powerhouse that keeps the peace of the Shadowlands, is in the middle of a civil war. Ardenweald, the infinite forest which facilitates the cycle of rebirth for nature spirits, is dying. Revendreth, which is responsible for “redeeming” potential souls not yet lost to the Maw, has long since been lost to dramatic class imbalance (the social kind, not the whining about rogues on Reddit kind). And then there’s the Maw, which is using the chaos to rise in power.

At the core of these issues facing the Shadowlands is an anima shortage, soul power basically. This is due to the mysterious slumber of the Arbiter. He’s the ancient facilitator of the Shadowlands, and responsible for the sorting of souls. Since his slumber began, every soul has instead been funneled into the Maw where The Jailer waits. It’s into this fine mess where everything has gone wrong that we’ve landed. We need to rescue our leaders from the Maw, restore order to the Shadowlands, discover the mystery of the Arbiter’s condition, while also tracking down the traitorous Banshee Queen and giving her what she deserves. With so much going on, I was worried the plot would be overstuffed. Instead, I found the narrative variety kept things fresh and it was surprisingly well paced.

World of WarCraft: Shadowlands Bastion

So fun fact, some players (myself included) found the color contrast in Bastion painful if played for long periods of time. Which is bad of course, but pretty neat when you’re selling point is “Not meant for mortal eyes”.

Our solution to the myriad problems facing us is the divisive, yet highly ambitious, Covenant system. Basically once you’ve finished the core story, you choose from one of four Covenants to join. Each Covenant represents one of the four main zones, and provides not only a unique story, but mounts, cosmetics, as well as covenant specific new class abilities. It’s these new class abilities which have been of particular concern from some parts of the community, citing imbalance between various class performances depending on its Covenant. Personally, I feel it’s largely overblown. Imbalance is inevitable in a game like this. Especially as far as WoW goes, where balance is a journey not an end. The benefits of this system far outweigh such a fickle con.

Choosing a Covenant is far more than just a simple choice. Blizzard touted this as a choice just as critical as choosing your class and race, and I find it accurate. There’s four main features to each Covenant, and each one varies dramatically from the other three. Firstly there’s your soulbinds, which progresses the class specific abilities I mentioned before. Then there’s Adventures, which is a return of the War Table but with a puzzle mechanic that makes it far more of a game to play than watch. The Anima Conductor system allows you to unlock new quests and systems within your Covenant’s zone, by returning the flow of anima to normal. Finally, there’s a unique Covenant activity which ranges from the Night Fae’s farming system to the Necrolord’s abomination factory. Making this choice, changes how you fundamentally play the game.

World of WarCraft: Shadowlands Maldraxxus

Looks quite a bit different from heaven.

While the Covenant system is probably the biggest new feature of World of WarCraft: Shadowlands, it’s not the only one. This expansion’s other big flagship feature is Torghast, the Tower of the Damned. It’s basically a roguelike dungeon, built right into World of WarCraft. Everything you’d expect from the genre you get from Torghast. Permadeath with a chance of total failure, an internal run specific progression system, as well as an external system you progress across multiple runs. Tying into this is the new Legendary system. Using a currency collected inside Torghast, you can create and customize your own personal Legendary item. This solves one of the biggest critiques of previous legendary systems, an over-reliance on RNG. Now any error is all player fault, which is hardly secure but keeps Blizzard’s hands clean.

Rounding out the expansion is the usual collection of features and modes. There’s eight new dungeons. Four are leveling dungeons, one for each of the core zones. Then there’s another four that unlock once you reach level cap, also one for each zone. The dungeons are each as unique as the zones they inhabit, and I really enjoyed them. Best set of dungeons in a good while I think. That’s to say nothing of the first expansion raid, the 10-boss Castle Nathria. Easily the best opening Raid in World of WarCraft history, with a kick-ass Castlevania theme, great mechanics, and I love the loot. War Mode makes a return, with only minor tweaks. Finally, there’s the much talked about level squish and complete overhaul to the leveling experience. That alongside the New Player Experience makes this the biggest change to WoW in its long history. Long overdue, some would say.

World of WarCraft: Shadowlands Ardenweald

As a lifelong Druid, Ardenweald was BY FAR the highlight for me. Just so bluetiful.

World of WarCraft: Shadowlands surprised me completely. My apprehension over the theme and lingering doubts in pursuing Battle for Azeroth’s design principles prevented me from enjoying the usual new expansion hype. Instead, the expansion won me over on its own merits. Covenants ended up being exactly as advertised. Torghast is just as fun and replayable as all the pre-release hype said. The new dungeons and raid are standouts, which is hard to be in a game with so many of both. Then there’s the overhaul to the leveling, which makes the game so much easier to enjoy the way you want. All in all, this expansion ended what was implemented with Legion, and effectively brought the game into modern times. Now it’s just up to Blizzard to keep momentum going.

Graphics: 10

The art team delivers again, creating a world that reminds me of Morrowind with its distinctly alien feeling and design. Not meant for mortal eyes indeed.

Gameplay: 8.5

A complete overhaul of the core leveling experience, expanded class rotations and abilities, and an improved endgame experience via Covenants and Torghast completely change the game.

Sound: 7.0

Compared to Legion and Battle for Azeroth’s phenomenal soundtracks, Shadowlands‘ is a bit of a letdown. It still works, however, and the voicework is exemplary.

Fun Factor: 9.0

It took a while, but Blizzard has finally managed to finish the work it began with Legion and created the biggest shake-up World of WarCraft has ever seen.

Final Verdict: 9.0

World of WarCraft: Shadowlands is available now on PC

Reviewed on PC.

A copy of World of WarCraft: Shadowlands was provided by the publisher.