To start with, the first half of this post will be spoiler free, and there will be a clear point of warning when I switch to start discussing actual plot points. If you want the feedback I have for the story without the plot beats, the first half will remain a safe read!
Also, beta disclaimer – this is based on early beta builds of Shadowlands and is subject to change as we have until Q4 2020 before things get finalized. The final game can and likely will be different in some ways from what I’ve described here.
One of the things that I had hoped would make the overall plot of Shadowlands cohesive and better is that the first playthrough has a fixed zone order. This, in theory, allows Blizzard to build on the plot, with the elements of Bastion feeding Maldraxxus, which would then feed Ardenweald, which all then culminates in Revendreth. Rather than a disconnected series of zone stories, we’d have a single coherent plot threaded through all of the zones that keeps us on a central narrative and delivers lore reveals that build up the Shadowlands as having a strong sense of place and purpose in the overarching Warcraft universe.
Well…to be brief and to the point, it doesn’t deliver.
One of the biggest problems of the post-WoD era of WoW has been that stories often feel disconnected. There are zone stories, which can be cool and often are, but they tend to feel like separate stories from the main game. Usually, this is accentuated by having a starting experience that sells the main expansion story (Legion invasion, faction warfare, etc) which features your big main lore characters for the expansion and has lots of cool little moments, and then once it ends, you move into the series of standalone zone stories.
In Legion and Battle for Azeroth, this broadly made sense. The use of zone scaling and choose-your-adventure leveling means that you can’t depend on an Alliance player in Kul Tiras doing Drustvar first before Stormsong Valley, so you can’t introduce a cool character in Drustvar that later appears quickly in Stormsong, at least not without creating unnecessary confusion. Because of that, while I found the lore of both Legion and BfA disappointing in level up, I kind of cut Blizzard some slack there. Sure, it wasn’t an amazing story experience or even particularly good, but in gameplay, I had lots of options and permutations for how I wanted to play through the content on alts, so I wasn’t too let down.
Shadowlands is trying to reach a middle ground, by making all players go through the story in a set order the first time and then allowing the choose-a-zone approach for each alt you send through after. This is, in theory, a great idea! Zone scaling still keeps mobs in-line with expectations even the first time, and you just play through and by the time you finish Revendreth at the end of the experience, you should be level 60.
So, now that I’ve played through all four leveling zones, the starting experience, and done some endgame content, I feel confident reporting back on what I’ve experienced at this point in the beta. Unfortunately, what I have to share is less than ideal.
I keep using the term “in theory” to describe the experience of the leveling story as a cohesive whole because at present, Blizzard has kinda failed on that front. To be fair, most of the zone finale quests were bugged in some way or another using the template characters to push through each zones, so there are little bits and pieces missing, but I feel like the overall beats suffer for a few reasons.
To keep things spoiler-free, here are the high level complaints.
Lack of Character Presence in Leveling: The starting experience pitches you on the expansion through lore heavy-hitters being present, and sets up this idea of what the threat is. Once you leave the starting experience, however, those characters are almost entirely gone until endgame. With maybe a single exception, the characters just fall off the face of the earth and sit in stasis until the endgame. This is something of a recurring theme of the current era of WoW – Legion and BfA players will not be surprised – but it misses the mark set by the high point of story-questing of (yes, I’m going to say it) Warlords of Draenor. WoD had characters develop throughout leveling, so things like Yrel becoming High Exarch mattered, because as an Alliance character, you pulled her out of the mines of Tanaan and helped her through that journey in multiple zones and stories. Legion, BfA, and Shadowlands are all missing that – sort of…
The Zone Stories are Worse Because They Save Some Stuff for Covenants: This point is the one that absolutely pisses me off. In BfA and Legion, overall lore quality aside, each zone felt like a good, full piece of story. In Shadowlands, you get to a point where there are loose ends all over, some big lore characters teased, but since you’ve gotten the tease for the next zone, the game boots you back to Oribos to debrief and head out to the next zone. I cannot accurately, without spoilers, describe how absolutely terrible this feels in practice, so if you’re not spoiler-averse, stay tuned.
Dungeons Are Better Integrated into Story, Mostly: Breadcrumb quests to go to dungeons during leveling do a good job of building up the dungeons for the most part. The dungeons feel like extensions of the zone stories being told which is great.
There Are Callbacks in Later Zones: While I think the overall continuity isn’t great, you do get some clear callback moments where you’ll encounter references to prior zones that add to what you’re doing in the new zone.
Alright, so that is about all I can say without spoilers, so here is where spoilers start to enter.
SPOILERS ARE AHEAD FOR SHADOWLANDS LEVELING LORE, BE WARNED!
Okay, so let’s get some spacing…
Let’s go more into depth, from the start.
Starting Experience is Very Unclear and Head-Scratching: I want to preface this with saying that obviously, this is from beta and cutscenes, big lore moments, and the like are tucked away in hiding (or still being worked on). Having said that, however, the game provides some context…and it makes the opening experience a huge mess. The rundown – at some point (probably pre-expansion launch event), Sylvanas fights Bolvar, gets the Helm of Domination, cinematic happens, Shadowlands opens, and then…some Mawsworn Kyrian swoop into Azeroth and just take Anduin, Jaina, Thrall, and Baine.
Alright, this was my record-scratch moment. The weak-spot I had with Draenor is that the invasion of Azeroth really doesn’t make a lot of sense – they send grunts through, are quickly pushed back, and then we go in and destroy the Dark Portal which stops it. This is sort of meh to me, because the invasion doesn’t seem all that important, and if you jumped in after the “invasion” pre-launch event for 6.0, you might not even really have noticed that there was an invasion at all, short of the changes to Blasted Lands (which I forgot about until I wrote this sentence!). The problem I have with this sequence in Shadowlands is that it feels the opposite – the Iron Horde sent weak soldiers and didn’t have a strong footing, meanwhile, the Mawsworn forces swoop into Azeroth and plucked up 4 leaders of the Alliance and Horde very easily. Okay, so why aren’t the Mawsworn forces swarming the planet instead, then?
It’s not like the leaders they grabbed are jobbers, either. Jaina used her magical powers to float a large Kul Tiran boat and fire arcane energy out of its cannons, and that wasn’t that long ago! Thrall has largely given up on being the stand-in Aspect of Earth, but he’s no joke either. Baine and Anduin are, well, whatever, but given that the Mawsworn got Jaina and Thrall as-is, getting extra leaders is icing on the cake! Instead, we get a common Blizzard problem with writing – the bad guy does an awesome, incredible thing, and instead of logically pressing the advantage, backs off and waits in their home for us to storm up to their door, fresh off of increasing our power and making new allies, and we own them. If you just swept up 4 of the most powerful beings in Azeroth with little resistance, why aren’t you pressing that advantage?
This is a trope of Blizzard writing I detest. Focused on “moments” rather than a tight, cohesive story that is great as a whole, Blizzard writes a thing that is cool in isolation but utterly fails when stood up and connected to the rest of the plot to which it ostensibly belongs. Sure, yes, I bet this is going to be a slick moment when it is not just being explained to me in the game, but then, I’ll be left with the same question – why is it that Sylvanas and the Jailer are not pushing their advantage and conquering Azeroth? Later in the story, we’re told the Jailer cannot escape the Maw, but if his forces can, he doesn’t really have to, does he? The rest of the Maw starting experience, from a lore perspective, is fine enough – until the end. At the end, we once again smack into the reality that the story is ignoring. We freed those leaders but we can’t take them back with us to Oribos via the waystone we find, making the whole thing…pointless! During the empowerment of the waystone, we also learn that the Jailer has a limitless army and the dialogue of the NPCs at this time directly draws a comparison to the Legion, which just brings me back to…why? Why are these death monstrosities here, harassing us, when they could be massing at the tear between realms and invading Azeroth, conquering our world while it is in a relatively weak state? Again, it is just a “cool moment” – we get to feel powerful for fighting waves of simple Mawsworn while the Jailer taunts us, and then the game ports us away, and short of hearing his name, we don’t see him again until level 60, same with the leaders we just rescued. Aggghhh!
The Zone Stories Really Suffer for Covenants, At The Point Most WoW Lore Fans Will Want More: Bastion is the best example so far, since I was able to complete the whole thing, but here’s my other major issue with the approach to lore the game is taking here. Bastion’s story involves the first major discovery we make about the Shadowlands – that Kyrian, noble and neutral arbiters of justice, are found in Mawsworn flavors, which makes the Servants of the Arbiter question what is happening in Bastion and we are sent there to investigate (that’s it, that is the lead-in). We’re shown the impact of the Anima drought, which is basically that without souls, the process of bringing in new Aspirants to judge the dead is slowing, and the lack of souls is causing questioning of the process of the Kyrian. Basically, they expunge the memories from a soul, that soul being recast into a Kyrian body so that they can remain neutral judges – impartial, pure. However, this process is called into challenge by a faction of Kyrian called the Forsworn. Led by Devos, one of the Kyrian Paragons, the forsworn challenge the process and bring into their fold one particularly intriguing mortal spirit – that of Uther, famed Lightbringer of Azeroth.
When you run through the zone, you come across Uther as a villain, aligned with the Forsworn and in firm belief of their mission – a belief that Kyrian should not need to expunge their memories and experiences in order to serve as effective adjudicators for the fate of the dead. Uther’s life serves as an example of this, and that is a powerful argument. Well, it could be, because once Uther comes into play, we hit the brakes and the story takes a turn towards the Necrotic Wake dungeon, which exists because of an invasion of the forces of Maldraxxus. That ends the zone and becomes the impetus for us to move on to Maldraxxus. What happens to Uther? Well, if you’re Kyrian, you get a series of additional quests at 60 after selecting the covenant, one of which presumably includes Uther’s fate (can’t tell yet since we have to wait for weekly quest availability on beta still). However, that’s it for leveling – Uther is a bad guy, oh no, now move on and hold that thought for another 10-12 hours of gameplay. There are some signs they’re maybe making the major lore character moments available as part of an overall campaign (with the newest beta build last week, I got story quest indicators in each zone that talk about the fates of lore characters but have not done these yet).
However, each zone has these, and so far, only Ardenweald has a satisfying conclusion to a story that starts within the leveling experience. In Maldraxxus, you discover the Barons, including Draka and Vashj, and unify them, but are then teased with a wandering Alexandros Mograine, who doesn’t seem to have any content until much later at endgame. Ardenweald has the Night Warrior quests with Tyrande at endgame, but those aren’t even teased during leveling – instead, you get a satisfying arc with Ysera’s spirit that ends with her hatching from a soulseed after being cleansed of her nightmares by you. Revendreth has the Kael’thas questline, but that is all endgame. You do get to torture the soul of the original Houndmaster Lokesey from Scarlet Monastery, though!
The ending of Bastion was deeply unsatisfying, and from what I can tell, Maldraxxus is bad in a similar way. Ardenweald is satisfying, and Revendreth sets up the raid, so it at least has a lead into content more people will be expected to do.
The Story is Inconsistent: The idea of the Shadowlands as it has been pitched is a friendly rivalry between covenants as they work to execute the duties of the afterlife. Oribos is a rigid place of almost deification of the Arbiter and unending belief in their “Purpose.” The Kyrian bring souls to the Arbiter for judgement and ferry them to their place in the afterlife. Maldraxxus serves as the military might of the Shadowlands, Ardenweald serves to foster souls into rebirth, and Revendreth serves to rehabilitate those who committed atrocities in life and bring them to use as Venthyr. The Maw serves to punish the irredeemable, and that rounds things out. Given this, you might go in believing that the factions of the Shadowlands communicate with one another and have a clear and unified purpose to solve the anima drought.
In a word…nope!
Despite the purported interrelation of the zones of the Shadowlands, no one seems to be talking to anyone and there seems to be no clue about what has happened. Oribos and the Arbiter’s servants have no idea that the other places are also suffering, and they chalk up the flow of souls to the Maw as “one day, the Arbiter stopped responding and we don’t know why” but there doesn’t seem to be any active effort to find out either. The Kyrian are surprised to see you but also don’t know about what is happening with the flow of souls, and it isn’t until the Kyrian covenant quests at 60 that they find out about the flow to the Maw! The forces of Maldraxxus have lost their leader in the Primus and sit around fighting in the Theater of Pain and splitting their forces – one of the Houses of which attacked Bastion, leading to the Necrotic Wake dungeon. The Night Fae of Ardenweald are working on reduced anima but also still getting soulseeds, making it confusing as to how the whole thing works. Revendreth, meanwhile, foreshadows the turn of Sire Denathrius with all the subtlety of a truck horn blaring – the zone has new souls, is milking anima from its population while also still having decorative statues of Denathrius all over the zone dripping with anima and the Court of Harvesters all empowered with it.
Throughout the story, you’re presented with an ideal of the Shadowlands as a well-functioning place with harmonious operation between the varied zones, but the story elements show a lack of even this. Now, if that was played with as a theme, that would be fantastic! You could talk about the zones are at war because of a lack of anima, or that they’re all aware of the issues with the Maw and working to find their own solutions, and instead, we come in and all of a sudden everyone is forced to become aware of the basic workings of what is supposed to be their cohesive society and soul-processing machine. Again, like so much of Blizzard’s writing, we are expected to reconcile two contradictory views – that the world is how we are told it is, but nothing in the world actually neatly fits with that. The Shadowlands is a high-efficiency handling process for souls, but gameplay shows it as a disorganized mess where, even prior to the drought and soul redirection, no one seems to know what has been happening and no one has bothered to investigate the issues after the fact! Yikes.
No Description of How We Figure Out the Maw Problem: Earlier, I talked about how we leave behind the leaders captured in the Maw after rescuing them, and that is true – we leave them all behind. However, the early part of our Torghast experience is rescuing them from Torghast and bringing them to Oribos. One problem…HOW DO WE GET THEM TO ORIBOS NOW WHEN WE COULDN’T BEFORE? I reviewed all my screenshots, notes, and Wowhead details for the quests, and there doesn’t even seem to be descriptive text of it. At first, we just can’t, but now we…can? How? Why? We get a Soulkeeper that explains how we bring souls out of the Maw, but there is no similar explanation for how we bring mortal beings out. We just level up and then, magically, are somehow able to take our leaders out of the Maw via the very same waystone that once rejected them.
Basically, my issues with the lore are easily distilled thusly – the game uses lore to introduce concepts, which the gameplay doesn’t match to or in some cases contradicts, and the game eschews having a solid continuous plot (the whole purpose of a fixed path the first time through) in favor of a serious of cool moments that actively detract from the logic of the story, and withholds story conclusions for a couple of zones and some characters in favor of pushing that off into the future and perhaps even locking it off behind covenant stories!
The whole thing feels kind of bad, and while some of the cool moments are cool, once they’re over, it just feels more confusing and messy than it needs to be. It could change (and some aspects certainly will), but given the current state, I sure hope some big changes and clarifications are on their way.