World of Warcraft: Shadowlands official artwork and logo

[Note]: Shadowlands Review Part 2 - If you're curious about Torghast, Castle Nathria, the dungeons or the endgame as a whole, make sure to check out the second part of my review as well!

Instead of taking place in another set of previously unseen islands, World of Warcraft's Shadowlands expansion has decided to take things in a completely different direction by having us invade the afterlife itself! A good thing too, because as it turns out the Shadowlands are having an even bigger crisis than the one we faced with the Burning Legion. Luckily for everyone, there's nothing that solves problems faster than an entire avalanche of players that are willing to do literally anything for pair of slightly better pants!

As for what exactly the Shadowlands expansion has to offer, as well as how it stands up to both Battle for Azeroth and Legion, that I'll do my best to illustrate now that I've lived and breathed World of Warcraft for two full weeks.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands screenshot of the Arbiter

The Shadowlands sure are a strange place

If there is one thing that has been consistently good throughout all of World of Warcraft's history, it would be the presentation. As such, it'll likely come as little surprise to hear that Shadowlands both looks and sounds phenomenal. And since all of the four Covenant zones have a very distinct look and atmosphere, I've never once felt any sort of fatigue on my journey throughout the Shadowlands. In fact, I was always more than eager to push further and see just what kind of bizarre scenario awaited around the corner!

The very first of these Covenant zones I visited was the idyllic Bastion - the afterlife where the most just and devout of individuals seek to perfect themselves before embracing their new role as the soul-ferrying Kyrian. Besides being downright gorgeous thanks to its soft colors and endless golden plains, Bastion is also a remarkably big place, much like the rest of the Covenant zones. Throughout my initial leveling journey I doubt I explored even half of it, and not for a lack of trying!

I picked up and followed every single quest I could find, but unlike some of the previous expansions, Blizzard has made the sidequests a completely optional and often hidden affair. If you don't care enough to explore the zones you can easily miss many of them, which I do believe is completely intended since quests are now clearly marked as either important and story-focused quests or sidequests.

So if you want to rush through the zones as quickly as possible to get to max level, you don't even need a guide anymore - just follow the fancy exclamation marks and you'll be golden. Naturally, if you want to take your time and explore every single nook and cranny in search of treasures, or just pretty places to peruse, there is plenty of that to be found as well.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands screenshot of beautiful Bastion

Even the most mundane of locations are gorgeous in Bastion

Where things get truly interesting is when we start looking into Bastion's story, and don't worry, I won't reveal anything you won't witness within an hour of playtime. Like pretty much every zone in World of Warcraft, Bastion's Kyrian have a faction that is completely opposite to them and serves as a convenient punching bag throughout the leveling process. Where Bastion shakes things up is in the simple fact that both sides are presented so morally gray that it's an actual struggle to root for or hate either of them!

In this case, instead of the Forsworn wanting to bring down the status quo because they love evilly twirling their mustaches so much, they're fighting because they don't want their lives to fade away. You see, while the Kyrian are noble and virtuous to a fault, the process of becoming one involves decades of arduous tests and actual torture, during which you will slowly lose all memories of your former life, and consequently your individuality.

This is necessary in order for the Kyrian to be completely impartial judges, yet it's also terrifying as you don't get any choice in the matter. If you're in Bastion, you're going to become a part of the collective, whether you like it or not and whether it takes you a year or a thousand years.

When you combine this with the Forsworn that are driven to desperation and terrible deeds in order to free themselves, Bastion ends up with two surprisingly complex factions that I would love to see fleshed out even further. As it stands the story gets hijacked by the Jailer and the overarching troubles far too quickly, though given that Uther is the one Blizzard decided to focus an entire animated short on, I have a feeling I might get my wish sooner rather than later.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands screenshot of the Kyrian

The Kyrian constantly thread the line between justice and fanaticism

Once I was done with Bastion, it was time to pay a visit to Maldraxxus - the home of the Necrolord Covenant that houses all of the most ambitious and war-hungry souls from all across the universe. To say that this was quite a shock would be one hell of an understatement. While Bastion slowly eases you into its story and gives you plenty of time to breathe, Maldraxxus calls you a looser, steals your lunch money, and then chucks you head-first into an arena filled with hundreds upon hundreds of enemies. Your goal? Well, that's simple enough - kill everyone else in order to prove that you're worthy enough to be a part of one of the noble houses!

The whole intro is one giant heavy metal fever dream, and it sets up the entirety of Maldraxxus almost perfectly. It's a place of constant conflict, though also of research and ingenuity. All forms of warfare are venerated here, everything from espionage to the crafting of plagues, which goes a long way towards making a fairly one-note idea into a genuinely compelling zone. That's not a joke either, because the whole storyline with the House of Plagues is properly emotional, in no small part thanks to the voice actors being able to portray troubled characters with so much nuance.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands screenshot of Maldraxxus enemies

Maldraxxus also offers a nice bit of Wrath of the Lich King nostalgia thanks to its enemies

Given how Maldraxxus is all about combat, this is probably a good time to talk about the Covenants and their unique abilities. Each Covenant offers you two special abilities, one that is shared between all players, and one that is unique to each class. These abilities, combined with the additional enhancements you can put in later on, essentially serve as a brand new talent row.

While your Covenant choice isn't permanent, swapping between them is a massive pain and generally discouraged. So in order to ensure you don't make such an important choice blindly, each of the four Covenant zones lets you play around with both abilities for the vast majority of the zone's storyline. As such, when it's time to choose your Covenant, you'll have an extremely solid idea of just what each faction stands for and what their abilities can offer you.

In principle, I am fully on board with this idea. Choosing a faction to ally yourself with and then supporting them throughout the entire expansion is incredibly immersive, but what I am worried about is the overall balance and enjoyment behind the Covenant abilities themselves. For example, the Necrolord ability for my Demon Hunter summons an additional enemy that I have to kill in order to receive a damage boost. On it's own that's annoying enough, but when you're in trouble and you're looking to blow every single cooldown you have in order to survive, summoning an additional enemy is probably the last thing on your list.

On the other hand, the Night Fae's ability lets me charge at enemies from a ridiculous distance while also giving me lifesteal. It's an astonishingly good ability if you're a primarily solo player like I am, yet I ended up skipping it because I couldn't stand the Night Fae aesthetic. In the end I settled with the Venthyr whom I love as a faction, even though their ability is a completely unremeakable damage-over-time effect. And since I'm now 'locked' with the Venthyr, I've essentially doomed myself to mediocrity for the rest of the expansion, which as you might imagine, has me a bit conflicted.

The good news is that all of this can be fixed through simple updates, so I truly do hope that Blizzard will be keeping an eagle eye on things and make sure that the Covenants are completely balanced all the way through. I'd hate to see a situation where players are 'forced' to join specific Covenants in order to participate in certain aspects of gameplay, be that raiding, PvP or Mythic+.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands screenshot of the Revendreth vampires

What the Venthyr might lack in power, they more than make up for in style

Just as soon as I started getting tired of the endless flesh-heaps of Maldraxxus, the story took me to the tranquil Ardenweald - home of the Night Fae and all of the spirits connected to nature. Much like how Maldraxxus served as a pallet cleanser after Bastion, so does Ardenweald offer a completely different experience. This time around instead of starting by fighting for your life among a hundred other players, Ardenweald has you pull a silly prank by drawing a mustache on a tree spirit.

This lighthearted attitude does not continue for long, however, as Ardenweald is by far the most depressing zone. Anima, the source of vitality for all denizens of the Shadowlands, has stopped flowing. Because of this the Night Fae are forced to sacrifice spirits awaiting rebirth in order to preserve those deemed more worthy, which doesn't exactly leave many of the characters with a smile on their face.

It's not all grim and dreary as the finale has us resurrect a fan-favorite character, but it certainly does put our entire Shadowlands mission into context. Far too often World of Warcraft ignores the far-reaching consequences of cataclysmic events, so to see them displayed all throughout Ardenweald was quite sombering. It truly made me want to redouble my efforts and really put a stop to the Jailer's plans.

Ardenweald screenshot from World of Warcraft Shadowlands

Ardenweald is a land of tiny faeries and big emotions

Unfortunately, the Jailer himself is a fairly generic badguy. While I'm sure there will be an epic twist in the next update or two that fully reveals the brilliance of his plan, so far the Jailer has followed every single bullet-point of the "Saturday morning cartoon villain" routine. He's supremely arrogant, constantly shouts empty threats and talks about how easily he can deal with you, every attempt to thwart him is immediately countered by him saying it's all going according to plan, and most irritatingly of all, he often just stares you down instead of dealing with you right then and there.

It's so incredibly hard to take him seriously when I've seen his entire shtick a thousand times before, many of which were in World of Warcraft itself! If he was a slightly bigger Kobold yelling in a cave all of this would be perfectly fine, but he is far more than that. He is the master of death and the jailer of the damned, a being that is so beyond our comprehension that we don't even know what he truly is! As such, I kind of expect him to be above petty insults and to be terrifying purely because he is so unknowable.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands screenshot of the Jailer

You can't be a proper badguy unless every unexpected setback is not an integral part of your grand plan

Usually I wouldn't even mention all of this, but the Jailer is immediately contrasted with a truly amazing villain - Sire Denathrius from Revendreth, the fourth Covenant zone. Just like the Jailer, Denathrius practically oozes with arrogance and sheer contempt for those he deems unworthy, but he does it with so much style and gusto that it's a delight to hate him. He is the stereotypical snobby vampire lord, complete with a magical sword that fights for him because he doesn't want to get his hands dirty before tea time, yet it works because both his animations and voice acting are so incredibly good.

It also helps that you spend the first third of Revendreth as his somewhat loyal helper, which offers a good insight into how he acts when there's no reason for theatrics. The same goes for his Court of Harvesters, a variety of noble houses tasked with cleansing specific sins from mortal souls. Almost every one of them is like a walking stereotype of a specific type of vampire, yet it all works great because they're so ridiculously over-the-top that I couldn't help but get immersed into their world of political (and literal) backstabbing.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands Denathrius screenshot

He couldn't be more of a douchebag if he tried, and I love him for it!

Revendreth itself is also an excellent character, because the entire zone seems to be constructed out of concentrated Halloween vibe. Not only is it always shrouded in midnight, but everything from the architecture to the characters is ominous and intimidating, yet still not spooky enough to prevent them from having a certain charm. As such, the moment I played through the initial quests and saw just what Revendreth is all about, I already knew this was going to be the Covenant I'll stick with. After all, it's not every day you get to host a fancy vampire tea party!

Besides all of the snooty vampires, another aspect of Revendreth (and Shadowlands as a whole) that I really enjoyed are all of the little secrets strewn about. Some are obvious and marked with a giant chest icon on the map, while others are downright devious and require you to not only do some parkour to reach them, but also puzzle out just what the thing even expects of you. Since I refuse to go online to look up the solutions, I'm still left with a couple of chests that I simply don't know how to open yet, and for someone that loves a good bit of exploration, this sort of thing is a gift that keeps on giving.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands screenshot of the Endmire from Revendreth

Ghosts, an enchanted forest and a colossal creepy castle in the background - what's not to like about Revendreth?

The final of the five main zones is the dreaded Maw, home and eternal prison of the Jailer. Story-wise this is where the most irredeemable and corrupt souls are locked away, but due to Sylvanas being Sylvanas and messing things up, literally everyone that has died since the Legion expansion has now been sealed away forever. Needless to say, this sets up the Maw as a pretty nasty place, which is well represented in-game.

With a primarily dark color scheme, a chorus of screeching souls in the background, no ability to mount up and enemies that are far tougher than in the other zones, the Maw presents itself as a pretty compelling end-game zone with a nice bit of challenge to it. Most interestingly of all, the more you mess around in the Maw and the more rare enemies you kill, the more aware of your presence the Jailer becomes. So the longer you stay and the more active you are, the more dangerous the Maw will become, until eventually you're even hunted by assassins from both below and above!

Besides serving as a nice way to test your skills, the reason I like this so much is the same reason I love those unbearably difficult quests in WoW: Classic - it makes you talk to other people and form groups. It's not just about pressing a button to join a 40 man raid to kill some poor bear and then immediately leaving.

Due to the nature of the Maw and how many bad situation you can get yourself in, there's plenty of times where I had people randomly fly in and save my life like some sort of superhero, after which we'd do the quest together while chatting away. This is exactly the sort of social experience I love to see in MMOs, and if World of Warcraft is going to continue in this kind of direction with future updates, then I have a feeling I'll be sticking with Shadowlands for quite a while.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands screenshot of the Maw

Closing Thoughts

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience for me thus far. With highly unique zones and a plethora of great characters, the leveling experience has been so much fun that I was more than eager to do it twice in a row! So while I'm not yet ready to speak about the end-game content, I can at least heartily recommend Shadowlands to anyone that loves World of Warcraft's own brand of adventuring.

In purely practical terms, my recommendation would be to subscribe for only a month or two at first. This way, even if the end-game doesn't end up being up your alley, you'll still have enough time to explore everything Shadowlands has to offer, after which you can simply take a break until the next major piece of content without worrying about wasting your subscription.

If you're curious about the end-game content, however, I welcome you to join me for the second part of the review in about a week once the very first raid and Mythic+ dungeons open up. This will also give me plenty of time to explore the new mission table and weekly quest systems, along with the randomly generated Torghast dungeon, so I should be able to give you a pretty clear idea of just what the end-game in Shadowlands will look like, as well as whether it's going to appeal to you or not.

[Note]: If you're interested in learning more about Torghast, Castle Nathria, the dungeons or the endgame as a whole, make sure to check out the second part of my review as well!