My Shadowlands experience has been an interesting curve. It started poorly in Bastion, picked up in Maldraxxus, and now, in Ardenweald, I’m at the top of the curve. Everything in this zone — the story, the questing, just being in Ardenweald is WoW at its best.
Of all the new zones in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, I was looking forward to exploring Ardenweald the most. Going by it’s aesthetics alone, it is very extremely my shit. I love the lush, naturey zones that were lit like it was always night time, similar to the Teldrassils (pre-toasting of course), Ashenvales, and Suramars of old. Though it’s not cloaked in a permanent veil of night, Outlands’ Nagrand has been my favourite WoW zone of all time because it was so supernaturally pretty with its chunks of floating islands and breathtaking skybox. I remember during my time in Burning Crusade, no matter where I was in Outlands when I was done playing for the day, I would fly to Nagrand, find a nice spot looking at the sky and log out. (I would also frequently fly to Honour Hold to log out while staring at the breathtakingly beautiful Arator but that’s another story.) Nagrand’s beauty stuck forever in my mind, becoming my answer to the oft asked question: If you could live anywhere in a video game, where would it be?
Ardenweald is my new Nagrand.
I sometimes find myself randomly stopping mid-quest and looking up at the skybox because, holy shit what a sky. I love stars and the night sky and I could stare at Ardenweald’s sky forever.
Ardenweald, with its aesthetic of night elf on faerie-dust-flavored steroids, feels like the realm from which all other naturey realms derive — and given some choice bits of dialogue from the Winter Queen — it might be!
When I first landed in Ardenweald, I was initially turned off by Moonberry, the fae spirit that greets you when you arrive. Tinker Bell was always my least favourite character in Peter Pan, so I’m not too fond of sing-songy, prank-playing, happy-go-lucky faeries like Lady Moonberry that flit about Ardenweald. I know it’s their job to be perpetually happy, but, c’mon guys, animal spirits are dying — maybe show a little more decorum?
Despite the faeries being awful, they are responsible for the most fun I’ve had in the game. While I was on a quest and killing things in a giant tree I happened upon some faerie dust. You’re supposed to use the dust to fly up to reach otherwise unreachable quest items but you can also use the dust to just straight up fly. I kept a stash of that faerie dust in my bag and have been using it to just fly back to base whenever I finish a quest. Since I’ve already pledged Ardenweald as my covenant (more on that at a later time because, hoo boy that introductory quest started cute but got dark) and it’s still unclear when players will be able to unlock Shadowlands flying, faerie dust will be my main mode of transportation. Flying is fun.
My warlock’s now had time with every zone’s class and signature ability and Ardenweald has, in my opinion, the best combination. Soul Rot is an amazing spell. I can inflict an area of effect dot that also empowers my Life Drain self-healing spell. It’s a lifesaver when my FLIPPING USELESS VOIDWALKER pulls one too many mobs and I need a quick burst of health to survive long enough for my damage over time spells to do their jobs.
Ardenweald’s signature ability, Soulshape, lets you blink forward and turn into a cute little fox.
Ardenweald has fun quest elements, a beautiful environment, and the best abilities of all the zones but its story makes the zone great. Ardenweald is the realm of hibernation and restoration. When animals and other beings with a strong nature affinity die, Ardenweald is where their spirits go to hibernate as wildseeds before being reborn — either in their home worlds or in Ardenweald to become a tender of new spirits.
Like the other realms of the Shadowlands, Ardenweald is suffering from a drought of anima, and it’s forced them to sacrifice the groves where the wildseeds sleep, harvesting and repurposing their anima to keep the rest of Ardenweald from collapsing. You get the full effect of this story in Ardenweald’s Afterlives short in which we watch devoted grove tender, Ara’lon, develop a special relationship with the wildseed that contains the Azerothian bear spirit, Ursoc. Ara’lon later makes the heartbreaking choice to sacrifice Ursoc so his anima can be used elsewhere. It’s a gut punch to watch and sets up the story that makes Ardenweald so good.
In the previous zones, Bastion and Maldraxxus, the anima drought always hangs in the background as a nebulous threat, but the story never got to the point where it compelled you to care about why you’re fighting. In Maldraxxus, sure Draka’s cool and Darion meeting up with his father was a nice touch. But really, I never felt deeply invested in Maldraxxi internal conflicts beyond the surface level of ‘if you don’t stop them, bad things will happen’. And in Bastion’s case, the “good guys” were doing such heinous shit that I ended up actively rooting for the “bad guys.”
But in Ardenweald the anima crisis is Ardenweald’s crisis, and that crisis is made personal. You become personally invested in the story, its consequences and outcomes, because as you progress through the zone, you’re given your own wildseed to care for. Seeing the devastation the anima drought has had on the land, you know that if you don’t succeed in tending this wildseed, its spirit will die…again, and there will be no hope for its rebirth.
That’d be enough to compel the hell outta me even without knowing who rested within the wildseed. Finding out who was, has been one of Shadowlands’ more emotional and delightful experiences. From the moment I was first introduced to my charge, I had a feeling it was going to be some significant figure from WoW’s recent past and not some rando. As time went on and the conversation surrounding my wildseed baby grew, I became more convinced this was a dragon. What I didn’t expect was how Ardenweald would reveal to me who this dragon was.
Spoilers ahead for the end of the Ardenweald campaign ending.
Late in the campaign, you delve into the wildseed’s dreams to figure out what was so traumatising in its life that causes it to manifest an endless number of nightmare demons. It’s pretty clear from the green dragons running around and the visions of Tyrande Whisperwind as a ‘Dear Friend’ that the dragon soul (no, not that Dragon Soul) in your care is Ysera, Mistress of the Emerald Dream who died tragically in the Legion expansion. But rather than Ysera popping out of her wildseed like, “Hey guys miss me?” WoW likes to make you hurt for it, giving you a quest that makes you experience Ysera’s never ending nightmare of her corruption and death. Imagine being forced to relive your worst moment in perfect, painful clarity literally forever. Jesus Christ, WoW, can you not?
I cried when I fought Ysera in Legion. I cried again saving her soul and watching her be reborn in Ardenweald. And I just adore how well Ysera’s — and by extension Ardenweald’s — story was done, bringing me full circle on the only two times WoW has ever made me cry.