World of Warcraft's next expansion is dubbed Shadowlands, set in what is effectively Azeroth's afterlife. The Shadowlands is an ethereal realm where mortal souls appear after death. Or at least, that's how it should work. The afterlife has been usurped by an entity known as The Jailor, and souls are being devoured by an endless void known as The Maw, rather than directed to greener pastures.
Speaking of greener pastures, we recently got into the World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Alpha, which starts in the verdant lands of Bastion. Bastion is populated with Kyrian, born of noble souls whose heroic deeds in life have earned them a place in the heavenly plane. Bastion isn't without its own conflicts, though.
In World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Alpha, we began to get a glimpse at the mechanics of the afterlife in Warcraft's universe, wrapped in some seriously gorgeous Blizzard art.
Bastion, beset by conflict
Without giving too much away for those who want to avoid spoilers, Bastion is the realm of the Kyrian, and souls who seek out a life of penance and solitude. Given the upheaval taking place within the Shadowlands, Bastion has fallen upon hard times, with its primary source of energy, Anima, depleted by the machinations of The Jailor.
Kyrians usher the dead towards Oribos, where they are judged by an entity known as The Arbiter. Some undertake the trials of the Kyrian to become angel-like ascended, although those who fail become twisted beings known as The Forsworn. It is with this backdrop that you arrive, as a living mortal, in an attempt to build up allegiances to take the fight to The Jailor, and bring Sylvanas Windrunner to justice for her misdeeds in the current expansion, Battle for Azeroth.
Skeptical of your prowess, the Kyrian quests involve taking on their trials, while learning more about their ancient Greco-Roman-inspired culture. You'll perform sacred rites, explore holy sanctums, and duel other Kyrians in trials-by-combat, as you begin to unravel a nefarious plot against the realm itself.
Left unchecked for eons, The Forsworn are gathering into an army of their own. Fallen Kyrians lament their transgressions and failings in life and refuse to let go of their mortal selves. Embittered and emboldened by new, powerful Forsworn leaders, they march on the Ascended in an attempt to change Bastion for good.
You'll be caught up in this conflict as you progress towards Oribos and the other Shadowlands realms, which are currently unavailable in the Alpha. Even though Bastion's Alpha quest chain is nowhere near complete as of writing, it makes up for an intriguing introduction to Azeroth's afterlife.
Blizzard's art team nails it, once again
Bastion seems inspired by various heavenly myths and legends, including the likes of Olympus, Valhalla, and heaven itself, with endless rolling hills, alabaster architecture, set in an ocean of clouds. The entire area has a certain zen about it, with chilled-out music and a gorgeous skybox that makes you feel like you're floating in a gigantic cherubic painting.
The Kyrians themselves are, at base, just like blue humans, but their angel-like "Ascended" forms are far more impressive, with animated wings that unfurl gracefully for flight. Bastion is dotted with various celestial flora and fauna, too, with cloud serpents, ghostly deer, and other forest-dwelling magical critters.
Many features are missing from the current build, given that we're in early Alpha. Still, I expect the finished Bastion quest areas to have fully-voiced quests along with in-engine cutscenes, as we've seen throughout Legion and Battle for Azeroth.
World of Warcraft is entering its 16th year, and the engine is starting to show signs of aging for sure. Despite that, Blizzard seems to be gearing up to inject some DirectX Ray-Tracing goodness into Shadowlands, for those with capable GPUs, which should give the visuals a new lease of life.
This early glimpse at Shadowlands and its systems make me excited for the game again, as is typically the case with any new WoW expansion. However, concerns over how Battle for Azeroth handled its endgame makes me concerned for some of the gameplay systems proposed for Shadowlands.
Players will be able to bind themselves to a Covenant, like the Kyrians, granting them a unique ability that can impact their playstyle. Blizzard historically hasn't been great at balancing spells and abilities, making me wonder if this could just become another "trap" for players who end up with the "wrong" Covenant for their class. Having only played Demonology Warlocks for the Alpha thus far, I'm also disappointed how little attention Blizzard has put on broken talents and spells. Despite having a "choice" for talent picks, many are clearly better than others. A new expansion should be an opportunity to fix broken skills (lol Nether Portal), but so far, it looks like Blizzard hasn't taken the plunge for many "forgotten" specs.
In any case, there's still months between now and release, with Blizzard taking feedback on the direction of Shadowlands and its design. Learnings from Battle for Azeroth will hopefully feed into Shadowlands, to prevent new endgame systems from being broken/clunky, but alas, we'll have to wait and see.
For now, this warlock is pretty excited for Shadowlands.
Still the best MMO
Still the best MMO out there
Battle for Azeroth's endgame raids and dungeons remain a ton of fun to experience with friends, especially if you're not new to the game. Shadowlands will be better for newcomers, though, so hang tight!
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!