Going into Blizzcon season, we have a clear winner among the “leaks” that is at least worth speculating about further.
Of all the various settings and stories that came out over the summer purporting to be real expansion leaks from my dad who totally works at Blizzard, the Shadowlands seemingly has the best quality and quantity of current lore hooks. We’ve seen a new death aspect in Bwonsamdi, Sylvanas is obsessed with death, the Lich King has reappeared and his daughter ran around with Alliance players as they leveled, and we’re coming off a war that started as the planet itself began to die due to the wound of Sargeras’ blade.
However, something I commonly see said about Shadowlands as a concept is that it can’t really work because it would be drab and dark for a full expansion.
Given what we know of it from the current lore (and ability to technically enter it by dying), that isn’t a stretch either. Plus, we have a two-expansion deep history of over a year of expansion time being spent in a color palette that fits the theme but grows dull over time. Warlords of Draenor sent us to a very green Tanaan Jungle in 6.2 and had us soldiering through a very green raid in Hellfire Citadel, the only content in the game for over a year. Legion released 7.2 in the spring of 2017 with Broken Shore, a fel zone, and Tomb of Sargeras, a fel raid. This was followed up with Argus’ three zones, two of which were also fel-tainted, and Antorus, a (surprise!) largely green raid. There were exceptions (the added dungeons in both 7.2 and 7.3, Mac’Aree) but we spent over half of Legion wallowing in fel, after the launch experience promised not to bombard our eyes with it overlong (although most zones had pockets of it present).
So I definitely understand the worry that a Shadowlands-centered expansion would be a drab and dreary affair, loaded with monochromatic wastelands and tinged with the faint blueish-green hues of death magic. I sort of share it, despite my barely-restrained excitement for the theme as a whole. Yet, I do think that Blizzard can design their way out of it, in theory.
In Legion (at launch at least), Blizzard gave themselves a convenient out by setting the expansion on the Broken Isles, allowing them to build a set of zones that could be distinct from the fel-green hue of the expansion. In fact, the whole beginning of the expansion was rather good at subverting expectations in this way – bright zones across a broad color palette, with the first 3 of 5 raids in the expansion being built in their own distinct visual styles fully separate from the Legion, and even the other two raids interspersed fel corruption with Titan architecture and interesting scenic vistas.
I think they’ll do something similar with Shadowlands. While the current lore suggests a desolate wasteland of those fated to wander between life and death, our (potential) arrival would likely portend some big changes. How?
Firstly, I think that whatever manages to pull us into the Shadowlands is going to change the balance of power there, such as there is one. We’re likely going to be drawn along faction lines, allying with one of the forces of death (Bwonsamdi, Sylvanas, Lich King, Elune) and I fully expect that the zones we get out of such an expansion are going to be decked out accordingly. Bwonsamdi regions are likely to invoke Troll themes, masks and torches, huts and shanty buildings, alongside some of the magnificient Troll architecture we got to see in Zandalar. Sylvanas is likely to go with a hybrid of High-Elf and Forsaken architecture, purple and green hues with interesting spires. The Lich King would likely embrace his origins, saronite spikes and imposing metallic gates and walls adorned with skulls and horrors. Elune could use an interesting mix – Night Elf structures, likely the Suramar high-res versions, would be likely, but if the people suggesting Elune is a Naaru are correct, then that could get quite a bit more interesting, as Draenei-styled future-tech could be in the mix too.
Assuming that our main factions continue to exist into the Shadowlands, the possibility exists that we will colonize portions of the map as well with our normally-fortified encampments.
The possibility also exists that Blizzard finds a way to hold to a theme of death while subverting expectations on what that looks like. We all assume that the new death magic glow would just be the default color everywhere, and while I think that is the most likely scenario, it doesn’t mean that Blizzard can’t decide that the world itself can be colorful and stand apart in a different way. One of the core assumptions a lot of people (myself included) have made about a possible Shadowlands expansion involves going there and having it be a separate place, but there could be a different way – a merger of realms through a plot event, as an example. The undercurrent of death in BfA seems to be winking and nodding at death coming to our realm – Sylvanas inflicting death and reaping the souls and Bwonsamdi being heavily involved in the Horde story up through Dazar’alor both suggest a lot of crossover, and the idea that perhaps Shadowlands won’t be a unique location so much as the fusion of the Shadowlands to our existing world.
The possibility also exists that we explore the Shadowlands via some new continent that has fused with them, rather than a whole new area or the existing zones with death hues. I’m not sure I necessarily want to discover yet another lost landmass to start an expansion, but if they want to compromise, I could see that.
My ideal state would be something akin to what I suggested a few years back before we were set on the BfA path – new zones could be the current world fused with the Shadowlands, with a full continent story. It’d actually fit damn near perfectly too – Elune taking Kalimdor, the Lich King in Northrend, Sylvanas in Eastern Kingdoms, and Bwonsamdi taking the rest of the world. That is definitely ambitious, and would require a lot of work to refit the Shadowlands art additions to everything, but it’d be really cool I think – something that could restore a strong sense of world would be to push to use the whole world as current content, sans any huge Cataclysm-style changes (think artistic changes more than anything, with tweaks for gameplay purposes).
Overall, my point is this – should Blizzard decide to go Shadowlands for 9.0 (and there is a lot of weight to that in the current game and lore!) then I think there is some real potential for that to be done better than just death tones on the whole new landmass, and I certainly am excited to see if Blizzard gives us that!