Horrific Visions are a gameplay mechanism that attempts to please a lot of masters. It has solo gameplay, small group gameplay, simple objectives that reward skill, more complicated objectives that reward skillful gameplay and careful planning, layers of difficulty that can be added or removed in various ways, and meaningful progression that makes subsequent attempts feel drastically easier, encouraging you to push on them harder to get the rewards they offer.
When I first wrote about the gameplay of HVs back in October when PTR launched, it was a decidedly pessimistic take. I loaded the post with emergency exits – the nature of PTR was, after all, to test, and so you could take your first foray into the scenario blind but with all of the safeties on to ensure an optimal clear. Based on that, I noted that HVs felt too simple, that the mechanics and play on offer were just not going to cut it as a long-lived feature of a long-lived final patch to an expansion.
3 months, Blizzcon, and a circle around the globe later for the person behind the keyboard, and HVs suddenly have a sharper emphasis. We know now what we didn’t when PTR launched – while the gameplay is different, HVs are a trial balloon of sorts for Torghast, showcasing the same kind of scaling technology that will let Torghast scale from 1-5 players. They are also the meat of the patch content for most players, in a patch full of repeatable content (and a later post today will discuss the ecosystem of actually repeatable content in 8.3!).
First, worth noting is that the simplicity of my PTR experience was indeed mostly due to early tuning and the nature of having a fully-upgraded legendary cape from the drop, alongside most of the talents for the scenario. Without those, the base experience is quite a bit more stressful – in a good way. Early on, the expectation is mostly that you’ll do the first boss alone, as the earliest ranks of upgrades for Ashjra’Kamas only need you to kill the main boss. Once you have your first few ranks into the cape, coupled with the Sanity Orbs talent, you can, if you are feeling bold, push into the first medium difficulty area.
The zones of both HVs are sorted into 5 main sections, with the base section being a 6 sanity per second sapping, the two medium areas being 8 sanity per second, and the two hardest being 12 per second. This sanity drain is counteracted by the cape, so currently for me at Rank 4, the 6 section ends up being around 4 sanity per second net and the medium areas are 6 sanity per second net. The drain is still fairly fast – out of a pool of 1,000, you will quickly deplete if you waste time. Then, there are madness effects – usually detrimental effects that cause gameplay to get complicated.
The core gameplay is still fairly simple, but it leaves little wrinkles with the encouragement to deal with the various mechanics as your class and spec best enable. For example, the first area of Orgrimmar’s HV, the Valley of Honor, gives you a Madness effect that does AoE damage to enemies and life drains for a portion of it, giving you a potent boost to survival. Your goal is to clear as efficiently as possible – you don’t have to kill every mob in the zone to gain access to the boss here, but for farming Corrupted Mementos, it is ideal. The mobs themselves are just trash, but a few sprinkled in where it logically makes sense have extra effects.
What I love (yes, I love something in BfA for a change!) is that this makes the scenario VERY open ended. You can choose your specific route, your chosen pull strategies, how and what to pull, the talents used to mitigate the effects of the constant Sanity sap, and what order to tackle challenges in. You can choose to consume the various potions around the room, most of which offer a benefit with a tradeoff (a common theme of the patch), or to leave them alone. Finally, while the game’s map of the scenario tries to point out when your cape level may not be high enough to mitigate the sanity drain of a higher-end section of the zone, you can choose to soldier on bravely anyways – which I did, as I concluded last night’s HV runs two-chesting (a guildie has been pushing to 4!).
The challenge is multi-fold from adding more bosses into the rotation – one, you just spend more time with Sanity ticking down rapidly, but two, each non-main boss you kill grants an ability to the main boss. Thrall alone is a simple fight, he does an inside-outside void zone and a frontal line stun. When he casts the stun, don’t be in front, when he casts the void zones, don’t be in them when they explode. Simple! However, if you kill the boss in The Drag, now suddenly he also has a shielded cast that requires you do enough damage to break the shield to interrupt him, on top of his standard stuff. It can create some messy situations – if you don’t edge-align him to the border between void zones, he can get locked wherever he is when casting the big nuke from the Drag boss, so if you’re melee, you are going to be screwed if that happens. Likewise, you have to be careful when moving him for the void zones because of the frontal line stun. Each boss adds a layer, and if you’re just trying to get the legendary cape upgrades, it might not be all that necessary to push all the way through, at least in the early stages. However, there are Essence reward fragments from the final chests of many of the bosses and the incentive is to clear as far as you are able, as both the ending rewards and the Corrupted Memento currency rewards increase the more enemies you vanquish while inside.
The talent tree, while I’ve mentioned it, hasn’t been touched on too much here, so let’s elaborate. You get a series of what effectively amount to HV-exclusive talents, mostly passive, but at least one active use ability in the Sanity Orbs. These choices aim to allow you to further extend the time you can spend inside the HVs, as they restore sanity, safeguard your sanity from excessive drain, increase maximum sanity, and boost your character performance inside the HVs. They are a good aspect of the scenario because there is a lot of player agency via those choices and synergy in group play – managing Sanity Orbs, picking talents to match with your group mates, etc – all of that is great! In the end, you’ll be able to buy every talent, so the choice isn’t all that consequential later on down the road, but it can set you apart on learning attempts inside the visions.
All of this combines to create something that I think is actually really great! I’ve been hitting on player agency and ability to act via your character a lot in recent posts because it is the thing I realized I want the most from an MMORPG – to embody a different person who has extraordinary abilities and use those abilities to act on the world around them. Nazjatar and Mechagon too often focused on general powers and abilities, or world quests via pet battles and puzzle minigames, and so they were difficult for me to wholeheartedly embrace. However, 8.3 so far recognizes that, and the HVs are one of the best expressions of my desired MMO paradigm the WoW team has ever made. You have all the choices – group size, talent loadout, route through the scenario, what mobs to pull, how fast to pull, how to position and manage the pulls, which bosses to kill, what routes to take to get to those targets, if you take any of the potions sitting around the room, and then how you strategically manage to burn down the bosses. Within that, you get pure character play – how will you use your abilities to fight, how will you use your utility to better map your path through the corrupted visions of WoW capitals, and how densely you can stack your pulls and burn them down to make better time.
All of this is extremely satisfying for me, and there are still layers of challenge available I can choose to engage with!
Now, that isn’t to say I’m all aboard the Horrific Visions train. I still have two main beefs with the system and interlocked rewards and gameplay. The first is that they are ultimately quite repetitive – moreso than a dungeon since they are not unique areas new to the scenarios. Right now, they’re great – I know the towns so navigation is simplified and I haven’t explored all the way through either scenario since the first two PTR builds. The problem I see is that eventually, you’ll clear all the way, you’ll have all the power, and at that point, there’s just not much more beyond that. The second thing relates to those damn ephemeral grinds – the main motivator for doing the HVs is to rank up your Ashjra’Kamas cloak, which both makes the scenario easier until rank 15, and also allows you to equip more Corruption, which also empowers you to have an easier time. You’re farming a currency whose purpose is largely bound up in the HVs – talents, items, etc – and once you have all the talents, have the cosmetic rewards (like the backpack cloak transmog!), and have your fill of the gameplay, that’s it. So you’ll spend between 6-12 months in here, farming up all the items you want, but eventually, all the rewards save for the cosmetics will lose value – and not just like gear value, but all value. The cape, while it gains item level via ranks, is cool, but the corruption resistance and Sanity drain reductions are what you actually want from it, and those hold no value in Shadowlands (that we know of, please oh god tell me those mechanics won’t continue). The talent tree is specific to the HVs, so it only has value for as long as you want to continue doing HVs – eventually, you’ll hit a wall of interest and then all of that work is for naught.
I will say this, however, to avoid a downer ending – the gameplay is fun, engaging, and does push you in a way similar to the Mage Tower, albeit less stressful or skill-expanding. At the end of the day, what I want most is content to play my character and test their limits against the parameters of a new challenge that makes me think about how and why I am using my skills in the way I am. Horrific Visions definitely offer that, and so while I know I will eventually burn out of them, for the immediate future, I’m onboard.
If this is the model for Torghast, albeit with more random routes and less time-crunch? I’m in.