Tonight, my guild did it.
Actually, a fun preamble – due to the popularity of the expansion and our BfA merger, we had two guilds worth of returning players, which pushed our raid roster above 30 – to roughly 40, with 5 sort of floaty players. Our experience in Castle Nathria was doing the raid with full ranks up until this week, where we went from one 30-player raid to two 20-ish player raids. Crazy stuff.
So, tonight, both raid teams did it – cleared the full of Castle Nathria and downed Sire Denathrius, getting to turn in quests worth 2,500 Reservoir Anima (that’s where it all is hiding!) and getting to trigger the cinematic that I wrote about the other day in game.
Castle Nathria as a raid has a sort of interesting tier placement, in that the first tier of an expansion is a sort of cursed spot, in my opinion. Very few people remember the first tier of raiding all that well in a modern WoW expansion – it has been that way since Cataclysm and especially since Legion – WoD gets a pass since it only had two tiers anyways! What I love about first tier of the expansion is that it usually has the most flavor and intrigue – it gets to be tied mostly to the local events and leveling story, has little or no weight from the need to push the story to include established characters and lore, and so it gets to be a freeform sort of fun piece of content. Likewise, from a gameplay perspective, it is the one with the most new expansion smell on it – you have new borrowed power systems before everyone is fully tired of them, new class and spec abilities and talents, and the new forms of synergy all of this enables. It ends up being a pretty broad-reaching tier, given that players tend to enter it with more scattered and divergent item levels, compared to later tiers where everyone is largely climbing the ladder.
In that vein, Castle Nathria feels like a Nighthold or Heart of Fear to me, and less like an Uldir.
I sort of liked Uldir, but I also…didn’t. It was fine as a first raid, and had some fun fights with some interesting hooks into leveling content, but it also failed to meaningfully hook in Alliance players, as the story was largely focused on the Horde leveling content, with the Alliance hook being Brann Bronzebeard exploring a new place – substantially less interesting. It also failed to have much meaning later on in the expansion, as the much more hooked in Battle of Dazar’alor paid off leveling hooks for both factions, endgame story content for both, and became the foundation of a number of events that still reverberate today. Meanwhile G’Huun was kind of just…a roadblock? It never really became clear to me as an Alliance player what we gained from vanquishing him outside of the obvious threat reduction, and he wasn’t really a lingering presence past that. The most enduring content we got from Uldir was MOTHER, and she’s pretty cool, I guess.
So when I say that line above, I mean it as a high compliment to the Sire’s lair.
To avoid getting bogged down in simple synopses of each fight, I’m going to approach this from the perspective of the raid as a whole.
Visual Design: Castle Nathria is a visually excellent piece of work, with ambience and a sort of lived in feel around every corner. The layout does a mostly good job of making the massive exterior feel like something we are traversing, but there is a little bit of chicanery around the main tower and the Denathrius fight. It doesn’t feel quite as contiguous with the open world as something like Highmaul (where the world map design was 1:1 with the raid content!) but it gets really damn close, and given the massive scope of the castle, that is good. Dovetailing with the story, this very much feels like the grand estate of one man – Denathrius, to the detriment of all others. His fight chamber is far above and away from the rest of the raid, creating this excellent vibe that matches the characterization of the Sire. Likewise, I love that he says “your pride will be your downfall” in a room with a massive painting of himself.
Design and Layout for Gameplay: It is a sort of confusing mess – it feels very much like a castle, but that comes with some downsides. What I feel is this – it has a lot of branching paths and ways around to different encounter areas, and that is good, but it also still has a layout very much like a WoW raid – a series of interconnected boss rooms with trash hallways, where the excellent work visually is sort of laid bare as a mirage. I don’t want raids to be confusing, real-life messes all the time, but I feel like Castle Nathria sort of gets the worst of both – big and full of branching paths with at least two ways to approach every one of the first 6 bosses, but also a very on-rails experience without any sort of intermissions into living chambers, kitchens for parties, or the like. It is fairly easy to learn how to navigate, but if you get turned around, you can lose your bearings a lot more easily in here!
Music: There is a base tune, the same melody that fills most of Revendreth, but tuned to its most bourgeois – if you’re in the open courtyard, it hums low and bassy, at the Blood Council it turns up to a lively party medly, and at Denathrius himself it goes extra low, becoming a portent of doom. The use of the zone leitmotif makes it clear throughout that the raid is very much the extension of the leveling story and a near-concluding event of the Venthyr campaign story, and so it feels organic and fitting.
Trash Design: It is…okay, I suppose. There isn’t an awful amount of trash, and none of it is particularly difficult, but what I dislike is that very few bosses have trash to actively teach mechanics, a design strength I enjoy in WoW. Artificer Xy’mox’s trash teaches a boss mechanic, sort of, the Blood Council trash has some of the fight mechanics, and the Hungering Destroyer trash has a clear set of the boss mechanics for you to learn, which is great. Every other boss either has some flavor trash that doesn’t relate to what the boss actually does, or no trash. I will say the moments with no trash are made fitting, at least – Sun King’s Salvation having no trash in the leadup once you open the way to the room makes sense given the fight, and having no trash standing between you and Denathrius once you reach the pinnacle of the castle is highly logical.
Overall Encounter Design: The fights here are actually pretty good. As I mentioned in my week 1 post about the raid, it uses existing raid mechanics mostly with slight tweaks – manage this AoE bomb but you have a teleport, handle this healing boss but the whole raid can help in some way, here’s a council fight with shared mechanics but not shared health and a mid-phase intermission that allows healers to breathe for a minute and catch-up before the madness resumes, and unique takes on simple ideas like LOS and debuff management. It even makes some aspects of the raid customizable, in a way – you can pick a kill order on Blood Council that plays to your raid’s strengths, you can work with different healing arrangements on Sun King’s Salvation, you can choose between more adds but an easier transition phase or an easier phase 1 but a harder transition on Denathrius (on Normal this is a trap choice, but I assume higher difficulties may make this choice more interesting!), and there are a few other places where you can really tweak and fine-tune raid choices to make for differing outcomes.
Difficulty Curve of Bosses: I think that Castle Nathria’s difficulty curve is wack on normal. Here’s the problems as I see them quickly – most of the early challenge is getting preparatory gear outside of the raid, and once you beat that challenge, the early fights are pretty easy until Blood Council, who wall off your progress until you win, and then the rest of the raid feels easier until Denathrius, who is a good endboss in terms of difficulty overall, but we took around 6 pulls to kill him compared to 10+ with Blood Council, which is an interesting dilemma! Some of that boils down to our raid’s weaknesses, and that is fine, but at least on Normal, I’ve seen a few comments that lead me to believe that it isn’t just our guild feeling that way.
Loot Model/Gear: Castle Nathria suffers from the loot bottleneck the whole of Shadowlands has, but it makes one very surprising improvement to QoL that is fantastic. Weapons and off-hands, forever a pain point (save for maybe Legion, and even that model had some real issues), are far far better here. Why? Instead of needing every raider to get their absolute best drop or say, having a warglaive drop without a Demon Hunter, the bosses that drop weapons instead drop an Anima item that denotes a main-hand or off-hand item with a class divide on the tokens. Instead of grabbing a weapon in the raid, you take the bead back to your Covenant, and trade it in for a weapon that matches your Covenant armor. It means that the variety of itemization isn’t there, but it also means for the macro-level of your raid, it works out much more simply – those drops are always good and useful until you outlevel the content, and even then, they can be good for transmog. Plus, there are two tokens for both MH and OH – one at the base raid item level and one at the Denathrius item level, allowing you to upgrade within the same difficulty.
Place In The Story: It fits! Again, the first-tier problem creeps in here – right now, Denathrius is a great villain and fighting him makes full sense for us and what the Shadowlands ultimately needs. My fear here is a simple one – right now, I think it fits great and pays off the story from leveling in a great way. If the patch trajectory in Shadowlands follows the BfA template, then I would be concerned that a raid tier in 9.1 would bring a lot of very relevant story content that has a broader spread across Covenants and serves to bridge us forward into the more major lore character focus we’re certain to see in later patches.
Overall: Castle Nathria is a fun, mostly well-made raid with a lot of fun fights that has some challenges out of its control (gearing model in Shadowlands, mostly) but also is encumbered with an odd difficulty curve and a lack of fun cosmetic rewards (outside of the Remornia battle pet, which I got tonight and is very cool!). It has decent raid sets with a clear winner (Dark Souls plate, let’s go!) and the use of the Beads system to offer weapons/offhands that match the Covenant armor you have is a good twist that also makes weapon drops far less stressful for a raid than the past, which is excellent. I am very happy with this raid tier overall, but I do worry about the raid’s place in the future of the game, and how we’ll feel about it in a year, much less at the start of 10.0 after a full cycle of forgetting about it.
But for now, it is a fun bit of content overall, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Heroic goes on the hunt for Ahead of the Curve!