Yesterday, I put up a review of the raid from 9.1, the Sanctum of Domination, WoW’s 27th raid tier.
I skipped one vital bit however, and that was the story. Today, I want to rectify that, and with the news about 9.1.5 simmering down and the first bits of 9.2 being hinted at (in the most roundabout nothing way), it is worth discussing.
Everything But Sylvanas – Mostly Okay, I Suppose?
The story of the raid is really about two halves, or a 90/10 split between the decent-enough parts and the dreck. First up, the non-Sylvanas 90%. It’s…fine, actually? There are some interesting lore reveals of the 9.1 questing, like confirming that the Eye of the Jailer is Odin’s missing eye and seeing Kel’Thuzad fully over with the Jailer, coupled with brief lore hits from 9.1 like Fatescribe going mad and ending up with the Jailer. We also get the big reveal/undoing of Garrosh Hellscream in the Soulrender Dormazain fight, after it was revealed that Garrosh was Revendreth’s biggest and baddest anima battery during the Afterlives animatics leading up to the expansion launch.
This gives the raid an interesting set of payoffs – short term (Fatescribe, the Tarragrue, Eye of the Jailer) and some long-term payoffs (Kel’Thuzad’s ultimate demise, the fate of Garrosh and how much his character changed/didn’t change at all), and they are woven together decently well with flavor NPCs. To the extent that we were left wondering, the fate of that bit of Ner’zhul that was stuck in the Helm of Domination came to be known, so all in all, we get some lore put aside to give us a way forward into the juicy bits we were hoping/expecting going into Shadowlands.
The only reason I am being more reserved in this is simple – none of these payoffs are huge. We get the surface level basics to move us forward – what ultimately happens to them now? – and less of the backstory. What led to Garrosh being an effective anima battery, and how long in Shadowlands time was his torment the key to powering the Jailer’s plots? How long has Kel’Thuzad been subverting the houses of Maldraxxus in service of the Jailer, and for what actual reason? How did Ner’zhul become this abomination, and was that tied to the shattering of the Helm of Domination by Sylvanas in the Shadowlands cinematic or something else? The answers we get all tie up the basic loose ends – they won’t be threats anymore – but also leave an unsatisfying lack of context or other information.
The flavor NPCs are great, and I find myself slightly disappointed we didn’t get glimpses of them in Torghast. I would have enjoyed seeing Painsmith Raznal interrogating souls as an event that could pop, or having to race to captured souls before Soulrender Dormazain sundered them. There is a lot of cool stuff that could have been done in Torghast to prepare us for the raid, and while sure, seeing the NPCs beforehand would likely lead to cries of “rehash, recycled content!” – I would have personally enjoyed it at least a little bit. Torghast being a mystery box is an interesting concept, but having some driving force present in wings that we can recognize and work against would have been a fun bit of worldbuilding.
Overall, if that is where the lore of the raid ends, it’s not bad. However…
The Absolute State of Sylvanas
Sylvanas’ story was always going to be a sticking point, because the build to this point has been…not particularly great, all told. If she was redeemed, a set of players would be irritated and others relieved, if she was killed, the same would be true, and there was basically no way to win with all players. I do think, in my opinion, however, that redeeming her was the option most likely to inflame the playerbase of the two, and well…I think that holds true in observations post-9.1.
So what went wrong with Sylvanas? Simply put, the idea of her sundered soul and how her characterization has changed without it.
The recent WoW lore in and out of game has been pushing at this angle that the Sylvanas we have known for the entirety of World of Warcraft is not actually the full Sylvanas, but a shade, a fraction, a sliver. Our detestable Banshee Queen is the negative side of Sylvanas, the impure thoughts, the vile impulses, and thus, does not represent the whole of the being. This could lead me down a speculative side path, but I am going to avoid that impulse today to evaluate what we do have.
In-game, Sylvanas has been presented as softening her views, mostly through her role as Anduin’s Jailer, playing out the same interactions she has with Zovaal in microcosm. Sylvanas, at the 9.0 stage of the story, genuinely believed that the Jailer was making a good-faith offer of choice to the universe, by removing what was seen as an unjust ordering of it. Anduin plays it straight and instills doubt in Sylvanas – if he had a choice, he wouldn’t be chained and would be free to go of his own volition, but the choice is an illusion and he is to be made to serve, as Sylvanas has, seemingly unwittingly.
The problem with all of this is that it is very dissonant to how Sylvanas’ character is presented in the game. In-game, Sylvanas is cunning, clever, intelligent and analytical. She is supposed to be undeterred by petty things and able to read between the lines to suss out the best way to reach her goals. Yet, in Shadowlands, we see this almost precisely inverted – she’s being led by the nose to help the Jailer in enslaving all his foes and crushing the order of existence, and she goes along with it, believes in it, and has a rose-colored vision of what will come to pass. It is nearly impossible to reconcile the Sylvanas we’ve been told about for over a decade with this version of her, and that hurts her characterization. Speculatively, the fragmented soul arc also doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface for the Sylvanas and Anduin interactions we’ve seen – where Sylvanas is clearly softer in tone and perhaps a bit regretful.
This also caps off another major problem, which is that we are now in the situation of having a patch with brand new threats that have been poorly or vaguely introduced in 9.2, in all likelihood. We still know precious little of Zovaal, of what the Covenant sigils enable or do, of what Zovaal’s ultimate goal actually is, and then there are loose threads semi-related to that plot. What of Anduin, of Uther, of Arthas? The Runecarver seems to have made the items used to create the Lich King, but we’re also told that the Primus was the original master of Domination magic, so what significance does that reveal hold for us? Unlike in past expansions, we’re flying blind at this point as far as what comes next. In BfA, we had Azshara built and ready for her moment, and N’Zoth after her. In Legion, we had the Tomb of Sargeras looming throughout the introductory months of the expansion and when we finished it, we had a cinematic to reveal Argus as it loomed ominously in the skybox.
What do we have for now in Shadowlands? Well…not much. Obviously the Jailer is the main threat, with the possession of Anduin being something we’ll aim to resolve sooner than later. Arthas has been name-dropped so obviously that he has to be around at some point, although in what form remains to be seen, and Uther will likely have something to say about that. We’ve been hinted towards a zone of “Zereth Mortis” which prompted 3 hours of intense theory and then silence, and there are characters we’ve had from Korthia and the Maw stories that will surely come along – Ve’nari, Draka and Thrall, the Korthian keepers, and there is some question about Helya after her dismissal from the scene at the hands of the Primus. However, I couldn’t connect these bits into a coherent narrative myself to save my life, and I worry greatly about what angle Blizzard will take.
Through these lenses, we then must return to Sylvanas. I think her 9.1 narrative was so unfulfilling for precisely two reasons – it comes with a big lore drop at the end with no real explanation, and there is a long time still left for us to speculate and debate what it all really means. There is room for a lot of readings, and my biggest personal complaint is that the game provides no real context for what happens in that finale cinematic. We know it is the missing fragment of Sylvanas’ soul because of the Fables & Folklores book, but do we really know that? Nope, sure don’t!
This is exacerbated by what we now have an inkling of, which is that 9.2 will not be the end of Shadowlands. Up until today, I had been convinced over to team two patches, but Ion Hazzikostas’ remarks to VentureBeat seem to hint at the idea that there will be more patches beyond. The wording is vague enough to also just mean a new expansion, of course, but the possibility exists that we get a 9.3, and in that scenario, 9.2 is even hazier to me. The assumptions of facing the Jailer, freeing and/or murdering Anduin, and resolving the drama around Arthas and Uther feels like a solid 9.2 prediction if nothing more of Shadowlands comes after, but if we do indeed have another content cycle…I don’t even know what to expect!
And the issue is laid bare easily as such – mystery is great when there are good leads, but the leads aren’t good and the possibilities are multiple and frustrating, and right now what WoW needs more than perhaps anything else is clarity.