New WoW expansion: what are the Shadowlands?

“We’re going to another plane of existence: we’re going to the realm of Death.” The official reveal that next year’s new World of Warcraft expansion would take place in the Shadowlands was heavily anticipated, as between the in-game hints and most recent leaks, players pretty much knew what to expect.

Blizzard did deliver on the hype however with another beautifully-crafted cinematic depicting the chain of events leading up to Shadowlands, as well as some details on what the new threats facing players could be.

Of course, the now-infamous Sylvanas is involved – but we can’t help but be awed by her as she tackles the Lich King, and then breaks the veil between reality and the Shadowlands. Credit: Blizzard

Shadowlands: the WoW afterlife

For hardcore Warcraft lore fans, the Shadowlands are nothing new. They’ve been depicted in the fantasy world’s cosmology as a parallel world to Azeroth’s reality. A kind of mirror to the Emerald Dream, but linked to the forces of Death rather than Life. This is where character’s souls go when they die (except for us infinitely revivable heroes).

WoW cosmology: six forces are vying for control over Azeroth. And this time we’re up against Death… Credit: Blizzard

The Shadowlands contain many different realms, each with their own atmosphere and purpose. Not all are as gloomy as you would think – in fact there is something that looks very much like a version of Paradise in there. Realms are ruled by factions called Covenants, and we’ll get to explore and know a few of them as we level through the new expansion.

At the centre of the realms stands Oribos, city of the Arbiter – the mysterious judge who allocates newly arrived souls to the appropriate realm based on their merits and flaws. Blizzard revealed yesterday that this will be the expansion hub (and a sanctuary city) – they did consider porting Dalaran over, but three versions felt like enough.

No information yet on how we travel between the zones – will Occuleth and his portals be there? Credit: Blizzard Watch

Finally, another key zone we’ll visit is the Maw. This “swirling vortex of darkness” is the Shadowlands’ version of Hell; a unescapable prison for the most vile and dangerous souls. This zone has no ruling Covenant. Instead, it is the domain of a single fearsome entity called the Jailer.

The Maw will be the endgame zone of Shadowlands, and we’ve been warned it will be more dangerous than any we’ve seen yet.

All into the hungry Maw

Alright, the Shadowlands sound interesting… but why exactly are we going there? Well, in the trailer, we saw Sylvanas destroy the helm of the Lich King. This took Life and Death completely out of balance, and also removed any form of checks on the Scourge and other undeads. Not only this; it tore up the barrier between Azeroth’s reality and the Shadowlands.

No, this isn’t the poster for Stranger Things 4 – that’s our way into the Shadowlands.
Credit: Blizzard

In pre-expansion events, our characters will be helping deal with Scourge attacks all over Azeroth. For the expansion start proper, we’ll then head over to the Shadowlands through the new tear in reality above Icecrown to fight the root of the problem – we’re hoping for some epic scenarios there to match the early visuals.

Once in that parallel realm, we learn from the various Covenants that something has been going very wrong of late: “the machine of Death is broken”. Instead of new souls being sorted into the different realms by the Arbiter, they are now all feeding straight into the Maw. This constant stream of energy is enabling that dangerous zone to grow at the expense of the others – so once again, we have a world-level threat to deal with.

The long game

Some of the juiciest information revealed about the new expansion are actually teasers on how this all fits together with previous plot threads; how Sylvanas became Warchief (explored just after the first raid of Battle for Azeroth) and her actions throughout the expansion.

The trailer’s final shots show Sylvanas meeting up with a hulking glowy-eyed shape who we’re told is the Jailer – so those two are in league somehow. This probably means that the Jailer is that mysterious voice who suggested the Banshee Queen to Vol’jin as he was choosing the next Horde Warchief – as we ruled out pretty much all the other usual suspects though the “Wisdom of the Warchief” questline. In fact, we’ve been teased that this partnership dates even further back, to Cataclysm (and the short story Edge of Night).

Our only glimpse of the Jailer doesn’t give much away. With such an ally, what is Sylvanas up to (again)? Credit: Blizzard

The Jailer is likely also at the root of Sylvanas’ incredible power creep throughout Battle for Azeroth. Which leads us to wonder: what is she giving him in exchange? Could she somehow be the origin of the unbalance in the Shadowlands and the recent growth of the Maw? At the very least, she may have been consciously feeding it by ensuring as many deaths as possible – which would finally explain some of her odd choices throughout the last expansion.

And of course, the million-gold question is: how does this fit into Sylvanas’ own plan? We know she is terrified of death – and in the trailer she claims to “set [us] all free” from the prison of the world. What does the Banshee Queen have in store this time?

If you think you’ve got the answer, let us know in the comments or tweet us here. And if you missed our recap of all the key announcements from Blizzcon, you can find it here.

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