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Shadowlands’ Ardenweald is World of Warcraft’s weirdest forest yet

Be reborn as a forest sprite

World of Warcraft - a faun sands guard in Ardenweald Image: Blizzard Entertainment
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

The third zone of World of Warcraft’s next expansion, Shadowlands, is Ardenweald. This mystical dream forest, inhabited by the souls of the dead, is the home of one of the Covenants that players can join for powerful abilities and cosmetics. The Night Fae.Ardenweald is a forest afterlife that seems the closest thing the Shadowlands have to a heaven.

Unlike the other Covenants, if you die and join the Night Fae, they don’t make you take up arms, fight for power, or serve a cause. Instead, you can just chill as a faun or tend a pretty garden. Ardenweald still has soldiers and hunters, but it’s mostly full of happy souls, napping as saplings.

Of course, this is a World of Warcraft levelling zone, so things have gone wrong. The Drust, a force of Death we met in Battle for Azeroth, are in Ardenweald as antagonists. The warriors and hunters of the Night Fae are defending their home, but the anima drought affecting the entire realm (thanks to Sylvanas routing everybody’s soul into mega Hell) means that Ardenweald is wilting. Tyrande Whisperwind also shows up in Ardenweald, looking to follow up on the Night Warrior buff she received in Battle for Azeroth.

Once players reach max level, they can choose to join the Night Fae, which will allow them to spend more time in the zone. Not only will they gain access to cosmetics, cute animal mounts, and special armor, but Night Fae can also maintain their own little garden of souls.

Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Bringing a world to life

The Drust appeared in Battle for Azeroth as ancient race that appeared in Kul Tiras, and was eventually fought and banished. They are the reason Kul Tiras can be druids; the ancient energies of nature, decay, and rebirth were adopted by certain parts of the sea-faring nation. Ardenweald grew out of those concepts, and the art team was able to learn from the past forests they’ve created in World of Warcraft.

Ardenweald benefits from new tech that has been recently developed at Blizzard.

“We’ve created a brand new water type for this zone that has a water effect on it. We have new weather systems where an ‘anima rain’ is happening,” says art director Ely Cannon. “We’ve added leaf effects, and we have a dust and debris effect in the waning areas to give a sense of deterioration and disintegration,” Cannon continued. These particle effects layer over the standard zone design, making the world feel more alive.

“The big anima trees you see spinning overhead — they’re so big that in the past, we wouldn’t have been able to draw them very well, they wouldn’t have loaded from a distance. But the new tech allows us to draw these large objects from far away, which means they can be part of the vista and adds a sense of vastness.”

This is also the zone with the cutest creatures and companions. While other zones are filled with dark angels, vampires, and skeleton soldiers, Ardenweald gets fauns, fae creatures, and froggies, who have all been tactically exaggerated in proportions and scale to appear distinct from their real-world counterparts.

Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Rewards of the Night Fae

The Night Fae have already had their signature ability, Soul Shape, overhauled to be stronger and offer far more mobility— as well as less overlap with druid shapeshifts — on the Shadowlands beta.

The Covenants also has armor sets, mounts, and special back equips. One of the Night Fae bonuses is a giant backpack, full of herbs and other collectibles, as if the player just finished making their gathering rounds across Ardenweald.

Plate armor proved a particular challenge; but the team eventually decided on heavy wood as the source material. The end result is that Night Fae players look like tiny, vengeful ents, emerging in defense of the forest.

The Queen’s Conservatory is the exclusive end game activity for the Ardenweald Covenant, and it gives players a taste of the farming life. Instead of planting tulips or wheat, players will be able to plant little soul bulbs and grow them into proper denizens of the afterlife.

“The idea of planting a seed that has the soul of a celestial or a God inside of it in your garden, and reinvigorating it to hatch it over time, it’s a natural fit and the reward is pretty awesome, too,” says Cannon. “You get a treasure trove at the end, which is a more fitting reward than a bunch of plants or stuff to cook with.”

A pre-patch event for Shadowlands is live on the test realm that brings back the classic Scourge Invasions event, as well as some story elements to set up our trip into the Shadowlands.