The first episode of Guild Wars 2’s new Icebrood Saga, Whisper in the Dark, has been out for a week now. MOP’s Tina has already done a fantastic job covering the new map, its masteries, and it strike missions in last week’s edition of Flameseeker Chronicles. Today, I would like to take a more in-depth look at the new episode’s story, what I thought it did well, and some places where I was disappointed.
One of the first things players will notice when they step into the icy winds of the Bjora Marches is the muted color filter. Tina called it an “inkiness,” and I think that term fits it perfectly. It gives the zone a subdued, depressed feel, which is perfect for the dark, psychological horror vibe that the story brings. It’s great at what it’s doing — if you don’t shiver a little the first time you hear that spooky, whispering voice, you’re a braver person than I — and I think it will be fun for an episode or two, I just hope it’s not the new normal for the entire saga. I can’t get into games like Secret World Legends or Path of Exile because of the depressing atmosphere that permeates everything. It doesn’t have to be all unicorns and rainbows, but I like to walk away from a game feeling uplifted, not dragged down. Real life is depressing and stressful enough. I don’t need games to add to it.
There was a lot of speculation before this episode dropped about just who the titular Whisper in the Dark is. Some were saying Jormag, since we know they are going to show up eventually, but others felt this was too obvious, that maybe it was the new, unknown threat that the original trailer teased. Well, as it turns out, it is Jormag. I’m not mad about that, but I’ve never gotten any of the whole creepy mind games and eldritch horror vibe that we’re seeing in this episode from the followers of Jormag we’ve seen in the past, the Sons of Svanir. They’ve always seemed more like the types who crave brute strength over all else and believe that Jormag will give it to them, not like mind controlled thralls. It’s probably not the most inconsistent ArenaNet has been with its lore, but it struck me as a little odd.
I did this episode on a Norn character, and I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that Baraham acknowledges that my character is a follower of Raven. It made me stop and think how few players must see this; it’s a dialogue change tailored not only to people who chose a specific race, as we saw throughout Heart of Thorns with the Sylvari, but to a specific personal story option on that race. It’s a small thing — I noticed only a few lines like this — but it’s a nice touch.
The story opens with a strange call from General Almora Soulkeeper, leader of the Vigil, asking us to meet her at Jora’s Keep in the Bjora Marches, a locale that should sound familiar if you played Guild Wars: Eye of the North. You may recall that in the Icebrood Saga prologue, Bound By Blood, she took some troops to search for Bangar Ruinbringer and his renegades. She doesn’t sound like herself, but we gather Rytlock, Braham, and Marjory, and head out. Marjory is excited to see Jhavi Jorasdottir, a Norn Warmaster under Soulkeeper, with whom she studied necromancy. It turns out the rumors surrounding the female Norn we saw in the announcement trailer were true!
If you’re one of the many players who were disappointed we never learned much about the guild that Braham formed, then subsequently abandoned on an ill-fated quest to kill Jormag, then the good news is we finally get to see them in this episode! The bad news is it’s not a happy reunion, to say the least. We find most of them dead, betrayed by some of their own and slaughtered by the Sons of Svanir. We also discover some new Spirit of Raven-based magic, which introduces the new mastery skill line. There is no sign of Almora or Jhavi among the dead, so we head out to find them.
The next section takes place completely in the open world, first following visions from Raven showing Jhavi’s escape, then helping Marjory, Braham, and Rytlock search for the two missing captives. Each of the three roam the map starting events fighting the Sons of Svanir every couple of minutes. It’s a clever way to use repeatable, open world events — which many would count among Guild Wars 2’s biggest strengths — to progress the story, but it can be a bit of a mess with players lobbing particle effects everywhere and yelling mantras over the NPCs, and if you get there at the wrong time you can end up cutting the dialogue short or with multiple conversations happening simultaneously. You won’t miss out on anything super important, but there is a heartbreaking moment with Marjory and a lot of evidence of the insidiousness of Jormag’s corruption.
We eventually find Almora’s sword… and the remains of Almora herself. My first thought upon playing this story was, “Wow, that was an anticlimactic death for a fairly major character,” but the more I think about it, I think that was the point. There is a lot of senseless, demoralizing death in this episode. This is what Jormag wants. They want to show us that despite our past accomplishments, we are too weak to fight what’s coming. They want to break us so we give in to their control.
Finally, equipped with the Raven scepter Almora was carrying, we are able to enter the Raven Sanctum to stop the Sons of Svanir’s leader and are challenged to a puzzle-maze. It’s nothing terribly difficult, but fun nonetheless. Fun fact: The hallway with the poison gas won’t actually kill you; it just takes you down to low health and leaves you there with a speed debuff. Not that I know from experience… OK, I totally know from experience; I definitely walked right past that Raven shrine a couple of times. I liked the series of moral conundrums that Raven poses to you, and it’s really cool that he grants a unique buff with an analysis of your character at the end based on which options you choose for each.
In the inner sanctum, there is a short but intense battle with the Icebrood leader of the Sons of Svanir. Once defeated, Jormag himself speaks to us through the minion’s corpse, which was the creepy icing on the eerie cake that was this episode. Rather than delivering threats, as you might expect from past dealings with Elder Dragons, Jormag offers to help us — and Aurene. “Terrible things lurk just beyond the horizon,” they say. “But you can bring eternal peace to our world.” Protip, Jormag, this would be a lot more reassuring if it weren’t spoken through the lips of a reanimated corpse.
The story ends with Braham asking the commander, “We’re not going to take Jormag’s offer seriously, right?” Am I the only one who sensed a bit of hesitation before the commander responded in the affirmative?
The story is short
I have to agree with Tina when she said last time that this episode “would almost have made for a more suitable prologue in terms of duration than our actual prologue did.” Not only did it feel like the whole episode was spent setting up future events, I had a feeling that the story portions of this chapter were shorter than the Bound By Blood prologue. I decided to put it to the test, so I timed myself running through both episodes. Bound By Blood ran just over two hours, and I was able to complete Whisper in the Dark in just under fifty minutes. Yes, Bound By Blood’s play time was somewhat artificially inflated, as it included a section that tasked the commander with doing events that popped up around the map to fill a sort of reputation bar, but that accounted for almost exactly half of my time, making Bound By Blood’s story still longer by about 10 minutes.
Granted, this was not the most scientific test. I did this experiment after having already done each of these episodes a few times, so they both took me a good bit longer the first time through. Also, I tracked my time through each episode only once. That said, I think it at least goes to show that the story in Whisper in the Dark is disappointingly less substantial than I had hoped.
To add insult to injury, the events in the prologue map are much more varied and interesting. From fighting ghosts, to the demolition derby, to the unforgettable Metal Legion concert, Grothmar Valley is a genuinely fun map to hang out in, even if you aren’t doing so for the chapter. But the events in Bjora Marches mostly take the form of “fight some things in a camp, fight some things in an ice cave, fight some things coming out of portals.” There are a few memorable moments, like the Icebrood Construct event (a full-sized version of the boss of the Shiverpeaks Pass strike mission from Bound By Blood), that require players to use their mounts to attach chains to the construct to stop it, but these are few and far between.
Is this an indication of the scope of content we should expect in the future? Maybe. I’m willing to tentatively give ArenaNet the benefit of the doubt for the moment. I’m sure that a lot of the development effort for this episode went toward the three strike missions, and it’s possible that future releases will be more story-focused and less strike-mission-focused. Maybe the Living World teams are still hitting their stride after their reorganization. However, if this episode is indicative of what we can expect going into the next year or so, it’s not going to totally ruin the game for me, but it is a disappointing trend. So far, the Saga feels like a downgrade from from the old Living World formula rather than an upgrade, and it certainly doesn’t feel like the “expansion tier” content we were promised, especially given the recent news that there are no new fractals, raids, or legendaries coming any time soon.
All of that said, I am looking forward to this saga. I walked away wanting to know what happened next. Yes, it was partly because I felt like so little had happened yet, but I’m also legitimately interested in knowing where the story goes. Will Ryland come around and see the that Bangar is leading the renegades to their own destruction? Short of conveniently stumbling upon another non-evil elder dragon descendant to replace them with, what will we do with Jormag? If they are able to exert this influence while still asleep, what can be done to stop them? What is this new threat Jormag keeps hinting at? I’m also interested in getting to know our new Norn companion, Jhavi, better.
We’re just getting started with this saga, and, through good and bad, I’m excited to see where it leads us!