When looking back on Guild Wars 2’s The Icebrood Saga, I think the most noticeable feature was its many ups and downs. If I’m really honest with myself, those ups and downs have been largely about adjusting expectations. I hesitate to use the word “lowering” because in a lot (but not all) of these instances, the content we got was not necessarily worse but certainly in a different form than what we expected. Now that it’s over, let’s look back at the ups and downs of the Icebrood Saga.
Ah, the halcyon days of 2019, before everyone had the phrase “social distancing” branded into their consciousness. In August of that year, ArenaNet rented out a theater (remember those?) near PAX West to reveal what was next for Guild Wars 2. Living World Season 4’s excellent finale — and the not-so-excellent skyscale grind — were still fresh in our minds. It had tied off a lot of loose ends from Path of Fire, leaving no end of possibilities for what could come next. Excitement was riding high, and while ArenaNet itself had been denying it, many fans were expecting an expansion announcement from this event, while others were more realistically anticipating Living World Season 5. It turned out that neither one was quite correct, as the presenters unveiled a “different kind of dragon story,” The Icebrood Saga. “It’s bigger than a season,” they said, “it’s a saga!” They went on to outline episodic, Living World-type content, with “expansion-level” features, with a prologue chapter just a few short weeks later.
In ArenaNet’s defense, I think the fans set themselves up for disappointment in a lot of ways before the prologue chapter was even released. Some fans were disappointed because they were expecting an expansion announcement when they were never promised that. In fact, they were promised the opposite. Still others were interpreting the “expansion-level features” line to mean that we would see new elite specs and legendaries and world-altering masteries. Again, none of this was really promised; in fact, even the phrase “expansion-tier” or “expansion-level” is nowhere to be found in ArenaNet’s marketing. Instead, it comes from a number of interviews and forum posts by game director Mike Z around the time of the Icebrood Saga announcement, but ArenaNet was just vague enough about it that peoples’ imaginations ran away with them. That’s partly on players for expecting more than what was promised, but it’s also on ArenaNet for allowing it to happen. This, for many, was the first time that our expectations for The Icebrood Saga had to be adjusted.
The prologue chapter, Bound By Blood, set us loose on Grothmar Valley, a nostalgic locale from the original Guild Wars with some, shall we say, redecorating performed by the Charr in the intervening years. Overall, there was a lot to do on this map, with lots of little events and a different approach to a meta event. And of course, the Metal Legion Charr rock concert is probably one of the most memorable parts of the entire saga.
I thought the storytellers did a masterful job of starting the story off with “Ok, this is a fun celebration of Charr cultural identity!” and letting it slowly dawn on that player that, “Oh, these are Charr Nazis aren’t they?” If there was any doubt left at the end of the episode, Bangar Ruinbringer, the Blood Legion imperator, announced his intention to bring the elder dragon Jormag under his control using the bow that cracked Jormag’s tooth, stolen from Braham during the festivities, and use it to subjugate Tyria from anyone who would oppose Charr rule.
Bound by Blood also introduces Tribune Crecia Stoneglow, Rytlock’s former(?) lady love, and Ryland Steelcatcher, their son and Bangar’s protege. While Charr traditionally don’t have attachments to their children, Rytlock clearly isn’t a traditional Charr anymore after having spent so much of the last several years among other cultures. He clearly wants a parental relationship with his son, but Ryland is uninterested.
Bound By Blood also introduced us to the very first Strike Mission, a more bite-sized, introductory, 10-person raid experience. Strikes have received a mixed response from what I’ve seen: Some players love them, some players have no interest in them whatsoever, and still others question whether or not “introductory raids” was really something that Guild Wars 2 needed. It would certainly seem that the idea behind Strikes was to convince more players to do raids, which seems fundamentally against what Guild Wars 2 is supposed to be about, but that’s a discussion that is beyond the scope of this overview.
After the cliffhanger ending of Bound by Blood, next came our first taste of the Far Shiverpeaks and Jormag’s nefariousness in Episode 1: Whisper in the Dark. This episode begins with a call from General Almora Soulkeeper to meet her in the Bjora Marches. When we arrive, we find multitudes of dead Vigil, but no Soulkeeper. Everyone present begins to hear insidious whispers, tempting them to despair or fight amongst themselves.
We assist Jhavi Jorasdottir, great granddaughter of Jora, of Guild Wars 1 fame, in contacting Raven, the Spirit of the Wild, to lead us to Soulkeeper… who had already been murdered (though it was not immediately obvious by whom). After working through Raven’s Sanctum, The Commander and friends must face The Fraenir of Jormag, the leader of the Sons of Svanir. As if this whole episode wasn’t creepy enough yet, after we defeat the Fraenir, he is reanimated and Jormag speaks to us through him. Jormag claims that they simply want to help us bring about peace, and gives us a vague warning of impending danger.
At the time, I was extremely disappointed with the length of this release. I thought the story in the prologue chapter was extremely short, much shorter than previous living world stories, but I gave it a pass because it was a prologue, and at least there were a lot of fun events to do. Then episode 1 came out and it was even shorter with a half-sized map, with only a handful of events, many of which felt copy-pasted, and an atmosphere that, while perfect for the story ArenaNet was trying to tell, didn’t make me want to stick around. While I feel like it was still the shortest story content (I could be wrong; I haven’t timed all my playthroughs), I also feel that this was another instance of adjusting our expectations. In hindsight, I think we ended up getting about as much content as a standard living world season, but in much smaller, more frequent drips. In other words, each episode was half as much content, but released twice as often. You may prefer this cadence or the old cadence, but it’s hard to argue that one way or the other is really good or bad. They are just different.
In Episode 2: Shadow in the Ice, Jhavi and the Commander ally with the local Kodan to assault Drakkar, the source of the whispers, first seen frozen beneath the lake that bears his name in Guild Wars: Eye of the North. Now that Jormag is active, Drakkar has been reanimated and is revealed to be the source of the creepy whispering. With some help from the lost Spirits of the Wild, Braham and the Commander defeat Drakkar, but before we can defeat the manifestation of the whispers, Bangar arrives and kills it with Eir’s bow. He tries to do the same to the Commander, but Braham intervenes, transforming into Wolf form for the very first time.
The centerpiece of episode 2 was the world boss version of Drakkar. While it is a lot of fun, with some interesting mechanics, unfortunately it is vastly overtuned, and in my experience, almost always ends in failure. Not that there is a lot of incentive for players to complete the boss, as the rewards were mediocre at best. An attempt was made to rebalance the fight, to little effect. I have to believe that, if these episodes hadn’t been released at such a breakneck pace, this fight would have been better balanced to begin with, and if not, would have at least gotten better updates.
The next release, Steel and Fire, was something a little different. Rather than being a new map with a new story and a new strike mission, it kind of rolled all three together and gave us the game’s one and only Visions of the Past instance, called Forging Steel. ArenaNet told us at the beginning of the Icebrood Saga that one of the distinctives of the Saga would be experimenting with new content types, and this is certainly an instance of that. Forging Steel is an instance that scales for five to 10 players. With the 10-player cap, you might expect it to be another strike mission, but it goes on significantly longer than any of the strikes and is much more story focused, making it more along the lines of a vanilla dungeon.
Story-wise, Forging Steel is a vision granted by Aurene, which puts us in the shoes of the Steel Warband, Bangar’s elite squad under the command of Ryland Steelcatcher, and has us assist them as they escort their experimental new tank over the Shiverpeaks. Let’s be blunt here: The narrative goal in this one was to introduce us to Ryland’s warband so we will feel bad when they all die. And it worked. I liked all of the characters in this story, and while some of them do question whether what they’re doing is right, it’s sad that they all end up falling into line behind Ryland and end up dying at Drizzlewood Coast. After seeing Ryland kill Soulkeeper, I think this episode is where it really hit me that they weren’t going to do a redemption arc for him, as I originally expected at the story’s outset.
Personally, I really liked the Forging Steel instance, but I know not everyone did, and I understand why. It ended up getting clumsily rolled into the strike mission rotation, but it doesn’t really belong there. I think it was designed as its own, unique mission type. I have to wonder if the original plan was to create a whole series of Visions of the Past instances about a variety of characters, but maybe that plan was dropped due to financial constraints or bad player reception. Maybe we’ll see it return one day, or maybe it will remain a one-off thing.
Steel and Fire feels like a nice midpoint in the Saga, so I will end there for today. Was this half of the saga good? By the time Steel and Fire came around, I had readjusted my expectations and was much happier for it. You can take that as lowering my standards if you want to, but I don’t really think that’s what happened. Besides, “good” is highly subjective. It gave players something to do, and it told a fairly compelling story about a new elder dragon threat.
Did it deliver the “expansion-level content” we were promised? I guess that depends on how you define that incredibly vague promise. Yes, it told a story that was large in scope, told in a series of new zones, which, added together, would equal roughly as much content as an expansion. It gave us new masteries to grind, though the ones that we got in this half of the saga were limited to The Icebrood Saga areas, which feels much more like Living World-level than expansion-level (though that would soon change with the advent of the waystation mastery). There were no new elite specs, and while we got a decent number of new armor and weapon skins over the course of the saga, there were no new legendaries and no new stat combinations. There were no new raids, but strike missions are certainly meant to be the next best thing. I’m not saying any or all of these things are or are not required to qualify “bigger than a season,” but they are things we associated with this game’s two expansions.
Stay tuned for the next Flameseeker Chronicles where I will break down the second half of The Icebrood Saga, including that finale, which I’ve been dying to give my thoughts on.