Welcome to part two of this overview of Guild Wars 2’s The Icebrood Saga. Last time, I talked about how the first half of this Saga was largely about readjusting expectations. Not so much about disappointments, but about feeling out what was and wasn’t going to be included in this new brand of Living World season. I’m sorry to say, however, that the latter half of The Icebrood Saga was almost entirely about lowering expectations in a long, slow decline that ended in more disappointment.
After the kind of weird, anomalous side story that was Steel and Fire, ArenaNet was back to more normal releases in March of 2020 with Episode Three: No Quarter. However, just as production on this chapter was beginning, the COVID-19 pandemic was also ramping up here in the United States, and while the development team at ArenaNet was able to switch to remote work during lockdown, voice acting proved more difficult to implement safely. As such, No Quarter and its followup, Jormag Rising, were released with subtitles only.
As someone who grew up in an era when voice acting in games was unheard of, and later on, a novelty, I thought I would adapt quickly to the silence, but the story portion felt very flat without it. I guess you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.
And it’s too bad because No Quarter and Jormag Rising were actually pretty emotionally charged stories. No Quarter starts with peace talks between the United Legions and Ryland Steelcatcher, who is now second in command of the Bangar’s Renegades. Things quickly fall apart. Joined by the commander and the Divinity’s Reach forces, the United Legions manage to push back the Renegade forces, and the commander discovers the location of Ryland’s secret base.
There we manage to subdue Cinder Steeltemper, Ryland’s second-in-command. The plan is to use her as a bargaining chip to get Ryland to talk. Rytlock and Crecia think perhaps he can be swayed to join the United Legions, and for a moment, it looks like it might work. Iron Legion’s Imperator Smodur has other ideas, however, and mercilessly kills Cinder in front of Ryland because he would rather continue the bloody conflict than see it end peacefully. Smodur is the worst, and while it would have been perfectly understandable for everyone to stand by while Ryland tears him apart, Crecia protects him with a magical barrier, leaving Ryland to slink away, now without a warband, renewed in his hatred for the opposing Charr faction.
The fourth episode, Jormag Rising, opens with the news that Jormag is resting beneath the enemy citadel in the north of Drizzlewood and that Bangar has set up a factory using the ice dragon’s blood to convert his army into powered up Frost Legion en masse.
Smodur finally gets what’s coming to him at the receiving end of a sniper’s bullet in a raid on the United Legions’ forward position. It was a little anticlimactic for an “ally” we had been hating for a while now (some even thought maybe he was a double agent for Bangar, sent to stir up trouble among the United Legions and cover up some of the Renegades’ mistakes, but that never went anywhere), but at least his idiocy wouldn’t bother us anymore.
With the help of Braham and the Spirits of the Wild, we find a back door to the enemy citadel, and manage to find Bangar. For a moment it looks like Ryland has switched sides, as he helps us defeat Bangar, but it turns out it was only a ruse, as Ryland becomes Jormag’s new champion, Bangar is icebrood-ified to become the new Voice of Jormag, and then Jormag fully awakens.
The Drizzlewood Coast meta event is one of my favorite things to do in Guild Wars 2 right now. I like meta events in general, but this is my favorite because of the variety of things there are to do in the southern half, followed by everyone in the map coming together for some epic boss fights in the northern half. Not to mention the fact that it’s a pretty good place to make money! To be honest, though, I liked it better when it was just the southern half; it drags on just a bit too long as it is now. I suppose there’s nothing stopping me from only playing half of the event and then bailing. It’s not as if I would be missed among the zerg.
Next came the Champions releases. Shortly after the release of Jormag Rising, ArenaNet announced End of Dragons, the third expansion to Guild Wars 2. It seems to me that this announcement signaled the end of serious development on The Icebrood Saga. Remember those lowered expectations I was talking about at the top? This is where they start to come in.
ArenaNet announced that Episode Five: Champions would be split up into four short chapters, each released as part of the regular two month cadence. Rather than the story instances and new maps we were used to, Champions introduced the concept of Dragon Response Missions, bite-sized, repeatable instances taking place on old maps that scale to your group size. What else can be said about DRMs? They were a cool idea on paper — I love the idea of story instances doubling as repeatable content, and the fact that they scale to however many people you want to play with — but they ended up being a disappointment overall.
There isn’t a whole lot of story to recap in Champions, especially when you consider that it was spread out over more than half a year. Primordus became active, and we scrambled to stop his minions as they invaded the surface. Jormag is driven mad by the rising of their twin and starts freezing and converting to icebrood everyone that they can. Braham figures out that the only way to stop Jormag, as is his destiny, is to become Primordus’ champion, with the Spirits of the Wild helping him maintain control of his will, in hopes that they can steer the twin dragons to destroy each other.
Then we got to the final chapter, Judgment. Let’s just be upfront about it: I was incredibly let down by this finale. Don’t get me wrong; the world boss-sized Dragonstorm instance was fun (check out Tina’s take on that here) and the rewards are actually good for a change, but… that’s really it for this release.
After the two dragons’ champions are defeated, Aurene pulls all of the good guys to a cliff, allowing Primordus and Jormag to attack each other directly, and they just kind of… explode. That’s the end of the boss fight. Then there’s a short, 5-minute instance where we see that Braham is magically OK (the Spirits just sort of fly off without so much as a “thanks for letting us borrow your body”), as is Ryland. But Ryland, clearly incredibly weakened by the ordeal, refuses to stop fighting. Rytlock and Crecia try to reason with him, but he pulls a knife on Crecia and Rytlock is forced to put him down. While the Charr parents are left to mourn, Aurene flies in for a quick conversation, and that’s the end of The Icebrood Saga.
At first, I just sighed. Over a year of story that had overall been fairly engaging had just culminated in this very weak ending, and the worst part was that I saw it coming. The releases of the Icebrood Saga got increasingly thin as they went on, with the final episode stretched out into four chapters, which reused old maps with minimal adjustment, each released a couple of months apart. Not only were the stories thin, they didn’t seem to have any clear direction or purpose. Clearly, the team had moved on to End of Dragons development. I had braced myself for a rushed, disappointing ending, but this chapter had even less wrap-up than I had feared. I feel like that Malcolm in the Middle meme: “I expected nothing, and I’m still let down.”
But the more I thought about it, and the more I looked back over the story in preparation to do this recap, the more I saw the wasted potential here, and the more disappointed I got.
Not only did the story abruptly kill off not one but two elder dragons, but one of them is Primordus, the one who introduced us to the concept of elder dragons in GW1’s Eye of the North expansion. Worse still, we never really got to see him do anything. Sure, we fought some destroyers in dragon response missions, but destroyers have been popping up in the game since day one. There’s even a destroyer world boss in Mount Maelstrom. Primordus certainly never felt like the terrible, world-ending threat we were told he was. Jormag, on the other hand, showed up and actually messed with us for the better part of a year, with sinister whispering and manipulation and betrayal. It just feels like a waste to kill off Primordus with so little ceremony.
Then there’s the matter of all of the story threads that never went anywhere – and there were a lot. We can be fairly certain that there was content cut from this saga because the original announcement trailer teased a number of plot points that we never saw. Where were the centaurs enslaving humans? What was up with that shipwreck? We will probably never know. Guild Wars 2 has always had story beats that ended disappointingly or abruptly, but a lot of these were just outright forgotten about.
I think the biggest and most glaring of these dropped story threads was Eir’s bow. If you don’t recall, in season 3, Braham enchanted his fallen mother’s bow with an ancient Jotun magic scroll, and later used it to crack Jormag’s tooth. This marks Braham as The Norn of Prophecy, who is destined to defeat Jormag or die trying. Cracking the tooth is supposed to prove that he has the strength to defeat Jormag, which is kind of a big deal for Norn. The Icebrood Saga opens with that bow being stolen by Ryland Steelcatcher and used as a rallying point by Bangar Ruinbringer. Later, it is used against us when Bangar decides to steal our kill after we defeat Drakkar.
Early on, it seemed like the bow was a major plot point, with the implication that it had some magical power over Jormag. But then we never hear about it again. How hard would it have been to have Lava-Braham find the bow and use it in the final fight against Jormag? Or Ryland try to use it against Primordus? Instead we just kind of… forget about it. I guess the prophecy was technically about Braham killing Jormag, not about his bow, and I guess he kind of does that (with a little help from up to 80 Commanders and a smattering of other NPCs), but it’s strange that Eir’s bow just abruptly disappeared from the story.
Speaking of forgotten Norn plot threads, there’s also Jhavi Jorasdottir. The first few episodes of this Saga were pretty Norn-centric, and Jhavi felt like a the main character in the two Bjora Marches releases, with a family history of fighting Jormag no less. Then the story shifted back to being all about the Charr and their civil war, and we never really heard from her again. She popped up in one of the DRMs and for the final battle, but she didn’t really do anything after Shadow in the Ice. Why introduce a character only to ditch her immediately?
While I may play a murder hobo in video games, in real life, I consider myself a pacifist. Violence almost universally begets more violence (perhaps with a few caveats, but you didn’t come to this site to read about my personal philosophy). Because of this, I always find it refreshing when a character in media doesn’t just go in guns ablazin’ and kill all the bad guys because they’re bad guys but instead works to come up with a peaceful solution to a conflict. True pacifism is not passive but active peacemaking. But I get incredibly frustrated when media portrays a pacifist character as a super powerful but inactive observer who refuses to do anything until things get really bad and then they end up just killing all the bad guys anyway.
This is what happened with Aurene.
Again, I’m apparently an optimist, and I thought maybe ArenaNet was going to do something clever with Aurene that would allow her to put a stop to Primordus and Jormag without violating her principles of non-violence and preservation of life. But no, in the end, she just ends up orchestrating a giant battle. It’s like Man of Steel; if Superman was just going to snap Zod’s neck and be done with it, why couldn’t he have done it before he destroyed half of
New York Metropolis? That doesn’t make him a sympathetic character; it just makes him look foolish. It feels the same way with Aurene. Why didn’t she just bait the two dragons into fighting each other in the first place, before they amassed as much power and destruction as they did?
Speaking of destroying elder dragons, we also kind of handwaved the fact that destroying any more elder dragons was supposed to mean horrible calamity for Tyria. This whole saga, it has been a foregone conclusion that we either have to help Jormag kill Primordus or help Primordus kill Jormag. Why did nobody even consider some other plan? I would have at least expected better from Taimi, who was the first to theorize that killing more elder dragons would have disastrous consequences and previously built a device in Season 3 to put these two dragons, specifically, back to sleep.
I wasn’t even clear on whether the plan in Judgment was to have Aurene absorb all of the released dragon magic or fire and ice magic were supposed to cancel each other out as long as they’re released at the same time. Is the plan to eventually just have Aurene absorb all six elder dragons’ energies (plus one rogue war god and one Joko), making her one, giant superdragon? Isn’t absorbing too much magic the thing that’s supposed to make elder dragons go mad and try to kill everyone?
At least it seems like they’re going somewhere with this one. Aurene briefly mentions at the end of Judgment that she braced herself the influx of power, but then some of it got pulled away to somewhere else. Presumably, we will end up following this magic to Cantha, and that’s how End of Dragons will start. Or maybe it will just be forgotten. I don’t even know anymore.
So there you have it. With apologies to T. S. Eliot, this is the way The Icebrood Saga ends: Not with a Ka-Braham but a whimper. I could go on about how Ryland’s arc was disappointingly predictable, or how Bangar ended up being just a cheap misdirect who ultimately didn’t matter to the plot, or how they were clearly setting up a new Khan-Ur and it never happened. Or I could even grouse about that vastly overpriced and time-intensive dragonscale cape. But I think you get the idea at this point. The Icebrood Saga started off OK, and I tried to be optimistic about it as it slid down hill, but I ultimately came out deeply frustrated. It had some flashes of brilliance, but it ultimately ended in disappointment. It deserved a better ending than this. Those two elder dragons’ story threads deserved a better ending than this.
Now we wait until July to get more news about End of Dragons. Am I worried that this expansion will bring similar disappointment? Not particularly. If anything, the fact that the Icebrood Saga was so hastily wrapped up is a sign that ArenaNet has all hands on deck making that expansion as good as it can be. It’s just unfortunate that the decision makers chose to sacrifice The Icebrood Saga for that. I guess, given the choice, I would rather have a good expansion than a good saga, but there are so many ways this ending could have been handled better.
As the Commander said to Aurene, waiting is the hardest part.