Remember when “Cantha confirmed” was a Guild Wars 2 meme? I, along with many other players, never thought we’d actually see Cantha in the sequel. And yet, End of Dragons is here and we can finally visit Cantha for ourselves!ArenaNet recently offered press the chance to play the expansion early, so of course I jumped on it. I have now played the entire story from beginning to end and seen all of the maps. I have to say, it was a wild ride, with twists and turns, moments to make you laugh out loud, and others to bring tears to your eyes. It’s easy to get caught up in the newness of something, but I think it’s safe to say that this is my favorite expansion so far. I don’t want to spoil a single moment of that epicness for anyone, but I wanted to share, in broad strokes, my impressions of the expansion.
First of all, when I say that I have finished the expansion, don’t assume that it is super short; this is not a Legacy of the Sith situation. For whatever it’s worth, the number of chapters in End of Dragons is between the number of chapters in Heart of Thorns and the number in Path of Fire. I was given a week and a half to play, and I was given a test account with a bunch of unlocks already in place, so I wasn’t stopping to pick up hero points or masteries or the like. I also skipped by a number of optional conversations that I would normally stop for, and wasn’t worrying about achievements on an account that was impermanent. When I play it “for real,” I plan on taking it at a much more leisurely pace. That said, I didn’t set out to binge it all, but it was hard to put it down!
I’m also happy to report that there was a refreshing lack of busywork in this expansion. A few times I was asked to go do a heart, and a couple of times I was given an open-ended “go kill baddies in this area,” but those were pretty quick to get through, and certainly nothing like the progress-halting mastery grinds of Heart of Thorns.
I was surprised by how much this expansion’s story had to say. I can’t say too much without spoilers, but it incorporates a lot of themes and topics that are relevant in today’s real world society. It deals with chronic illness, includes major LGBTQA+ representation, and even incorporates a few characters with body differences like prosthetic limbs. And somehow it manages to do all this without bludgeoning you with it or feeling preachy.
I think one of the best things about this expansion was the environments. It’s clear that the team at ArenaNet, which has done a great job with environments for years now, was really given the freedom and resources it needed to make these zones shine. It’s fun watching night fall on Seitung Province and seeing ghostly spirit people pop up and go about their business like anyone else, and nobody bats an eye because that’s just what happens around Shing Jea.
There are some delightful little details scattered throughout the whole province. For instance, on Shing Jea island, keep an eye out for shrine guardian kits, baby shrine guardians that manifest as swirling light wisps dancing around a rock or particular spot on the ground. Pick up the rock, or chase the lights for a ways, and you will be rewarded with a small chest. They remind me of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Korok seed challenges.
Guild Wars 2 has done cities before, from each of the race’s cities to not one but two Lion’s Arches to The Free City of Amnoon. But none of these compares to New Kaineng.
First off, New Kaineng isn’t a safe, town-only zone like Lion’s Arch, it’s a full-fledged zone with events, gathering nodes, hero challenges, mastery points, even its own meta event. Also, it feels a lot more lived-in than previous cities. There are massive industrial complexes in some areas, and ramshackle dwellings in others. Some places are bathed in the neon green of jadetech, while others have no such niceties. When you first arrive there, it’s actually kind of a pain to figure out where you’re going, but you get used to it after spending some time there, which tracks with my experience of most real world cities. Other MMOs could take some cues from New Kaineng on how to do sprawling metropolises.
ArenaNet asked us not to talk about other maps beyond these two just yet, but believe me, the same care has been given to other, smaller towns around the land of Cantha.
One of my favorite things about this expansion is that the zones feel so varied. The zones in the two previous expansions have been much more samey. In Heart of Thorns, we had crash site jungle, golden city jungle, bug jungle, and boss battle jungle. In Path of Fire, we had desert with a city, desert with mountains, desert with some rivers, and desert with some zombies. In End of Dragons, we have the serene Shing Jea island chain in Seitung Province, the bustling metropolis of New Kaineng City, the deep and dark forest of Echovald, and the Jade Sea. Yes, there are common elements tying them all together, such as the East Asian flair and ubiquitous jade tech, but each zone has its own unique feel.
Many players, including me, had speculated that End of Dragons would contain a lot of underwater content. There were a number of signs, such as the addition of legendary aquabreathers, underwater skimmers, and of course the fact that the one remaining Elder Dragon is that of Water. However, let me allay the fears of those who hate three-dimensional combat by saying that this simply isn’t the case. I don’t think I killed more than five or ten enemies underwater, and those were only because they were bothering me while I was trying to fish.
The music for this expansion is incredible. I can’t think of a single part of Guild Wars that doesn’t have gorgeous music, but the unique, exotic sounds of Cantha are something next-level. I was a little worried that composer Maclaine Diemer and crew, who have done an excellent job creating more traditional fantasy soundtracks thus far, would struggle to give the music an appropriate East Asian flair, but of course my fears were misplaced. I haven’t been able to listen through it outside of the game, but I think the End of Dragons’ soundtrack is a very strong contender for my favorite Guild Wars soundtrack yet.
If I had to pick out some things that I didn’t like, they would be few and not very major. For one thing, the voice cast for End of Dragons seemed a little smaller than previous expansions. There were a lot of places where the recycling of voice actors was painfully obvious. Debi Derryberry, the voice of Taimi, in particular has a very distinctive voice, so wherever she’s used for a different NPC, it just sounds like Taimi trying to disguise her voice. (Or Jimmy Neutron. Yes, that’s the same voice actress. I have been cursed with this knowledge and now you have too.) That said, the voice cast the game has is excellent, and they absolutely nail some really emotional moments in ways that previous Guild Wars 2 releases haven’t always pulled off.
Also, as usual, there are a ton of currencies in this expansion. Some of them go to your wallet, some of them go to the crafting bank and can be consumed for others, some are salvaged from sigils, and there was even one currency I had a few of but couldn’t remember where I picked it up. It’s just a lot to keep track of. That’s been an ongoing issue with Guild Wars 2, but at least ArenaNet seems to have some amount of awareness that it has this problem, given the consolidation of strike mission crystals.
Despite these minor flaws, End of Dragons is a beautiful and exciting addition to the already sprawling world of Guild Wars 2. Cantha is wonderfully realized, and the story is packed. It has been a while since we got a big expansion like this in Guild Wars 2, but it was certainly worth the wait.