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

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.

  • “An early concept for the approach to the Winter Queen’s Court, beyond which only her most trusted subjects would gain entrance. At the base of this massive, magical tree, we wanted to suggest architectural features like windows and columns that swirled up into the natural rhythms of the bark and branches.” Matt OConnor – Senior Concept Artist Image: Blizzard Entertainment
  • “From the beginning, we pictured Ardenweald as a cosmic space that combined the celestial look of galaxies and the natural canopy of trees. We pictured huge pillar-like trees that held up the firmament and whose canopy became a nebulous mass of magic. With that idea in mind, I wanted to create something that would feel very iconic to Ardenweald, had some movement, and incorporated the symbolism of life and rebirth in nature. I landed on the idea of an enormous tree whose branches twisted in an elegant way to create a celestial net of sorts, which gave a slight nod to things we have seen from Emerald Dream. I pictured the tree capturing anima from around Ardenweald and serving as a foundational mechanism for the storytelling in Ardenweald.”  Gabriel Gonzalez – Environment Artist
  • Image: Blizzard Entertainment
  • Faeries were one of the first creatures I designed for this zone. My goal was to pull from classic fantasy depictions of fairies and use the celestial illumination of Ardenweald’s environment to create a unique, otherworldly fairy that fit in the World of Warcraft aesthetic. I looked at a lot of moths when designing the faeries; I drew inspiration from their wings’ shape and their fluffy features. We knew these were going to be playful creatures, so it was important to give them a little bit of a mischievous look. Ariel Fain – Character Artist Image: Blizzard Entertainment
  • “The vorkai were interesting to design. We have a lot of creatures with similar centaur anatomy in the game already, so establishing a fresh look for the vorkai was a fun challenge. Early in the design phase, we knew we wanted a lot of the creatures in Ardenweald to have a wild feel to them. It was important to distinguish them from what we did in the past, so we leaned into more animalistic features. A huge inspiration for this design was the ibex; they have these interesting horn shapes that almost encompass their entire bodies. Adding the large horns to the design broke up the silhouette and added a sense of power.”  Ariel Fain – Character Artist Image: Blizzard Entertainment
  • “Designing a creature whose purpose is decomposition may seem simple on the surface, but a lot of thought went into how to approach it. The gorm in Ardenweald have to give off real and familiar vibes, but at the same time feel mystical and new—that’s the Ardenweald of my imagination. So I decided to combine parts from different real bugs to create something that felt new. For example, the gorm’s antennae are derived from moths, while the horn is from a deer bug. I chose dreamy colors so that people can infer what they eat and how they grow. I enjoyed the process of exploring just how dynamic and diverse the creatures of Ardenweald can be.” Jay Nam – Character Artist Image: Blizzard Entertainment
  • 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.

  • Image: Blizzard Entertainment
  • Image: Blizzard Entertainment
  • Image: Blizzard Entertainment
  • 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.

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