I will be the first to admit – I judged a book by its cover. When the new leveling zones for Shadowlands were announced, I was already deciding which ones I liked and which ones I thought were not my taste. Chief among those that I decided I Did Not Like was Maldraxxus. With an emphasis on all things gross and a storyline featuring a Horde character I was only so-so on, I decided before ever stepping foot in Maldraxxus that it just wasn’t the zone for me. I would quest through there because I had to, but Bastion was certainly the zone for me.
I have never been more wrong. After leveling through the storyline on three separate characters, I will openly admit that maybe Maldraxxus is the zone for me. In fact, it might even be one of my favorite leveling zones to date. (Bastion still holds a special place in my heart and I did join the Kyrian Covenant, but the choice was a lot harder than I thought!) Despite the icky exterior, Maldraxxus has a perfect balance of whimsical comedy, genuine tragedy, and sheer badassery to make every single play-through enjoyable.
Off to a Running Start
After questing through Bastion, an experience which could be summed up by the word “stoicism”, I found myself being unceremoniously dumped into a massive arena and told to fight for my life. The juxtaposition between the two zones – one where I spent half of the quests trying to win an audience with the Archon to another where I’m immediately enlisted in the skeleton army – was a perfect introduction to everything that Maldraxxus would come to be. As frantic as the first quests were, I found myself having loose, unrestrained fun. And who doesn’t love being a gladiator champion for a bit?
Immediately after this, the major story beats are laid out – a civil war between the Houses has just kicked off and the good guys are hopelessly outnumbered. I like a good exposition as much as the next person but, given the immediacy of the threat, throwing the players into the conflict right away felt right. The quest design itself conveyed the Maldraxxian notion of “shoot first, ask questions later”.
Personally, I also really appreciated how I could tell exactly how long the storyline was going to be. There were three major breadcrumbs corresponding to the three major sections of the story, which made it really easy to measure my pacing in the zone. I know myself as a gamer, and I tend to get impatient with questing where I don’t really see an end in sight (cough cough Ardenweald). Maldraxxus wasted no time letting me know exactly what we had to do to give the House of the Chosen a fighting chance.
Always Look on the Bright Side
Conceptually, Maldraxxus had the chance to be an incredibly grim zone. We’re talking about a zone where the souls of the dead are forced to fight in a brutal, endless war. With decaying bodies stitched together into unspeakable abominations, chemical warfare, and necromatic magics, Maldraxxus is a horrifying place. And yet, the zone managed to adopt a tone bordering on… positive. Absolutely, war is hell and the quest line and environment don’t hesitate to make that clear, but there’s enough zany interruptions to prevent the darkness from becoming pervasive.
The section of the zone that best illustrates this phenomenon are the quests discovering what happened to the House of Plagues. Right off the bat, you meet Plague Deviser Marileth and his pet slimes (shout out to my man Kevin!). Everything is clearly not all there with Marileth, but that doesn’t stop him from cheerfully requesting your help concocting more slimes and plagues. Throughout the quests you do for the Plague Deviser, you uncover the tragedy of the House of Plagues, including the fate of Margrave Stradama. The bleakness of the story is tempered, however, by Marileth’s zany nature. Even when things are at their worst, life (or unlife) finds a way to continue and even thrive.
Despite being a zone of death, Maldraxxus continually nurtures a storyline of rebirth and reinvention. People are remade, perhaps not as they had envisioned, but they find a way to make the best of it. Once one puts aside the visceral horror, there’s a lot of humor to be found in the state of unlife. So go ahead, give yourself a hand (perhaps not your own), pet a slime cat or two, and enjoy the ride.
The Horrors of War
Not everything is Monty Python songs and whistling in Maldraxxus however – when the zone does dive into the darker aspects of its nature, it pulls no punches. I’ve quested through a lot of tragedies in World of Warcraft but few have hit me as hard as when we find out what happened to the kidnapped Kyrian in the House of Constructs. It was one thing to see the attack on the Temple of Courage within the context of Bastion as a whole – an unsightly blemish yet still one which could be made right. However, seeing the hundreds of blue and gold and silver bodies of Kyrian and stewards in the grimy setting of Maldraxxus really hit home how wrong the attack had been.
My character has seen a lot of stomach-churning things throughout the years. However never have I ever had to claw my way out of a pile of dead bodies. Upon doing so, I was met with another unfortunate survivor who had only his eyes deemed to be valuable before being cast off to die. While exploring through the area, I found another Kyrian who had crawled off somewhere quiet to die, still clutching the letter to someone she loved. These are small details in the grand scheme of the zone but they were powerful. Suddenly, I had an incredibly personal stake in the narrative of the zone, more so than any other point in the campaign storyline. When I was sent to destroy members of the House of Constructs, I did so with zeal.
Maldraxxus beautifully walked the fine line between gloomy and irreverent. The zone hit notes of comedy and tragedy at the perfect moments, giving it a compelling arc that carried me through in one riveting play-through. As someone who approached the zone already decided that I would not like it, Maldraxxus not only convinced me to give the story a chance but also got me to fall in love with the characters introduced. Baroness Draka and Bonesmith Heirmir are an absolute badasses. I would defend Aspirant Thales with my life. Kevin! Maldraxxus is the gold standard of Warcraft questing in my eyes, and I cannot wait to follow the rest of the storyline in the Covenant campaign.