While it’s standard practice for an MMO’s world and story to evolve through regular updates, no developer goes quite so far as ArenaNet does with Guild Wars 2. The studio frequently releases new episodes of its Living World Seasons that have enough content in them to fill a whole expansion. Each chapter introduces new areas, items, instances, and moves along the Guild Wars story. The newest offering, A Star to Guide Us (Season 4 Episode 4), is no exception.
It starts with you and your allies seeking out the friendly dragon Aurene for help against the Elder Dragon Kralkatorrik. But first, we’re to investigate the Sunspeak Sanctuary with old friend Koss, and on the way have to delve into the ruins of The Command Post from the first Guild Wars. Since it was last seen, the Post has been overrun by a horde of giant spiders and their monstrous broodmother.
MMO players are no stranger to giant spiders, so this isn’t a particularly memorable fight, but it’s surprisingly fun nonetheless. The broodmother carries the party back and forth across the map while NPCs make wisecracks. Once you defeat the broodmother, you unlock a new personal instance called Sun’s Refuge, which can be upgraded by completing tasks in the open world.
There’s little time to celebrate, however, as the dragon Kralkatorrik uses its newfound powers to open a portal and unleash branded minions on Sun’s Refuge in an attempt to kill Aurene. Some familiar faces then make a surprise return to inform Aurene that her destiny is to supplant Kralkatorrik as Elder Dragon with our help.
It’s a great moment that relies on the connection you’ve had with Aurene, who has grown up beside you since she hatched, which makes it hard not to feel protective of the dragon. There are also hints of more dramatic twists to come in Aurene’s journey, though you’ll have to play yourself to find those out – it makes for a tantalising start to the new episode.
Aside from the story, the Sun’s Refuge will be a big focus of Episode 4 – and it deserves to be. It sports unique collections that, when completed, unlock new features and side-content in the base. For instance, completing the tasks of Zaeim the Sunspear adds new recruits to the barracks area, and opens up a dueling arena that can be used to spar with NPCs and fellow online players.
But not all of the unlockables are so straightforward. Another area of Sun’s Refuge, a dilapidated corner strewn with rubble, can be excavated to reveal a mysterious door locked with rune slots. What lies behind the door is still a mystery but we’re intrigued to say the least. There are plenty of delightful discoveries in the instance as well, such as a child dubbed the ‘Hide-and-Seek Master’, who will challenge you to find her somewhere in the refuge.
There’s a charm that shines throughout Sun’s Refuge despite the dank cave setting. It feels lived in, organic, and certainly houses a number of intriguing plot hooks. ArenaNet has obviously tried to work in a great deal of environmental storytelling, filling in some of the small details to give texture to the grand, operatic narrative arcs Guild Wars 2 otherwise thrives on.
Refugees from previous areas stricken by war have set up camp on one side, and new races can be found among the Sunspear trainees, which suggests the game is about to be treated to more diverse cultures. It’s these small touches that help make Sun’s Refuge more than just a place where vendors hang out.
Heather Conover, who is the team lead on Episode 4, explains that “we want to create spaces that feel safe, fully,” and that Sun’s Refuge is part of this vision. Rather than focus on matching or upping the difficulty level of previous content, Conover says that one of the goals for this map “was to create really satisfying loops that also encourage you to go to other maps,” instead of locking you into farming one map for the whole episode.
Along with a new open-world map and the upgradeable Sun’s Refuge instance, Episode 4 has a new tier armour set to unlock with individually dyeable glowing effects, and a new legendary sceptre that summons a little flying companion. The new Imposter System is fresh to the game as well. It allows an NPC to follow you around the open world, but to all other players they’ll appear as a humble prairie dog, maintaining the illusion that your character is the one and only Commander.
We’ll just pretend that all the other heroes carry a lot of assorted seeds and fruit in their pockets at all times. That’s not too outlandish, we all do it in real-life after all… right?