Review: Destiny 2: Lightfall – Camera Obscura

Getting back into Destiny 2 last year after having left it for so long was certainly an experience. I think I got back into it at just the right time, since the last two seasons of The Witch Queen have probably had some of the best storytelling Bungie has ever put out. There was serious character growth, genuine drama, and a narrative arc which left players poised for a grand adventure this year in the far reaches of the Solar System. Now that Destiny 2: Lightfall has released, we’re still kinda waiting on that promised adventure.

As with any live service game, certain developments in terms of narrative are going to be doled out piecemeal over the course of the year. Lightfall is not particularly distinct in that regard, and it continues Bungie’s tradition of keeping various story and lore elements tied to weapons and armor. Basically, if you want the full lore experience, you’re going to have to grind for the gear. With that in mind, the overarching narrative of Lightfall continues the events set out in The Witch Queen and the various seasonal story arcs which fell under that expansion.

A Hunter attempts to infiltrate a Shadow Cabal ship during a jump to Neptune.
“Whoever that Sam Fisher guy was, I’m gonna kick his ass.”

To recap: at the end of “Season of The Seraph,” the warsat network controlled by the AI Rasputin was destroyed as part of a plan to foil the schemes of the last Hive god, Xivu Arath, from summoning the Witness, an entity which wields tremendous control over the paracausal forces collectively referred to as the Darkness. The Traveler lifted itself into low Earth orbit to stand against against the Pyramid Fleet of The Witness as it made its way from Jupiter’s orbit towards Earth. Lightfall begins almost immediately after that point, though the time scale is a little fuzzy. We’re treated to an opening cutscene where pilots from the Last City fling themselves against the Pyramid Fleet in an effort to destroy the massive enemy vessels. We finally get to see the Traveler unleash the full power of the Light, and we get an inkling of why it’s sometimes referred to as “The Gardener,” watching it create life within the hulls of the Pyramid Fleet even as it rips them apart. The Witness, however, retaliates with a literal flick of their fingers, causing attack craft to crash land or even break apart right alongside the Ghosts of various Guardians. Surviving Pyramids surround the Traveler, leading the Witness to catch a glimpse of Neptune and the mysteriously hinted “Veil” object which lies somewhere within it. With that, the Young Wolf (that’s you) is hitching a ride to Neptune with the new-and-improved Emperor Calus, now a Disciple of the Witness, and ready to raise hell on a whole new world.

As one would expect, Lightfall continues the tradition of incredibly detailed and visually exciting titles in the Destiny series. If something is ugly, it’s deliberately intended to be ugly. There are no “happy accidents” when it comes to the visuals. The established visual styles for the different alien races are still in place, including the odd and Cyclopean style of the Darkness Pyramids we’ve seen in in Beyond Light and The Witch Queen. Adding to this is the “new” and ancient city of Neomuna, anchored on an island floating over the liquid surface of Neptune, the legacy of the Exodus series of colonization ships turned into a neon lit city powered by the paracausal energies of the Veil. It’s a brilliantly lit chunk of retrofuturism, harkening back to the bright lights and curved surfaces of the 1980s. Neomuni gear (from the new reputation vendor Nimbus) matches the aesthetic, with lots of swirls and swoopy lines rendered in brightly contrasting colors over tinted chrome shells, the weapons being oddly boxy in their form factors, and the Thunderhead armor set calling to mind every cheeseball martial arts and action movie that didn’t have Ralph Macchio or Chuck Norris in it.

A Cloud Strider surveys Emperor Calus' ship, the Typhon Imperator
And giant sculptures of the BBEG. Can’t forget those.

Elsewhere in the Solar System, the “Season of Defiance” content has players once again working with Mara Sov, Queen of The Awoken. The Unyielding Favor armor set has a decidedly “light” sort of appearance to it, made up of equal parts woven foundations and leather panels along with faint pulses of light threading throughout. In contrast, the Techeun’s Regalia armor ornaments have the pseudo-Celtic asethetic overlaying considerably “heavy” looking pieces with polished metallic elements paired up with bold colors and crystaline accents. The “Queensguard Arsenal” seasonal weapons carry a similar aesthetic, equal parts carved crystal and color case hardened steel. Underlying it all is the new Darkness ability set, Strand. At once ethereal and oddly voluminous, Strand goes hard on the visual language of strings and threads, whether it’s suddenly suspending enemies just off the ground or whacking mobs with a rope dart and acrobatics Jackie Chan might envy.

Sound and music in Lightfall are, once again, exceedingly well done. The soundtrack has a distinct underlying theme to it, a mix of resonant vocals combined with orchestral strains accentuated by electronica elements.  It does an excellent job of helping set the mood throughout Neomuna, whether you’re exploring or in the middle of a public event firefight. Lance Reddick and the rest of Destiny 2‘s voice cast (minus Gina Torres and Nathan Fillion, of course) return to their roles and continue to put on excellent performances. New additions Dave Fennoy (Vol’Jin in World of WarCraft) and Marin M. Miller (Athena in Hades) appear as Cloud Striders Rohan and Nimbus, respectively. If I have any complaint about the voice work, it’s how the voice modulation they use for Nimbus makes them sound very much like Empress Caiatl (played by Courtenay Taylor). Despite that, strong characterizations continue to be a solid part of the series to this point.

Amanda Holliday and The Crow argue in front of the wreckage of Holliday's ship
“You shot me and now you’re stalking off in a huff like I’m the bad guy?!”

For all of the excellent visual and audio work, gameplay is where Lightfall stumbles badly, and not exactly where you might think. The gear mod system has been revamped rather radically. Where before you had to worry about energy types and matching certain mods, now there’s just flat Energy slots which you use to modify and fine tune your armor. Coupled with the new Loadouts mechanism, players no longer have to go to third-party sites or apps to make swaps to their gear when moving from patrols to Nightfalls to raids. Weapon handling remains one of the most natural experiences in the loot shooter field. So far, so good, right? Wrong. Bungie has badly miscalculated in certain areas. The presence of a “Legendary” campaign (with appropriately impressive rewards for having finished it) returns after first appearing in The Witch Queen. That, in and of itself, is a perfectly fine thing. However, the difficulty curve is more like a cliff than anything. The mid-point of the campaign proved to be where things turned sheer on Legendary, yet they weren’t quite that brutal on Normal.

Being fair, though, the Normal campaign reserved its difficulty for the final mission, and once again, smack into a cliff. I did complete the campaign on Legendary with a couple of buddies, and let me tell you, even with a cheese strategy and copious amounts of fire from Osteo Striga, it still took an unconscionable amount of time for a full fireteam above the recommended Light level. I tried the boss fight solo on Normal (also above recommended Light level) and got my ass handed to me badly enough I went back to the “bunker” strategy which served me so well on Legendary. Bungie’s promises of increased difficulty and challenge appears to be making enemies into industrial-strength bullet sponges and saddle them (or at least the bosses) with arcane mechanics you have no time to derive in a single outing. Learning from wipes is one thing, but Bungie seems determined to make the learning process about as much fun as a Soviet re-education camp.

Empress Caiatl reviews her troops
“Look on the bright side, Earthling. You’re not fighting us this time!”

While the new Strand abilities are visually impressive, their actual functionality in combat, not to mention their implementation in the game, is handled worse than the Stasis power set in Beyond Light. Unlocking Stasis on all three characters was a chore. The only good point was that once Fragments (mods which fine-tuned the ability with buffs and the occasional compensating debuff) were unlocked, they were unlocked at an account level, not a character level. Now, you’re grinding for unlock materials and obtain Fragments at the character level. Three times the amount of effort, and for not even a tithe of the reward. There are elements of Strand which I will be the first to proclaim are cool as hell. Being a Hunter main, the rope dart Super ability feels a lot more enjoyable than the Arcstrider Super, working as either AoE or an absolutely devastating single-target attack. There’s a vengeful joy in seeing enemies strung up by certain Strand effects, and the “Threadling” effect on certain abilities almost makes you feel like an eldritch horror “cleaning up” the timeline like something out of the Cthulhu Mythos.

But the Grapple ability which Bungie made such a big damned deal about is disappointing beyond words. One, you don’t get a whole lot of opportunity to use it outside of the campaign. If anything, it suddenly becomes wildly uncontrollable once you finally unlock the Strand power set permanently. Two, it absolutely wastes a grenade power slot. Bungie’s managed to work in “long press” mechanics in previous power sets so that holding down a button for various abilities causes an alternate version of that power to manifest. Grapple should have been a long press alternative for all Strand grenade types rather than a “grenade” itself. It’s a chore to swap them out just to overcome one particular obstacle and then swap in an offensive grenade to get back to the shooting. Three, the verticality and expansiveness players were expecting out of Neomuna just isn’t there. From a size perspective, Neomuna feels smaller than the Throne World in The Witch Queen. And that’s counting the “edge” zones of Calus’ palace and the caves on the outskirts of the city were players are forced to “train” in the campaign. You are doing a lot of vertical drops and jumping ascents, but we’ve been doing that since the original Destiny.

Osiris watches as a Guardian destroys himself while learning to use Strand.
“Functionally immortal, yet so painfully stupid.” –Osiris, probably

The writing and narrative work on Lightfall is not bad. I’d even go so far as to say it’s brilliant in spots. But the overall narrative in the campaign definitely feels rushed, and badly so. The pacing is just completely wrong. The sense of urgency which Oded Fehr conveys as Osiris feels inconsistent, uneven, not because of his performance but because of the structure of the campaign. Some have argued Osiris has lost all of his character growth from previous installments, that he’s gone back to being an obnoxious know-it-all. I’d argue that he didn’t lose any development, we’re just seeing what happens when you put that character under real pressure. Even as recently as “Season of The Seraph,” he was an obnoxious know-it-all, albeit one who did know when to take time for himself and others. But that was when he had a little room to breathe and think carefully. That room and that time is no longer present. The End of Days has begun for the Last City as far as everybody is concerned. In that situation, Osiris is going to be the Osiris we’ve known from the beginning: reckless, ruthless, and relentless. Even if he’s not functionally immortal anymore. He’s not going to let a little thing like death stop him.

By comparison, Nimbus is almost a perfect foil for Osiris. In some respects, they’re just as reckless as Osiris, which oddly serves to help keep Osiris in check (sort of). They’re perhaps more fatalistic than Osiris, since they know they’re on a short clock in terms of lifespan. Guardians might live forever compared to regular humans, but Cloud Striders have a ten year lifespan from the point they get chromed up with cybernetic augmentations. That dichotomy is stark, and since Osiris no longer has Sagira to bring him back, there’s no telling when he might pass. Some have complained that the cheerful naievete of Nimbus is a poor fit for the grim, almost desperate, tone to the Destiny universe in general and Lightfall in particular. For myself, Nimbus grew on me as a character. Yeah, they have that “cute dumb puppy” kind of feel to them, but it’s oddly refreshing. Even the Apocalypse should have a little comedy relief.

The Guardian, Caiatl, and Nimbus look upon the remains of Emperor Calus after the final battle.
“Yeah, I got nothing for this one. Just…no.”

For all of that, though, there’s a strong sense that Bungie isn’t quite on the ball in terms of their storytelling in Lightfall. There are individual elements which are quite well done, such as mission dialog exchanges between Rohan and Ghost or the slightly supercilious style of Neomuna Civil News reporter Jisu Calerondo. Some of the new lore books are absolutely fantastic and certainly add a lot of depth to the setting. Even the storylines so far laid out in “Season of Defiance” are giving players a sense of stakes. But it never seems to gel cohesively across the entire game. There are too many conflicting dialog exchanges in various cutscenes and in-game exposition sections to give players a sense of what’s really going on. There’s not enough explanation about what the Veil really is and how it relates to the Traveler. We as players and participants in the narrative don’t have the first idea about what the Witness’ plans really are. Knowing the endgame of attaining “the Final Shape” is meaningless given we can’t even see the dots that need to be connected. At a time when Bungie should be starting to explain and resolve mystery threads they’ve been spinning for the better part of a decade, they’re still fooling around and introducing more mysteries. I do not doubt that we’re going to be getting more story as the year wears on and Bungie will probably start tying things off the closer we get to the next (and presumably final) expansion. For an initial offering, though, Lightfall hasn’t turned out to be even in the same league as The Witch Queen, to say nothing of earlier installments such as Forsaken or even The Taken King back in the original game.

I came back to Destiny 2 indirectly, courtesy of a gift copy of The Witch Queen, so while I know I missed a lot of content, I also know how bad things have been prior to my original departure. The last time I saw something this disorganized was Rise of Iron back during the first game, so when I compare that to Lightfall, it’s only because that is the only thing that fits. There’s a lot to like individually about Lightfall, but taken as a whole, it’s a hot mess of an expansion. Excellent visuals and moving musical pieces do not excuse poor design choices and punishing difficulty. Snappy dialogue and artfully composed cutscenes do not compensate for the generally unfocused narrative framework and story inconsistencies. This has the feeling of a rush job, of something that was intended to be a smaller portion of a much larger work and it got spread out to the consistency of tissue paper. Yes, Bungie has a whole year to fix it, but it should have come out correctly at the start.

Axel reviewed Lightfall on a PlayStation 5 with a purchased copy of the game.  Lightfall is also available on PC, all Xbox consoles, and PlayStation 4.

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