With Destiny 2: The Witch Queen and its assorted seasons in the rearview mirror, 2023's Lightfall expansion has some big shoes to fill. Improved storytelling, new gameplay modes, and the ensuing seasonal content made The Witch Queen expansion a standout experience, and Lightfall doesn't manage to reach the high bar it set. Destiny 2's latest add-on introduces major gameplay tweaks, an exciting new subclass to play around with, and plenty of fresh Exotic gear for your arsenal, but this is overshadowed by a disappointing campaign and a lifeless Neptunian destination that make for an underwhelming combination.
Lightfall doesn't waste any time setting the stage, taking place shortly after the devastating events of Season of the Seraph. After a quick slideshow narrated by the silky-smooth voice of Lance Reddick's Commander Zavala brings everyone up to speed, it's all hands on deck as the Witness finally makes its long-awaited arrival in the Solar system to battle the Traveler. From the opening mission, the action unfolds at a breakneck pace, as a new Shadow Legion of Cabal led by a reborn Calus set a course for Neptune, and you're hitching a ride alongside them in an effort to prevent a doomsday scenario from occurring.
Bungie has spoken several times about adopting an '80s action movie vibe for Lightfall, and that influence is felt everywhere on Neptune's primary location, Neomuna. From a city bathed in neon lights and a training montage as you master your new powers, to the introduction of a cast of characters that include analogs of loose cannon space-cops, maverick rookies, and grizzled veterans just one week away from retirement, Lightfall wears its not-so-subtle inspirations proudly.
However, at the same time, the campaign has the depth of a direct-to-VHS action flick. The story is frustratingly vague as you chase down a paracausal MacGuffin, encounter slightly upgraded space rhinos, and grapple with emotional moments that feel hollow and unearned. Lightfall has an exhilarating start, but by the time you've experienced all eight of its campaign missions, it feels more like the unsatisfying storytelling of vanilla Destiny than a memorable '80s action picture. After nine years of being promised answers and chasing every lead imaginable, Lightfall essentially passes the buck to the rest of this year's seasonal content and 2024's The Final Shape.
Much of the story is focused on The Veil, an object of immense power that you chase throughout the campaign, and is said to be the most important artifact in the universe. However, the reasons for this aren't explained. Calus, who has become the newest Disciple of the Witness, is as grandiose as ever and now resembles a Pacific Rim kaiju decked out in armored kitchen appliances. Despite all this, ultimately he's nothing more than a hedonistic bullet sponge who falls far below The Witch Queen's Savathun, the gold standard for great villains in Bungie's sci-fi sandbox. After being built up as Destiny 2’s next major threat throughout Season of the Haunted, Calus is unfortunately treated like an expendable henchman serving the Witness instead of the grandiose conqueror that fans had come to know, love, and loathe over the years.
Legendary mode, which dials up the challenge considerably, is a recipe for sweaty palms and victories that feel hard-earned as you overcome seemingly impossible odds. The new gameplay tweaks and mechanics introduced in Lightfall pair well with the Legendary campaign, which have several exhilarating moments that can easily slot into a highlight reel. From a dramatic escape through Calus' flagship to taking part in a Cabal civil war that throws everything and the cosmic kitchen sink at you, Lightfall's campaign is mechanically a fun gauntlet to charge through as you master Strand--even if the narrative drops the ball frequently.
Your new Darkness subclass, Strand, is introduced without much fanfare, frequently appearing in the campaign as a major source of power that's barely elaborated on. While 2020's Beyond Light expansion made unlocking the Stasis subclass aggravating, the manner in which the first Darkness subclass was introduced at least felt like a meaningful moment for Destiny 2. But in Lightfall, Strand hits the scene after you poke around a random interdimensional wormhole, is barely elaborated on, and is primarily a set of reality-unraveling training wheels that you're given control of periodically throughout the campaign until you unlock it full after afterward.
At least the quests surrounding Lightfall's campaign do a better job of fleshing out the expansion and providing solid reasons for you to go pick a fight with time-traveling murder machines. Destiny veterans will be used to this grind, but between new missions to claim the latest Exotics and the weekly Season of Defiance storyline--which is technically not part of Lightfall itself--the story told here is far more gripping and cohesive.
The quests surrounding Lightfall's campaign do a better job of fleshing out the expansion and providing solid reasons for you to go pick a fight with time-traveling murder machines
Neomuna, the new patrol zone where you'll master the art of Strand, is a beautiful but desolate location to explore. Thanks to the populace being conveniently placed into cryosleep and their minds uploaded into Neomuna's cloud servers, the secret city that survived humanity's first Golden Age cataclysm is pretty to look at but has a desolate theme to its design, despite it being positioned as an extravagant metropolis built by humanity's Golden Age explorers. It's a location that lacks the magic that made Savathun's Throne World or Beyond Light's Europa such standout locations. It has all the usual trappings of a Destiny location, from lost sectors to the new Terminal Overload public activity, but but its neon-lit facade can't hide a lifeless design that's mostly populated by familiar public events and patrols that rarely deviate from the established formula that Destiny 2 has been using since 2017.
Put simply, Neomuna just doesn't have the X-factor needed to make it an engaging location to explore. Thankfully, however, the actual structure of Lightfall's missions makes good use of the city to provide intense missions that'll have you on the edge of your seat.
As for using Strand, this new Darkness subclass succeeds in shaking up the Destiny sandbox with its unique set of powers for each Guardian class. Titan Berserkers rend through enemies with frenzied claws, Warlock Broodweavers unleash a small army of threadlings to do their lethal bidding, and Hunter Threadrunners combine elegant Silkstrike attacks with graceful agility. Like Stasis and the reworked Light 3.0 subclasses, Strand also benefits from a system of Aspects and Fragments that are gradually unlocked after you finish the main campaign.
So far, there have been some tantalizing builds to experiment with, and combined with the right Exotic, seasonal Artifact mods, and armor mods, Strand positions itself as an incredibly powerful tool for destroying cannon fodder enemies and weakening larger foes. With my main Warlock, I've set loose armies of threadlings while wiping out entire mobs of foes in one almighty blast, using Strand's Suspend and Sever debuffs to stay alive and shrug off enemy fire.
The key appeal of this new subclass is its grapple feature, an ability that replaces your grenade with the option to latch onto mystical anchor points no matter where you are and swing into action. If you're prepared to sacrifice one of your key explosive powers, the Strand grapple is a fun addition to Destiny 2 that has plenty of utility, allowing you to grapple straight into enemies before you unleash a special melee attack, or if you're feeling brave enough, hitch a ride on a Titan using their Thundercrash Super right before they yeet the enemies in front of them into oblivion.
Opposing Guardians are the Tormentors, deadly adversaries who shake up the flow of combat with their unrelenting might and ability to seal your powers if they get too close. Tormentors have a response to every attack that you throw at them and learning how to cut them down to size is a refreshing challenge to take on.
Destiny 2's core gameplay still feels as polished as ever, and in typical Bungie tradition, when a major expansion arrives, hundreds of quality-of-life changes have further refined the moment-to-moment gunplay. The developer has been releasing exhaustive breakdowns on these changes, which range from granular tweaks and the introduction of new systems designed to bring new players to the worlds of Destiny 2, to a completely overhauled buildcrafting system and the highly requested inclusion of character loadouts.
For longtime players, the armor mod system is one of the most drastic changes to player investment. Gone are the days of transmatting into Ada-1's workshop to see if she has that one mod that you've been looking for, as Bungie has introduced a new suite of mods that can work on their respective armor pieces regardless of type affinity. This is Bungie pressing the reset key on loadouts built up over years of previous expansions and seasons, creating an even playing field for players of all skill levels to experiment with as they create their perfect Guardian build.
The armor mods mechanic has also adopted a few ideas from the transmog system, creating a more intuitive menu for you to slot mods in and quickly preview your build before you commit to it. Jettisoning clunky menus and making good use of a revamped seasonal artifact means you can get into fighting shape much more quickly. That simplicity makes Destiny 2 more inviting, and with the option to save and switch between several loadouts instantly, Lightfall's gameplay enhancements create an exciting foundation for Bungie to build upon through this year's seasonal content.
Guardian Ranks are another positive step forward, creating a defined journey forward for seasoned players and kinderguardians alike. This replacement for the Triumphs page essentially gives you an optional, more linear path forward to experience everything that Destiny 2 has to offer, ranging from campaigns to established PvE activities, Gambit, and PvP. Veteran players will automatically get a high ranking on this system, and working your way up to the truly impressive Guardian rank of 11 requires not only skill in every facet of the game, but recognition of your contributions toward making the experience better for other players as well.
Destiny 2's Lightfall expansion doesn't make a good first impression, but beneath a threadbare story that relies on an exasperatingly fuzzy motivation for your Guardian, it still feels mechanically satisfying to dive into. Comparing it to the standard of excellence that 2022's The Witch Queen saga established only exposes the numerous shortcomings of Lightfall, and that's a shadow that the next year of seasonal content will need to step out of if Bungie wants to develop the expansion into something more than a middle-of-road entry that stumbles toward a final showdown that has been a decade in the making.