Destiny 2: Lightfall's campaign is a big disappointment after The Witch Queen

Osiris standing in Neomuna.
(Image credit: Bungie)

When The Witch Queen launched last year, it wasn't just a great Destiny 2 campaign, but a great FPS campaign full-stop. After years of lightweight expansion campaigns that served as little more than funnels into Destiny 2's live-service pipeline, The Witch Queen offered a number of lengthy, challenging missions. It was a fantastic release, and it set a high bar for Lightfall—the penultimate expansion in the game's Light and Darkness saga—to meet.

Unfortunately, based on the campaign at least, Lightfall doesn't match The Witch Queen's quality. It doesn't even come close.

Community reaction has been pretty negative, with much of the surface-level griping being about the campaign's tone. Where The Witch Queen was dark, brooding and mysterious, Lightfall is more light and campy. Honestly, the tone was the least of my problems. Sure, the Cloudstriders feel like they parachuted in from a different series altogether. Sure, I was not expecting an '80s action movie pastiche—with a buddy duo of a young hotshot and their too-old-for-this-shit partner and an honest to god training montage—for the penultimate expansion to the dramatic saga of warring metaphysical forces. But, for me, the much bigger problem is that the delivery is inconsistent within the campaign itself.

The opening cutscene is Destiny at its best: grand, dramatic space nonsense. Finally, the Witness is here, moving on the Traveler itself. A ghost and Guardian are literally unmade at the flick of its finger. The Traveler's terraforming beam blasts the Witness's ship, presumably setting up the raid that launches next week. Shit is going down.

And yet, before the first mission is even over, we're getting MCU-level quips as we zoom around a neon city on Neptune, on a knockabout adventure to defend "The Veil". This is emblematic of the problem with Lightfall. It's trying to pull on too many threads at once, and doesn't give any one story beat time to land.

Take the Veil itself: What is it? We don't know, and, honestly, we don't find out. This is not the first time Destiny has introduced something only to leave its exact nature a mystery, although it's always a downer when it's the centrepiece of the campaign—the big mystery teased before release.

Piercing the Veil

The more interesting issue at play here is something I've seen from plenty of people reacting to Lightfall's story. The assumption, usually, is that the characters we interact with know what the Veil is and, for whatever reason, just never get around to telling us. That's actually not what's happening. Like us, they too have no idea what it is. The problem is that, as they are written, the supporting characters are so terminally incurious that the question doesn't even interest them. It doesn't occur to ask. They know that it powers the Neptunian city of Neomuna, and they know that it'll be bad if the Witness gets access to it. That, seemingly, is good enough.

(Image credit: Bungie)

In one mission, we're sent to destroy the Radial Mast before Calus can attach it to the Veil. What is the Radial Mast? That is not important: It's bad, because Calus is bad, because the Witness is bad. And that's all we get, because the story is too busy rushing through its other plot beats to stop and flesh out the one you're currently playing through.

Compare this to The Witch Queen, where the big mystery—how did Savathun steal the light?—is the central question of the campaign. Every mission worked towards resolving the interesting question that it posed. And then we got an answer. The question then shifted to "Why did the Traveler give one of our greatest enemies the Light", at which point Ikora counters with "It doesn't matter". That's a dramatic statement—a moment that says, actually, we've reckoned with this enough, now we need to act. For Lightfall, "it doesn't matter" feels like the default state.

For Lightfall, "it doesn't matter" feels like the default state.

There are frustrating hints at something coherent and purposeful. For instance: Cloudstriders require heavy augmentation to become the defenders of Neomuna, to the point they only get 10 years to live following the procedure. For them, it's a worthy sacrifice, and one that defines how they think about life and death. It's a neat enough contrast with the immortal Guardians, and an idea that, I think, is meant to tie into Osiris's research on how to master Strand—the new subclass introduced in Lightfall that's said to be tied to the flow of life. All the individual threads are there to connect this into something coherent, but not once does the story pause to show its working. Instead I'm left with the vague feeling that, yeah, that was probably what they were going for.

Characters, too, have subplots that would have been nice to explore in depth. We get a cutscene featuring Calus and the Witness that is dripping with tension, as the former emperor struggles to deal with being subordinate to an impossibly powerful being. But nothing is really done with this; it's never explored or dealt with. Calus's arc never reckons with this in depth, despite it being so core to his character throughout our time with him since the launch of Destiny 2.

This is where Lightfall stumbles. There is probably a very compelling story outline at Bungie, laying out all of these beats into something satisfying. But that story doesn't map well into Destiny 2's narrative delivery mechanisms. There are eight missions full of NPC chatter, as well as some cutscenes, and some monologues in between. The Witch Queen was able to deliver a satisfying story within that structure. But Lightfall falters, unable to weave its ambitions within the restrictions of the format.

(Image credit: Bungie)

Strand and deliver 

It doesn't help that a decent chunk of the missions are primarily about learning the Strand subclass. I don't think I appreciated how freeing it was for The Witch Queen to be able to just tell its story without needing to also be an extended tutorial. In Lightfall, though, the entire second act is dedicated to mastering Strand in a way that detracts from everything else the campaign is trying to do.

This has a knock-on effect on how the campaign plays, too. As with The Witch Queen, I played on Legendary difficulty. But where The Witch Queen gave me the space to buildcraft my way through its challenge, Lightfall frequently forces me to use an off-the-shelf, truncated version of the subclass to teach how it works. These would have been better off as sidequests—off the beaten path of the main story, leaving me free to actually tinker and experiment for the harder campaign missions.

Post-campaign, we do finally get some time to reckon with questions mishandled during the missions themselves. But it's too little too late. Lightfall desperately needed to be more open in its structure, giving us opportunities alongside the core campaign missions to offer sidequests that flesh out the city and give us a reason to care about its survival. Instead, Lightfall's ambition outreaches its execution. The city, populated by the digital avatars of a population that went into hiding before we arrived, feels cold and empty—barely different to the wartorn, abandoned spaces of previous Destiny campaigns.

Destiny 2 is in something of a unique position: It's trying to deliver the spectacle of a big budget shooter while also being an ongoing, live service game. If we've learned anything about Destiny over the years, it's that it's hard to make: Bungie can only deliver so much while also producing the amount of seasonal content the community demands, at the frequency they want it. For The Witch Queen, Bungie delayed the launch by three months to give it the time needed to get it right. And ultimately, that wait proved worth it. Having played Lightfall, I don't doubt it could have benefitted from the same.

(Image credit: Bungie)

Shape of things to come

So what does this mean for next year's The Final Shape, the last expansion of the current arc? Are we looking at a Game of Thrones-style disaster? There's a lot of doom and gloom following Lightfall, but I'm not sure we're quite there yet. I suspect a lot of the issues are a result of the fact that, originally, Lightfall was supposed to be the end of the saga. When The Final Shape was announced, I assumed the story would be split down the middle—that Lightfall would be the Infinity War to The Final Shape's End Game. Playing Lightfall, though, it feels more like, er, Ant-Man? The bulk of it—the Cloudstriders, Neomuna, the Veil—come across like a tangential sidestory inserted to give The Final Shape more time to cook. Maybe that explains why the opening and closing cutscenes feel like they're part of a different expansion entirely. Maybe it's why Zavala doesn't even reference Neptune in his dialogue.

🚨 Massive spoiler warning for the ending of Lightfall's campaign 🚨

In the final cutscene, after the Veil is activated, The Witness cuts a portal into the Traveler and steps through, taking the Pyramid Ships along too. After it's finished, players are sent to speak to Zavala. His first words: "The Traveler… Gone."

Mate, what? It's still there.

"Should I feel… humbled by this sacrifice?"

What are you talking about? What sacrifice? Is that what was happening in the cutscene, because, if so, that was not at all clear. Is the Traveler dead now? You need to tell us what happened before you launch into a monologue reacting to it.

Zavala's speech is so baffling that I assumed I'd missed a second cutscene. But no: this is just how it plays out.

(Image credit: Bungie)

Ikora opens with a similar statement about the Traveler being "gone". She at least goes on to explain that, "Despite your triumphs against the former emperor, the Witness has transformed the Traveler, and gone somewhere we cannot follow." 

The text summary following her monologue finally gives us some hint at the state of things heading into the year ahead: "There is much we don't understand still—what the Witness has done to the Traveler, or where the Witness has gone. The Ghosts have been clear: they no longer feel the Traveler's presence as they once did, though the Light still remains in them."

It would have been useful to know that before I embarked on these whiplash conversations. But too often in Destiny, I have to figure out the story based on how characters react after the fact. Whether that's small character moments, or huge moves in the paracausal chess game being played between Destiny's deities, I'm left piecing together a narrative out of the disparate fragments I'm told I experienced.

End of spoilers

On Steam, Lightfall currently has a mostly negative rating. The subreddit is in full meltdown mode, jumping on every pain point—big or small—with the kind of manic glee that often overcomes the site when it spots a dead horse to be beaten.

Really, though, there's nuance here. Lightfall is a badly told story, but Destiny as a series is no stranger to those. It survived Shadowkeep, which was a bad story told across a scant handful of incredibly basic missions. Lightfall, at least, is bigger, and still offers a number of fun, interesting encounters around the stuff that falls flat. The broad concept of having a more fleshed out campaign is something I want to see continue—even if it doesn't come together well here.

It's also Destiny, which means the campaign is, really, only part of the conversation—the thing that the core playerbase will spend the least amount of time actually playing. Based on what I've played of Season of Defiance, its story already feels stronger and more assertive, and I'm looking forward to seeing how that progresses.

Phil Savage

Phil has been writing for PC Gamer for nearly a decade, starting out as a freelance writer covering everything from free games to MMOs. He eventually joined full-time as a news writer, before moving to the magazine to review immersive sims, RPGs and Hitman games. Now he leads PC Gamer's UK team, but still sometimes finds the time to write about his ongoing obsessions with Destiny 2, GTA Online and Apex Legends. When he's not levelling up battle passes, he's checking out the latest tactics game or dipping back into Guild Wars 2. He's largely responsible for the whole Tub Geralt thing, but still isn't sorry.