With five years of existence, six major retail releases, numerous seasonal and DLC content drops, and consistent sandbox updates, as well as walking through a split with powerhouse publisher Activision, it would be an understatement to say that Bungie has been both literally and metaphorically to the moon and back with the Destiny franchise. Within this review, we will be examining the content of Destiny 2: Shadowkeep with as few spoilers as possible along with answering a question raised within our first impressions of the game: is looking back the way forward for Destiny?
In this latest major installment of the Destiny universe, Shadowkeep takes players back to the surface of the moon to revisit old haunts, specifically, the ruins of colonization lost during the Hive’s incursion and Crota’s devastation of Guardian forces. New waves of Hive are emerging from the depths, along with an ominous, crimson spire. You are sent in with the full measure Vanguard strength to thin their ranks and discern the sudden resurgence of activity with the help of former Guardian and Hunter, Eris Morn.
What you discover below the surface of the Moon is far more terrifying than the Hive or even Crota himself: a mysterious pyramid ship that has haunted your visions of the Collapse, a harbinger of the Darkness… one of the Traveler’s greatest foes. Under the influence of its reawakening, nightmares of your past manifest back into reality, haunting your every more as you seek the answers that this ship might hold. And these nightmares must be put to rest once more.
This story is played out through a series of narrative missions which will have you gather gear to mitigate the influence of the pyramid ship as well as to teach you one of the Shadowkeep’s end game activity mechanics: Nightmare Hunts. Within these Nightmare Hunts, you will track down enemies from Destiny and Destiny 2. It’s not as simple as filling them with bullets; each boss is defeated through a series of phases which require you to kill nightmare special adds interspersed with their real-world counterparts. Nightmare units will drop an Unstable Essence buff which will increase your damage against Nightmare units for around 15 seconds. Rinse, lather, sprayer, repeat and you will extinguish these shadows of the past with your Light.
With all of this talk of nightmares, Shadowkeep has a far darker tone than many of the stories of the past. The Hive’s connection with the Darkness and their ravenous need to pay tribute to it have only been enhanced by the reawakening of this object of their obsession under the moon’s surface. From the atmospheric ambience and soundtrack to the story itself, Bungie is embracing some of the weirder elements of their universe to stare into the abyss of its darkest reaches. And it works… but it works because of the foundation it is built on.
The Moon was always one of the darker settings from Destiny 1. It was the site of one of the great tragedies of universe in the lore and played host to the unmaking of a great number of heralded champions of the Traveler. With locations like the Circle of Bones, Hellmouth, Crimson Keep, and World’s Grave, this setting might feel far more Doom than Destiny. (This is not a bad thing, Destiny did also borrow its new Finishing Moves system from the aforementioned shooter.) Shadowkeep masterfully captures the isolation of darkness while creating a sense of fear in the things lurking just outside of your vision.
As story-craft goes, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep delivers some exceptionally powerful moments of pay-off for players who have been along the journey for a while, though they may not be as significant to new players. From a scope perspective, the story mission of Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is a bit shorter than Forsaken. I completed it somewhere around the 6 hours mark. It is, however, longer than any of the episodic or seasonal narrative content of the past. And this is where I am very conflicted over whether or not this is a positive step forward for Destiny in moving the story forward. Here is why:
For me, there is always a tension between wanting more story, but desiring resolution from the narrative. Rather than doing this, Shadowkeep builds more tension at the conclusion of its campaign - which should irritate me, but instead, as I look at the content calendar Bungie is planning on delivering, it makes me expectant. We are just stepping into the Season of the Undying - content that is included with the base retail version of Shadowkeep - and already, it has been seeding a continuation to the narrative plot. This very well could be Bungie’s way of holding the attention of its player-base while delivering new plot along the way. It makes me wonder how much narrative continuation will players without a season pass be able to experience? Time will tell.
And this is where I come back to the question I asked in my first impressions: Is looking back the way forward for Destiny? Yes and no.
Yes, because there are more connections to the past that need to be mended and more story threads that need to see resolution. For example, is the SIVA crisis from Rise of Iron now over since Rasputin is reconnected with Anna Bray from our work in the Warmind campaign? Or, how will our work with Osiris and Sagira in Curse of Osiris impact our ability to fight the Vex in the Black Garden? Will it have any impact whatsoever?
Yes, the way forward is looking back because of New Light. Brand new Guardians need to experience the nightmares of our conflict with Crota, of our collective loss of Cayde-6 or when Taniks killed Andal Brask, to revisit the Cosmodrome where it all started, and the once again, make “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” back on the Moon.
However, I also say no to this notion as a complete way forward because Destiny cannot always linger in the past. There are a lot of amazing moments in the past, but any game must mature lest it be eroded by the movement of time and the fickle attention span of its audience. Nostalgia can have a diminishing return and only really works on those who have something to be nostalgic about.
What Shadowkeep does with all of this is that it walks a delicate line between these three points by giving seasoned players the nostalgia of going back to our old haunts while rehashing or introducing new players to our “old haunts” in the forms of our once vanquished enemies.
Now, none of this is to say that the narrative is poorly executed or that the settings are not worth returning to. Dropping into that first mission was by far one of the strongest introductions into a Destiny campaign I have experienced. Fighting alongside the Vanguard in a full on assault on the Moon captured an incredibly heroic moment. And then there was THAT corner! When I turned that corner for the first time and saw the pyramid ship, it stole my breath. I had to stop to take in what I just saw and the implications of the story I was about to experience. While this would be the first of many moments like this throughout the campaign. Even the continuation into the Season of the Undying felt like a natural progression of the narrative.
While I may be conflicted over my personal feelings in how narrative is being handled, I am not conflicted over the system-wide quality of life enhancements Destiny 2: Shadowkeep bring to the table.
The seasonal progression makes each level feel rewarding without being terribly grindy. New seasonal artifacts and Armor 2.0 systems give players a new way to access perks, empowering them to play their way without hours of searching for the right random roll. The Quests tab takes the place of the both the Pursuits tab and the old inventory system of managing bounties and provides an easily accessible way to track progress. There are new weapons mechanics which allow you to deeper customization than before, such as perks which allow you to punch through heavy shielding or stagger enemies. Nightmare strikes can now be accessible through Matchmaking activities, opening a whole new level of challenge to the masses. The first season of content, Season of the Undying, keeps things fresh with the new Vex Incursion activity, along with a continuation of the campaign narrative, and public events to fight back droves of Vex across the surface of the Moon.
These improvements along with the addition of New Light make this version of Destiny one of the most accessible versions of the game to all types of players, whether seasoned or returning, casual or hardcore. This is incredibly important for the future of Destiny as it leans into its identity as an action MMO first-person shooter. And these improvements are (mostly) fantastic. My biggest complaint in the quality of life department is that leveling gear to Masterwork condition feels like a setback in difficult to the Destiny 1 era - unless you stocked up on materials before this expansion dropped. This feels like it stands at odds with Shadowkeep’s entry point for new players.
Destiny 2: Shadowkeep represents Bungie’s first step back into the brave new world of self-publishing since the Marathon and Myth era of the late 90s. And it is an amazing step forward!
New gameplay mechanics offer deeper customization for players to fine-tune their Guardians into their ultimate version of a monster hunting machine. Couple the quality of life improvements with its pedigree for some of the tightest gunplay in modern shooters and this is possibly the best version of Destiny yet.
The return to the Moon is a step that, while it borrows heavily from the past, creates a sense of revisiting something familiar, but evolving. The story is a bit short and creates more loose ends than it ties up for the overarching narrative, it has some incredibly satisfying moments which are pitch perfect for this expansion, paying off years of waiting.
The tone set out of the gate encapsulates the full scope of what Destiny’s story has to deliver: a story of Light versus Darkness, the lure of power ill-gained versus that earned through discipline and devotion, the hopelessness in deep places pieced with even the smallest simmer of hope.
We look forward to seeing how they continue to flesh out Destiny as it matures beyond the Season of the Undying. Out of the gate, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep builds on Bungie’s legendary marriage of storytelling and gameplay, improving upon the foundations of the past while looking ahead to its future(s).