Savathûn's Throne World is an indulgent, decadent place. Its neat privet hedges bookend meandering walkways that don't seem in a rush to get anywhere, and much of the ground - bleached, polished stone - is obscured by a thick carpet of russet leaves and blood-red petals.
It's beautiful here - a touch cold, maybe, but beautiful nonetheless - until your eyes drift up, and you notice that its gothic facades are topped with long, thin, deadly spikes, as friendly as the barbs our city councillors install on rooftops and in shop doorways to keep birds and homeless people at bay. The statutes - benign at first glance - are more menacing the longer you look. Palatial and extravagant - maybe even mildly repugnant, perhaps? - you start to realise that only someone purporting to be a Queen could live in a place like this. Not a benevolent monarch, of course, but the type that shrieks "Off with his head!", and even before I noticed Bungie itself had called this place a "twisted wonderland", the Queen of Hearts' tyrannical reign had already loomed large in my mind. I half expected to find a quivering playing card or tardy white rabbit each time I rounded one of those perfectly sheared hedgerows.
But the wonderland moniker goes a little further than mere appearances in Destiny 2's latest expansion, The Witch Queen. Just like the original wonderland, first impressions are deceiving, and not everything is what you may first think it to be.
Guardians have spent almost eight years now in the company of the Hive, Destiny's ancient alien species that kills its enemies to feed their carcasses - and powers - to the worms that lay within them. We've spent days and weeks of our lives running through their subterranean dungeons and cathedrals, but rarely have we seen them craft such exquisitely ornate environs under the expanse of an open sky, even if that sky is a putrid green. We're not supposed to feel sorry for the murderous creatures that sit in the crosshairs of our scope, and yet the more of the story we unravel, the harder it is to shake the sense they've been terribly deceived. The things we fight - the huge, hulking Hive bosses - somehow only appear to us as "illusions". And when they die... well, that's different now, too.
It's a given in games, isn't it? You fight, you die, you respawn, but unlike most other games, Destiny has an explanation for that. Humanity - saved from extinction by a mysterious sentient sphere called The Traveller - was gifted the Light, a mechanism that allowed them to return to life after death, albeit without their memories, courtesy of their curious Ghost companions. It's why we can respawn when the creatures we have slain cannot. Well. Until now, anyway.
The first time a Hive commander pulled a Super - that is, triggered special powers that had been, up until now, only in the purview of humankind - I was agog. When I killed it and a ghost spawned in its wake, I shouted at my TV. We'd taken it for granted, hadn't we? Destiny's enemies may have numbers and brute strength on their side, but we had the Light. We had the fuel that fired our special powers and enabled us to do the impossible and return from the dead. The idea of our enemies having the same is at once both outrageous and utterly believable and set the scene for what is, undoubtedly, Destiny's most thrilling expansion yet.
The day The Witch Queen was released, all Guardians, regardless of whether or not they'd purchased the new campaign, had their power level boosted to 1350, putting every single player - new or old, current or lapsed - on an equal footing. Bungie has toyed with such mechanics before, sure, but this is the first time it's done so so generously. It meant even lapsed Guardians - and I count myself very much in that camp, as my fireteam and I found Beyond Light's end-game a little stale towards the end - could jump in the moment the campaign went live without grinding to get themselves more powerful beforehand.
That said, Bungie didn't necessarily make it easy on us. Whilst all players are powerful enough to take on the new expansion on standard difficulty, veteran players were teased with the opportunity to take it on at the nightmarish Legendary mode, so that's what my pals and I did. It certainly was difficult - punishingly so, at times (I'd blame my rustiness, but let's be honest: I suck) - but the rewards for making it through were so deliciously compelling, it was always worth the fight.
In fact, all fights are worth having now! Whereas Beyond Light shackled Guardians to painfully slow levelling up, forcing us to dutifully pursue Powerful Gear each week in the hope of grabbing something, anything, that nudged the needle, now pretty much anything and everything is worth your consideration.
Even Blue engrams - "rare" item drops that have been capped at such a crushingly low Light level for so long, they've been essentially useless for some time - are suddenly relevant again! Sure, your gear stats are knackered - primarily playing as a Warlock, I try and keep my Recovery rate 90+, but by constantly switching my snazzy blue armour for new, stronger pieces as I went along, it fell as low as 14 at times, which was super fun on Legendary mode - but how wonderful it is to feel that buzz again, knowing that every fight, big and small, is worth taking on. Knowing that every shiny engram could once again be a prize. It sparks the dizzy delight of experimentation, a time to retry old favourites and perhaps discover new ones (the Krait feels so much like my beloved auto rifle, Perseverance, which was cruelly sunsetted and taken from me: what a joy it is to have something so similar back in my Guardian's hands!).
But more than anything, The Witch Queen is a triumph of storytelling. Bungie's penchant for obfuscation needs no introduction - I have been a committed player for seven of Destiny's almost eight years of existence, and I freely admit I struggle to keep up with its myriad twists and turns - but Destiny's latest expansion dazzles from beginning to end with its smooth combat, sublime voice work, and magnificent environments and mission design.
The Witch Queen not only delivers an astonishing cliffhanger as we step into the final episode of Destiny 2's Light and Darkness saga, but it pulls together several of those confusing loose ends to weave a stunning - and satisfying - tapestry of death, decay, and deception. It somehow fuses both old and new, Destiny 1 and Destiny 2, in ways that should feel fresh and thrilling. We revisit places we last saw five years ago. There are callbacks to story threads that started seven years ago. While I hope this latest expansion is appealing enough to tempt new players into the fold, I suspect the real payoff is for long-time fans who've been here, trudging to Crota's End and battling through King's Fall, since the beginning. For them, and for me, The Witch Queen is the glorious crescendo Guardians have longed for.
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