Think back: What was the best part of Infamous: Second Son? Was it the Seattle skyline? The inventive, elemental superpowers? Delsin's cliché toque? Go ahead, I'll give you a moment. Got your answer? If it's anything other than the "neon dash" ability, I'm sorry, but you're just incorrect. Categorically, objectively, spiritually incorrect. Sprinting up buildings while trailing a day-glo zephyr of light in your wake was the defining experience of the early days of the PlayStation 4, and rarely has an open-world game offered such gratifying freedom of movement. "Sublime" is a hyperbolic descriptor, but "wicked rad" is an apt substitute.
Now, developer Sucker Punch has returned to virtual Seattle with a prequel, dubbed Infamous: First Light, starring the neon conduit herself, Abigail "Fetch" Walker. Set two years prior to the events of Second Son, First Light follows Fetch through a story of deceit, revenge and cathartic destruction. According to the devs, First Light boasts improved graphics, new superpowers and even an enhanced Photo Mode, but are these new gameplay wrinkles as brilliant as our heroine's own bolts of light, or do they fizzle out like so many garish signs drained of their luminous neon gas as Fetch strolls by? Either way, any excuse to flood Seattle with a deadly light show is a good one, so it's time once again to play superhero in the Emerald City.
Gallery: InFamous: Second Son - First Light (Gamescom 2014) | 10 Photos
For the majority of its too-short runtime, Infamous: First Light weaves a story far superior to the plot in Infamous: Second Son. Fetch is a more complex, believable character than Delsin Rowe, with a traumatic backstory that more than justifies her cynical attitude and general distrust of others. Where Delsin always felt like a petulant brat, unsure of his burgeoning superpowers and moral imperatives, Fetch is a grizzled street tough who views her laser shows as the ultimate high and revels in her newfound power. It's hard not to cheer Fetch's joyful glee at blasting DUP soldiers with finger lasers, or crushing a few dozen simultaneously via swirling pink neon singularity. Her predecessor's blandness, meanwhile, did its best to ensure that less than a year after release I'd have to look up Delsin's name just so the references in this paragraph would make sense.
More importantly, developer Sucker Punch has done a fantastic job identifying which gameplay aspects of Second Son were most entertaining, then stripping out the less fun parts in favor of new tricks. Melee combat now features a finishing attack which launches Fetch into a neon-fueled dropkick that instantly destroys all but the most powerful enemies. Not just a flashy stunt, this addition makes hand-to-hand combat more useful, as even in large groups of gun-toting foes Fetch can alternate the standard punch combo with explosive dropkicks to quickly clear everyone out. Speed is a theme for the character, and one of the first powers Fetch learns to use is the aforementioned neon dash first seen in Second Son. As in Second Son, the dash allows Fetch to sprint around the city, climbing walls and leaping from rooftops with ease, but the First Light incarnation of this power is far less likely to get hung up on nearby geometry, suddenly stopping our heroine's momentum. This makes the neon dash not just the best way to flit around the map, but the act of dashing around like an elemental made of burning noble gas is thrilling and satisfying by itself, even before you start combining the dash with your leaping abilities to grab those high-flying, precious lumens.
Like Second Son, Infamous: First Light features an extensive skill tree, though it's far more intuitive in the newer game. Players earn points toward new skills by completing story missions and side missions, or grabbing floating red globes called lumens which are sprinkled throughout Seattle. In Second Son these lumens were haphazardly placed, and Delsin would pick up the vast majority simply by criss-crossing the city during the game's plot. First Light's lumens are more deliberately located in hard-to-reach areas that usually require a combination of Fetch's skills to reach. Leaping off the top of a skyscraper to grab a lumen floating hundreds of feet above street level is entirely optional, but Fetch's neon-enhanced acrobatics are so entertaining and rewarding that most players will spend more time jumping off buildings than working through the storyline.
Despite the above praise, it's hard to recommend Infamous: First Light to anyone but the most die-hard series fans. It's just too short and offers too little to do. Sony claims players will spend five hours with the single-player campaign, but I lackadaisically finished the entire thing in less than three. You might approach five hours if you're collecting all the lumens, blowing up all the UAVs and etching neon graffiti into Seattle's walls, but even then a competent player will see everything there is to see in Infamous: First Light in about the same amount of time it takes to properly cook a beef brisket. The new single-player Battle Arenas do extend the game's longevity by awarding players leaderboard-tracked high scores for wiping out progressively more powerful waves of enemies, rescuing hostages or a handful of other combat-heavy objectives, but even annihilating DUP's elite soldiers with glowing beams of radiance grows dull after a few attempts at each stage.
This short length makes Infamous: First Light a frustrating experience. The game mates a story that's simple yet effective with mechanics that are equally intuitive and satisfying, but then minutes after Fetch earns the last of her latent powers, the story comes to an end. It's the equivalent of the credits rolling on a Godzilla movie immediately after the giant lizard stomps out of the ocean, ready to wreak havoc. From a storytelling perspective, Infamous: First Light starts out strong, builds to a solid climax then just ends abruptly, leaving the player wanting more. They say that's what good entertainment is supposed to do, but in this case the game is so slight that it's just disappointing.
The conclusion to Infamous: First Light is undeniably cathartic and competently written (if utterly expected), but that only makes the meager game more infuriating when the plot draws to a close. Infamous: First Light is everything Infamous: Second Son should have been, it's just too bad it only arrives now, in this anemic form.
This review is based on a PSN download of Infamous: First Light, provided by Sony.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.