Comedian Kumail Nanjiani has a bit during his first stand-up album, Beta Male, about video games being the only art form that’s gotten better solely because of advances in technology. It’s easy to argue it’s also made developers lazier, since lovingly rendered explosions don’t do much to advance ideas aside from reinforcing, time and time again, that explosions are cool. But every once in a while, one of those advances actually does click something into place for the medium, something to bridge the gap between games and other established media.
Infamous: First Light gave me the first inkling that this medium is capable of producing movie stars. Or at least, whatever the gaming equivalent of such could be. Specifically, and above all its other merits, including being one of the few games with a female main character and adding one more to the depressingly short list of games that pass the Bechdel Test as a result, First Light is a showcase for veteran voice actress Laura Bailey. She’s long been one of those names you see in the voice credits for a game and never give a second thought to, because they’re in practically every game. And then Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV happened, with Bailey giving the kind of all-in, convention-pushing voice performances that made Mass Effect’s Jennifer Hale a goddess among gamers. For both Second Son and First Light, Bailey steps into the realm of motion capture, giving neon-powered protagonist Fetch not just a great, high-strung voice performance (tweaked by a strange, reedy rendition of a Brooklyn accent), but thanks to the PS4’s next-gen horsepower, a level of impressive, fascinating physical nuance.
Framed around Second Son’s cold-blooded antagonist, Augustine, hearing Fetch’s tale while in protective custody, First Light takes place two years prior to the events of that game. Fetch is a recovering drug addict, not terribly far down the road from her last high, on the verge of finally leaving Seattle with her brother, a Travis Bickle doppelganger named Brent, after the archetypical One Last Score. Of course, the score goes bad, and Fetch is forced to use her burgeoning superpowers to fight her way out, unfortunately leaving poor Brent to fend for himself against the trigger-happy authorities. With Brent being the only thing stopping Fetch from backsliding into pathetic junkiehood, she sets on a mission of retribution.
The fundamentals of Second Son are present, obviously restricted to Fetch’s flashy Neon abilities, which is fine since Neon was the most free-flowing and fun of Delsin’s stolen powers to begin with. Speed is far more of a focus here, bolstered by Bailey’s anxious mo-cap performance, spurring the player to give her something to more outwardly focus her nervous energy on. With the other super powers stripped away, so are most of Second Son’s extracurricular activities, aside from the now-streamlined graffiti sidequests, moments where we’re allowed to see Fetch played softer and playful, as a spunky teenager instead of a young woman already defeated by life. The laser-lined focus keeps the player centered on Fetch’s story, while also making the three-to-four-ish hours of playtime feel rather thin. Missions generally involve finding a landmark across the map, fighting a bunch of thugs, and moving on to the next story point. The combat is fun, but not enough to be the only gameplay type we encounter. Challenge maps and a few new fun powers open up through the course of the game to make up the difference, and wild, unimaginable levels of chaos ensue here that would’ve done wonders for the main story, but compulsively addictive as the maps are, they’re still hors d’oeuvres to a not-entirely-filling main course.
The story takes expected twists and turns, with the exception of an effective, harrowing dalliance with psychedelia late in the DLC, that are mostly keeping with the old-school comic stylings that endeared us to Second Son. But the constant is Bailey, who, even more than the new, scumbag villain you just can’t wait to kill, keeps the player invested, moving forward, and concerned. With all her edges, Fetch is ultimately a normal girl in an awful circumstance, leading to that place where we meet her in Second Son: cold, afraid, and full of terrible regret. It’s a basic story told in stronger terms than it really warrants, but the game is better for it, and gives rise to the pleasantly surprising sentiment of wanting to see more of Bailey in other roles in the future. First Light’s greatest achievement is in creating one of the first interactive star-making turns.