The Uncharted series is, in a lot of ways, a throwback to a bygone era of video gaming. Before the internet wrought the dominance of MMORPGs and later MOBA, the ultimate ambition of games at the top of the market was to replicate, to an extent, cinema. That meant sweeping cinematics in Halo and memorable characters like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. But now that competitive replayability has become king, games like Uncharted and Mass Effect seem like charming relics of a forgotten civilization—when the greatest ambition a video game had was to tell you a story, give you some puzzles, have you fight some bad guys and everybody goes home happy.
Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is a slight but entertaining spinoff and sequel to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Gone are the Drakes, replaced by their foils and sometime-enemies Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross. Fans will recognize Frazer as Nathan Drake’s love interest from the second and third installments. Ross made a memorable entry when she kicked both Nathan and Sam Drake’s respective asses while leading the mercenary Shoreline militia in Uncharted 4.
This installment sees Frazer and Ross team up to recover the relic du jour—Ganesh’s tusk—and rediscover the forgotten seat of the (real) Hoysala Empire in India’s Western Ghat. Their main adversary is Asav, a revolutionary who’s thinly drawn even by the standards of action games. He wants a relic, he’s gonna do evil stuff with it, you have to stop him, etc., etc. The setup will be familiar to fans of Uncharted, and indeed gamers generally. The play is, as they say, the thing.
And the play is as spectacular as it’s ever been. Uncharted has always traded on its ability to gently nudge you through a fairly linear story in a way that maintains the wondrous shock of discovery. The game’s climbing mechanic, for example, is straightforward and accomplished through a nice use of art and cinematics. You won’t see highlighted ledges but you will still gasp at the simulated athletic feats of swinging on a rope and leaping across an impossible gap. That stuff works, and it works on a visceral level. You feel the moment-to-moment thrills as keenly as ever, even as you know that there will be an entire civilization to discover.
Legacy really stands out through its set pieces. The game’s first act is dominated by an open world sequence in which you have to trigger events at towers marked by Ganesh’s trident, Shiva’s bow and the axe of Parashurama while battling Asav’s henchmen. It’s a fairly boilerplate addition to a legacy game–“Now we have open world!”–but one that dovetails nicely with the overall Uncharted aesthetic. In a game about discovery, it’s nice that the environment provides logical avenues by which to discover things that you feel like you’re not supposed to see. Though I finished the game in about seven hours, which is enough time to finish the story and not really do anything else, I could see losing seven hours more to unlocking every last secret in this segment.
What makes the game work as well as it does are the standout vocal performances from Claudia Black and Laura Bailey as, respectively, Frazer and Ross. The game is sharply written, full of weird little dialogue discovered as you’re offroading between segments of murking mercenaries, and that dialogue is carried ably by Black and Bailey. You really believe that these women are uneasy allies, then real friends, then wounded by betrayal and all the rest. We’ve reached a critical moment at which vocal performances have transcended “good for a video game” to just plain “good.” Black and Bailey have reached that loftier plateau. Besides one queasy moment on top of a waterfall, when I thought they would start kissing and take the game from charming girl power into weird Tomb Raider wet dream territory, their friendship develops in a quiet and believable way even as ruins are collapsing spectacularly around them.
More spectacular still are the moments of discovery. As I played the game, one of my friends sat beside me in rapturous silence. This would be, of course, punctuated by shouting every time we entered a spectacular new chamber during the discovery phase of the game’s second act. And those moments, even for a game as truncated as this, are plentiful. The game excels on the strength of showing you spectacular environments and then activating them by making you solve puzzles involving them. I think in particular of a pair of massive statues that you have to rappel, swing and climb across. These pieces are not window dressing; they’re major parts of the gameplay for a game that succeeds on both an aesthetic and functional level.
The final battle, in both of its stages, is frustrating but also intensely rewarding. Though the boss fight is mostly cliched and doesn’t have the same oomph as Uncharted 4’s pirate sword fight, you’ll still feel joy as you witness the game barrel toward its fiery conclusion.
The critcism that I have for Legacy is that its roots as DLC are showing–the game only came into production after Uncharted 4 and wasn’t packaged as a standalone until well along in its creative process. Though the story is just about hefty enough to merit packaging as a standalone project, the game just doesn’t do much to improve on the admittedly perfect Uncharted 4. Whereas that game was sturdy enough to stand up to great gulps of gameplay, Legacy is more of an digestif: just enough to cleanse one’s palate and prepare one for the night ahead. Hopefully—and I don’t think I’m alone in suggesting this—that night will include more Uncharted games featuring Ross and Frazer. I buy that we’re done with the Drakes’ story, but that’s no reason to leave this world behind.
Though the game is slight, fans of the series will find plenty here to love. It’s a perfect way to spend a long weekend or even just a few nights after work.