Despite being intended as merely a downloadable expansion for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, since being promoted to a half-price, standalone release, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy has established itself as the rubric for a brighter future of the franchise that is free of Nathan Drake, his brooding backstory and personal dramas, and the relentless padding of his overlong, overrated games.
That isn’t a controversial opinion. The Uncharted games are good, and have periodically flirted with excellence, but they have never been the masterpieces that critical acclaim and corporate pride suggested they were. The Lost Legacy returns the series to its insouciant, knowingly pulpy roots with an experience that is half as long and twice as focused; a low-stakes adventure that retains its parent game’s engine and remarkable production value, and developer Naughty Dog’s extremely high standard of character writing and set-piece design. This is the best complete Uncharted experience, and the first to finally realise that the least interesting aspect of Nathan Drake’s tropical excursions has always been Nathan Drake himself.
In Nate’s absence, his occasional partner, rival and love interest, Chloe Frazer, has been promoted to the role of playable protagonist. Her seductive Aussie purr is delivered by Claudia Black, but her personality is the product of writers Shaun Escayg and Josh Scherr, who have softened her spiky, untrustworthy edges by giving her a personal connection to this game’s MacGuffin and setting. The doo-dad is the Tusk of Ganesh, a fabled artefact of a lost Hindu people that’s also being pursued by another forgettable warlord villain, Asav, who is in the midst of a brutal insurrection. Chloe’s Indian heritage and deceased treasure-hunting father tie her closely to the treasure and the plight of the people whose future is being threatened by the raging civil war.
As a partner and foil, Chloe is handed Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey), the South African mercenary from the previous game – and it’s an odd, initially perplexing storytelling choice to recast a villain in a supporting role that would typically be occupied by a character like Chloe. Players don’t have much history with her, and when she first appears in the game, it’s obvious she’d rather not be there. But her seriousness nicely offsets Chloe’s jokey, sarcastic demeanour, and their respective arcs are handled well. They of course intersect at the usual points of dislike, professional respect, mutual disappointment and then, finally, wary friendship, but both characters are individually dealing with personal anxieties that are atypical of this franchise. Chloe’s attempting to reconcile her innate selfishness with a responsibility to her family and people; Nadine’s frustration with the war-for-hire business is forcing her to discover a line of work that is less cynical, and less exploitative of innocent people.
Black and Bailey play these two women with a lot of understatement, and the sparse plot, which is thankfully uncomplicated by conspiracy and mysticism, foregrounds their relationship. It isn’t unusual for personalities to clash in Uncharted, but it’s usually in the played-out contexts of romantic entanglement (Drake and Elena), surrogate parenthood (Drake and Sully), or familial reconciliation (Drake and Sam). Chloe and Nadine’s burgeoning friendship feels less typical but more organic, and it helps that the story they’re wrapped up in is comparatively modest. There are lives at stake, but not the world itself, and the Hindu pantheon gives Naughty Dog a lot of rich materials with which to build their usual ruins, temples, vistas, and detonating locomotives.
Very little has been added or changed since Uncharted 4, but luckily Uncharted 4 was a very solid and well-rounded action game. Climbing through old ruins and up mountainsides is once again enlivened by the rope mechanic, and once again simplified by naturalistic animations and visual design that ensure it’s always clear which objects are climbable, and whether it’s safe to jump towards them. Melee combat is still unrefined, incorporating multiple buttons (one for striking, one for dodging, and another for countering) and imprecise timing, but still makes for moments of great visual spectacle, and segues nicely into and out of the gunplay, which is much the same as it always has been, but made more flexible and less attritional thanks to larger arenas. Like the previous game, The Lost Legacy flirts with welcome though rudimentary line-of-sight stealth and a modest free-roaming element that is here best exemplified in an open early-game region called the Western Ghats, which Chloe and Nadine navigate in a jeep with the help of a gradually-updated map. The mandatory puzzles are still laughably easy, but the optional ones found in the Ghats are the trickiest they’ve ever been.
Naughty Dog have bragged about the size of the Western Ghats region, but the best thing about it – aside from the visual touches such as the nicks and scratches on Chloe’s hands whenever she pulls out the map – is that it’s relatively small in open-world terms. It’s bigger than any previous Uncharted level, sure, but it’s still relatively constrained, and offers players a handful of side objectives that don’t feel like busywork to complete. This is the game’s best area, and the one most representative of how The Lost Legacy emulates the series’ scope while removing it’s unnecessary padding.
For all The Lost Legacy’s improvements in tightening the quintessential Uncharted experience and providing more interesting lead characters and relationships to pull you through it, it’s still beholden to the usual mix of gameplay, clichés and habitual story beats. There’s a bust-up with a piece of military hardware. The villain and the heroes race to and from various locations; at one point the villain kidnaps the heroes to have them solve a puzzle for him. Ledges give way at the last moment. This is the formula that all Uncharted games have adhered to, and this one is no different. It might be unreasonable to expect anything more from what is essentially a glorified piece of DLC, but this series’ blend of shooting, platforming and puzzle-solving has always gotten repetitive, and The Lost Legacy doesn’t do enough to dispel any ideas that the core experience isn’t worn-out and in need of a break.
What it does do, though, is deliver the highlights of an Uncharted game with welcome economy. Thanks to the shorter-than-usual running time, the story has just enough space to develop the characters without labouring over the point; the mechanics are allowed room to breathe without their use becoming tiresome, or their lack of depth being exposed too severely; the plot delivers a reveal, reaches a crescendo (the finale is a stunning reimagining of one of the franchise’s most iconic set-pieces) and then briskly, satisfyingly wraps itself up. I don’t know Naughty Dog’s plans for the future of Uncharted, and if they never return to it, I can’t say I’ll miss Nathan Drake. But I’ll miss Chloe and Nadine and all the flippant, scaled-back adventures they might have had without him.