Finishing The Lost Legacy made me feel like Dudley Dursley as he sized up his pile of birthday presents in chapter two of The Philosopher’s Stone. “36! That’s two less than last year!”.
Naughty Dog has a gleaming pedigree and every game it produces is subject to impossibly high expectations. Since Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune in 2007, those expectations have been matched or exceeded by every subsequent release. This $68 standalone expansion to Uncharted 4 promised a fully-fledged Uncharted in every sense except length.
Unfortunately, The Lost Legacy ventures only three-quarters along the journey to that gemstone-encrusted goal. It feels selfishly entitled levelling any criticism at all at this coda to the Uncharted series, because its flaws only become apparent when scrutinized under the brilliant glow of its four predecessors.
It’s a shame. The Lost Legacy is a stellar story-driven action game by any metric. But it is undeniably not up to par with Uncharteds II through IV, which leaves the whole experience feeling a little deflated. For one thing, The Lost Legacy is more limited in its geographical scope than its jet-setting older siblings. Taking place almost entirely in and around India’s Western Ghats mountain range, expect to see a lot of bronzed cliffs lush with broad-leafed vegetation. Expect endless elephant statues intricately hewn from grey stone.
Don’t get me wrong, these will be absolutely the most spellbinding cliffs and trunks you have ever seen in a video game. The Lost Legacy pushes the player into near visual overload. Cascading waterfall after twilight vista after dreamlike grotto after mountainous skyline are emblazoned onto the optic nerve. It’s just that the game’s palette of colour and geometry is noticeably more limited than what its audience have grown accustomed to. This remains true – and this is key to understanding why the game feels like a bit of a letdown – even after you control for the game’s reduced runtime of around eight hours.
On that same note: as a series of still images, The Lost Legacy is as or more visually arresting than any Uncharted game. In the playing of it, however, there just fewer moving parts.
The most iconic set-pieces in Uncharted games are characterised by dynamic movement and environmental destruction. The player switches with each exhausted breath between platform traversal, gunplay and fisticuffs. A magnificent structure crumbles to dust and splinters around Drake, or the whole thing takes place on a large vehicle or even a convoy of vehicles as they rocket past a remarkably detailed backdrop. It’s all an elaborate illusion, but an undeniably effective one that manufactures momentum and tension. At its best, Uncharted feels like actively participating in a blockbuster action movie.
There’s only one significant set-piece of this kind in The Lost Legacy – the climactic sequence of the third act. It’s certainly exciting, but feels like a mish-mash of levels lifted from Uncharted II and IV. Without the fireworks, the problems that have always dogged Uncharted’s gameplay become conspicuous. The fact that climbing amounts to nothing more than pointing your control stick towards obvious handholds and thumbing the X button repeatedly. That the core gunplay is so aggressively mediocre as to be difficult to even describe in an interesting way. That the stealth gameplay feels clumsy, and Chloe rarely sticks to the section of wall that I want her to when she takes cover.
The funny thing is, it’s all exactly the same as it was in Uncharted 4 – winner of 160 Game of the Year awards in 2016. Nobody noticed (or perhaps more accurately, cared) last year or in 2009 or 2011, because every other aspect was polished up to such an astonishingly high standard.
Outisde its adrenaline-fueled set pieces, The Lost Legacy breaks down into conversational climbing sections, challenging but non-obtuse puzzles, and discrete combat arenas. Uncharted’s combat typically involves thinning out mercenary ranks by slinking through tall grass and choking out your foes until they inevitably spot you and bullets begin to fly. Here too, The Lost Legacy is tangibly worse than that which Uncharted players are used to. Its combat sections seem in general to have a little less verticality than in Uncharted 4. There are fewer options to weave stealth and platforming together and approach enemies from both above and below.
Chloe Fraser, who hasn’t shown up since Uncharted 3, is a slightly harder-edged treasure hunter than usual hero Nathan Drake. She makes an excellent protagonist, with enough of a sense of humour to spout light-hearted quips as she snaps mercenary necks, a dissonant series trademark. Most of the game has you joined by a villain of Uncharted 4. Nadine Ross, freshly having lost control of her paramilitary outfit Shoreline, is very much the po-faced pragmatist. She is the perfect counterpoint to Fraser, and their burgeoning friendship is the heart of The Lost Legacy.
Besides production values, the domain where Uncharted has always dominated its competition is writing. Admittedly, the games are heavily character-focussed. Emotional investment arises not from the unfolding mystery of the treasure-hunt, but instead from the morphing relationships between beloved characters.
Since Drake’s Fortune, the plot itself has been implausible and pulpy, which works well, serving as an unobtrusive backdrop to those relationships. That said, after five games, The Lost Legacy’s plot feels shamelessly formulaic. Here exists, as in every Uncharted game, a McGuffin to find, a smaller artifact that serves as a physical key several times along the path to that McGuffin, a comically large number of hired thugs captained by a man with anger management problems and a foreign accent, and an astonishing disrespect for critical archaeological sites.
Even with all the shortcomings described above, this Uncharted entry is undoubtedly a good game. Ultimately, the human element alone is strong enough keep players invested for the duration. The soul of Uncharted continues to be its characters; propelled into the stratosphere by the writers that conceive them, and the actors that perform both voices and motion-capture to such a consistently high standard. In a bleak parallel universe where the Uncharted series never existed, Lost Legacy as a complete package would be as enjoyable as all but the very apex of story-driven action-adventure games. As it stands today, the game feels like a good, but decidedly non-essential, epilogue to a far more exciting quadrilogy.