Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is proof the series still has room to grow
Warning: This article discusses major spoilers for Uncharted: Lost Legacy and minor spoilers for the rest of the series.
It's hard to forget Uncharted 4 was supposed to be the last Uncharted game. It's called A Thief's End, after all, and Naughty Dog repeatedly declared the 2016 sequel to be the franchise's final entry. After Nathan Drake's definitive farewell launched to critical acclaim, all the studio had to do was wrap the project up in the neat bow that is post-release DLC and the decade-old franchise could be laid to rest. Unfortunately for the developers, when their ambition caused that standalone expansion to balloon into a full-length game, the studio made a wonderful mistake: they'd accidentally breathed new life into the franchise for which they'd worked so hard to dig a grave.
There's a reason so many accepted 2016 as the year Uncharted should die: there was little left to mine from the adventures of Nathan Drake, who was synonymous with the series. Naughty Dog had already plumbed much deeper emotional depths with The Last of Us three years before, so why linger in Nate's pulpy fantasy land? By 2016, we'd outgrown Uncharted. Or at least, we outgrew Uncharted as we knew it. Because when the studio introduced Uncharted: Lost Legacy and asked, "What if the series focused on the underserved Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross instead of Nate?", we couldn't have known the answer would be "full of rich, series-redefining characterization."
Lost Legacy's greatest strength is how quickly it lets players get to know Chloe and Nadine as the three-dimensional, idiosyncratic people audiences always suspected they were. By the fifth chapter, we know Chloe as a clever, openly duplicitous treasure hunter whose grief and misgivings about her late father make it difficult for her to identify with her Indian heritage. We know Nadine as the former leader of a private army who's too consumed by duty and needing to prove herself to let go of her painful past.
As charming as Nathan Drake could be in his own games, there wasn't much to him. His adventures were fun, but he isn't memorable. Go ahead; try to make him sound unique. You can't.
Lost Legacy's greatest strength is how quickly it lets players get to know Chloe and Nadine as the three-dimensional, idiosyncratic people audiences always suspected they were.
Thinking back on the first two Uncharted games, the most complex thing I can recall about Nate is that he likes to steal treasure. He's also fond of his new girlfriend Elena and an older thief named Sully. If I consider the third game, I could add that Nate learned to steal as an orphan... which is also when he met Sully! If I look at A Thief's End (directed by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley after they took over for creator Amy Hennig), there's considerably more depth added to Nate's backstory, though it's all built upon the shallowness of what came before.
To be fair, Nate is just as charismatic as his reputation claims. He's charming, quick-witted and a genuine joy to control… but like any showman worth his salt, there isn't much beneath that loveable outer layer, even in Uncharted 4. Druckmann and fellow writer Josh Scherr could only retcon so many excellently written long-lost brothers into that game while honoring everything fans already knew about their favorite nondescript treasure hunter. A Thief's End's central conflict was anchored in Nate loving treasure hunting too much, which is a fascinating deconstruction of his simple character, but it hardly makes him relatable. In Lost Legacy, Chloe's emotional struggle is compelling simply because it feels grounded in the psyche of a real person. Her problems exist beyond her treasure hunting, despite those being intertwined.
Lost Legacy goes so far with this improved characterization that it even arguably fixes the series' famous "ludonarrative dissonance" problem. Yes, this half-sized, one-off Uncharted finally provides plausible motivation for why a band of good-hearted treasure hunters would gun down thousands of men: for the love of family and its ties to cultural heritage.
Not unlike Nathan Drake, Chloe's father was an obsessed treasure hunter. Unlike Nate, he was set on delivering his uncovered treasure to the Indian government, presumably for the preservation of history and cultural honor. Asav, Lost Legacy's antagonist, has no regard for history or Indian culture despite his intimate knowledge of it. He hoards and sells precious artifacts to fund his rebellion. The final act makes clear Asav has no reverence for the people of India at all (despite his desire to destabilize the government and take over the country) as he trades the fabled Tusk of Ganesh for a massive bomb to blow up a city and spark a civil war.
Chloe's identity is crucial to the conflict of Lost Legacy, and that's something we've rarely been able to say about anybody named Drake.
Not only does Asav want to steal Chloe's treasure, he wants to destroy the culture she's struggled so hard to reconnect with. Unlike in the previous Uncharted games, the protagonist guns down enemies as a fighter in an ideology-fueled war, instead of simply in pursuit of shiny treasure. Chloe's identity is crucial to the conflict of Lost Legacy, and that's something we've rarely been able to say about anybody named Drake.
When Hennig kicked things off with Drake's Fortune in 2007, Uncharted was ahead of its time in terms of graphical fidelity and characterization through performance. Drake's tangible charm was new, impressive and enough for its era. More importantly, the writing of that first game (and the rest of Hennig's trilogy) was tonally pitch perfect for the studio's intended "modern day Indiana Jones" vibe. But that fun formula could only be spread so thin across so many games, especially when storytelling in the medium would advance so rapidly in the next ten years.
By Drake's Deception, the titular protagonist was no longer breaking much new ground. Perhaps that's why Druckmann seemed an appealing candidate to draw out every last ounce of character from Nate before The Last of Us eclipsed his series as Naughty Dog's staple franchise. And Uncharted 4 did a hell of a job of trying to bring Nate, Elena, and crew up to Ellie and Joel's standard, despite never quite overcoming their archetypal roots.
Druckmann and Scherr's most important work here wouldn't just be modernizing Nate's still-stale story. It would be handing this more grounded blueprint to Lost Legacy directors Shaun Escayg and Kurt Margenau to write something new. In having to meet Druckmann's higher standard of character-driven drama while being freed of Nate's dead storytelling weight, creative director Escayg (with Scherr) proved there could be a richer future for former side characters like Chloe and Nadine. If Uncharted 4 was the first post-Last of Us Uncharted game, Lost Legacy is the first entry able to exercise the lesson that protagonists can be more than just walking archetypes.
Lost Legacy's narrative success aside, we know that if Uncharted does have a future, Naughty Dog won't be the ones to explore it. It's too early to know if, how, or when the series will be continued, but Escayg and Margenau have incidentally created a hell of a proof-of-concept for whoever Sony would let continue these Drake-less adventures.
I find it fascinating that in 2016, Uncharted's impending death was a foregone conclusion. Barely over a year later, thanks to a successful side project, some of us are readier for another Uncharted than ever. Uncharted: Lost Legacy and the strides it makes through improved characterization show that maybe we never really outgrew Uncharted. Maybe Uncharted just outgrew Nathan Drake.