Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune Review: Ain’t No Fortunate One

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune strikes me as Naughty Dog’s coming of age project. Though the Santa Monica based studio has been around for over 20 years, most of their games have been cartoony, lighthearted platformers with little in the way of story. So it is sort of weird playing a serious action-adventure game in the vein of Indiana Jones from the same folks who brought us Crash Bandicoot.

That doesn’t mean that Uncharted is completely different from the studio’s earlier efforts; the DNA strands of Naughty Dog’s PS1 and PS2 classics are clearly here. But the game struggles to find a good balance of combat and character throughout. Uncharted ends up as a good launchpad for a series of globe trotting adventures, despite being a mess in terms of gameplay.

We open with treasure hunting protagonist Nathan Drake and broadcast reporter Elena Fisher reeling in a coffin from the Panamanian Coast floor. The box supposedly holds Sir Francis Drake’s remains, and Nate believes himself to be one of the Elizabethan privateer’s descendants. But when Nate and Elena crack open the casket, there is nothing but Sir Francis’s diary. Drake is elated, for this diary records all of Sir Francis’s adventures and treasures; namely, the location of El Dorado. Just like Raiders of the Lost Ark however, there is another faction vying for Drake’s diary. A competing treasure hunter named Gabriel Roman sends a legion of pirates after Nate, Elena, and their money obsessed partner Sully to capture the diary and find El Dorado.

And so opens the 8-10 hour adventure wherein you’ll shoot countless pirates, navigate through swamps, jungles, and ancient ruins, and watch some of the best cutscenes in the business. For a game released in 2007, Uncharted still looks good, with some great facial and motion captured animation. There are tons of little effects on display like Nate’s shirt only getting wet up to the point where water actually touches it instead of a binary wet or not wet state. It’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s visual artists and programmers that this game still holds up in purely graphical terms.

But, as the old nerd’s proverb tells time and time again, graphics do not a good game make. Back when it was originally released, Uncharted dropped right in the middle of the post-Gears of War boom of third-person, cover based shooters that altered the course of the genre. And at least it tries to hit all mechanics that Gears did. Hit a button to stick to cover? Check. Two weapon slots plus a grenade? Yep. Rolling dodge move and ability to vault over cover points to the next cover point? Done and done.

Beyond the initial layer of imitation, Uncharted’s gameplay fails to capitalize on anything further. Enemy encounters are stacked stupidly against the player; dozens of pirates will flood from a single point, and when they are all taken care of, another wave comes out to beleaguer the player to the point of frustration. These enemies start easy enough, perhaps taking more shots than you’d like, but it isn’t too hard to get the upper hand. But somewhere around the second half of the game, enemies become Herculean in their ability to take and deal punishment. Ammo becomes scarce at the same time, making any missed shot a severe blow to your progression.

These factors aren’t insurmountable individually, but the last third of the game starts to join them in a sort of perverse concert. A late game encounter in a cathedral stacks nearly a dozen enemies with one-shot-kill weapons against Nate and Sully. Banish any notion from your head that Sully may support you; like so many other games, his AI doesn’t include being able to do anything other than wisecrack occasionally. It has been a long time since I’ve had to put the game on “Easy” difficulty because I could not progress through some fights. But no matter how conservatively I played, the pirates nearly always had an advantage. I seriously contemplated putting the game down for good at many points.

There is also a startling amount of ludonarrative dissonance in Uncharted. Nate is supposed to be the flawed, but good-hearted protagonist, but he also kills hundreds of people in order to plunder ruins and temples. The mechanical ability that the player has at their fingertips is in stark contrast to Nate’s everyman image that the story conveys. He is always on the cusp of danger, but never incurs any damage or consequences. This wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable if the characters weren’t so well written and acted. As it is though, It felt strange killing every brown person in sight and then segueing into a cutscene where Nate is cracking wise.

Despite this, I found myself compelled to finish Uncharted because of the characters and the popcorn flick, action-adventure vibe; Elena and Sully are great supporting characters, and Nate is as charming a rogue as any. Elena is particularly noteworthy for being a really strong female lead. At no point did she feel like a damsel in distress or a hopeless fawn; she knows how to take care of herself, and tells the player as much. The game’s story did start to lose me in the final chapters due to an ill conceived supernatural twist. The game forces you to fight against mutated Nazi-Gollums for nearly two hours, and it just feels out of place. Not only are those enemies overpowered, but they break down what was up to that point a semi-believable storyline.

Another area of Uncharted that just doesn’t have quite enough polish is the climbing and platforming elements. Sure, I got a little rush of nostalgia when the camera pulled in front of Nate and forced a Crash Bandicoot-esque running sequence. But I also found myself frequently missing jumps even when I was squared exactly in front of a ledge. It is also difficult to differentiate what is a grabbable ledge and what isn’t. It isn’t always an issue, but it happens enough to add just a hint more annoyance on top of the gunplay.

Uncharted is definitely a product of the early years of this console generation, and has not aged well. So many other games have done gunplay and linear platforming better in recent years that it is hard to make it through. Everything but the story and characters could’ve used just a few more months of refinement and attention. To be fair, this game is dirt cheap now, but bad gameplay is bad gameplay regardless of price. I would recommend just watching this edited version of the game’s cutscenes and skip to Uncharted 2. You’ll save yourself about six hours time and lots of frustration if you do.

Dark Souls Review: Memento Mori

Talk to nearly anyone about a video game, and the ever-present question will come up: is it fun? For some, the answer may be a simple yes or no. Others may delve into details and the nerdery associated with such in-depth analysis (myself included). But how many times has someone told you that a game was painful? That for every moment of joy exists orders of magnitude more suffering?

Dark Souls is that game. Dropped into an unforgiving world with only steel and shield, the player soon realizes just how bleak a virtual world can be. Developer From Software has constructed some of the most harrowing, but austerely beautiful castles, caverns, and creatures ever to grace a video game. Conquering these obstacles results in some of the purest satisfaction that interactive entertainment offers, but doing so will take a toll on your patience.

As a chosen undead warrior, you are tasked with rekindling the flame of the Lordran realm by eliminating arch-demons and ringing the Bells of Awakening. Outside of an opening cutscene telling you all this, there is hardly any plot in Dark Souls, but there is plenty of atmosphere. Dialogue is delivered with a distinct creepiness by nearly every NPC, making the world feel unwelcoming. Music is eschewed for sounds of enemies breathing heavily around corners. You start to feel a sort of dread in every area of the game.

This mood mixes well with a running theme permeating Dark Souls: restriction. Using a precious health potion? Well don’t plan on moving out of the way of an incoming attack while you do so. Resting at one of the game’s sparse checkpoints? Have fun fighting through the enemies that just respawned. Summoning in another player online to help you through a tough boss fight? First you’ll have to deal with mercenary players known as “phantoms” who can invade your world to take your souls (experience points).

This Newtonian “equal and opposite” design can be immensely frustrating, but establishes a pace that just isn’t seen in many video games. You must slow down, observe what is around you, and take into consideration how your actions are going to both negatively and positively affect your character. It is very refreshing compared to the usual kill-everything-that-moves-right-now design that too many games follow.

The driving currency that you’ll chase is souls. Souls double as both money for buying much needed weapons, shields, and consumables and experience points to level up with. Leveling up is of paramount importance and always feels like it is pushing the scales back in your favor. After slogging through dozens of undead soldiers and massive bosses, plugging some points into your health, stamina, or any of the other stats gives a very slight advantage. Unfortunately, dying sends you back to the last bonfire checkpoint and you drop your souls where you perished. Die again without picking them up, and they’re gone forever.

Designs like this show how From Software is more than willing to slap the player around and make them uncertain. Another example: much of the game’s loot is stashed in wooden chests. Sounds simple enough, until some chests snap you into their jaws as you open them.

The developers also had a heyday with enemy and boss designs. The farther you get into this seemingly dulled world, the bigger and nastier enemies seem to get. A huge taurus monster swings a hammer with a tornado-wake of debris, smashing even the stoutest shield aside. Colossal dragons and demons are even worse, with one shot kill attacks that can only be dodged with skill and a bit of luck. This is one of Dark Souls’ greatest problems. I understand that hideous monsters are powerful, but getting killed over and over only to respawn twenty minutes back at the bonfire (read: checkpoint) is egregious.

Some of the frustration of dying is alleviated by the wonder imbued into the ruins and caverns of the land. At first, the grayish green hue of the world and simple castle walls don’t inspire much exploration, but Dark Souls really does has a surprisingly large color palette and architectural aesthetic: an otherworldly, blue crystal cave and a massive, winding library being examples of both. The sense of scale in the realm of Lordan is also amazing, with wide vistas showing the interconnected areas that lie ahead. Looking over an entire area that I’d already fought through from a high parapet was very satisfying.

Unfortunately, the journey to get to these high places is often not so satisfying. Again, death comes swiftly, and Dark Souls’ combat is going to polarize players. You’ll either get into the hard swinging, shield banging melee, or you’ll just hate having to block all the time. Me? I stand on the side that enjoys the methodical brutality of this game. Weapons swing out slower than in other action games, but they also hit harder. Get the right weapon in your hands and you’ll find that you are incredibly capable of taking out lesser and even some greater foes. An awkward looking dodge roll seems silly at first, but proves crucial in keeping your health bar intact.

All this is great until you encounter some of the more boneheaded designs that the developers came up with. Too often you’ll run into unblockable attacks, enemy grapple moves that drain far too much health, and some demons that can semi-permanently curse your health bar down to half. They all drag down Dark Souls with needless frustration, but he first two feel particularly cheap. I had several boss fights end within ten seconds because I got locked into a grapple that ripped all my health away instantly.

So can I recommend this insanity to people? I don’t know. I was hooked on the game for over 30 hours, but I often ended play sessions with cursing and yelling. Stress and satisfaction are intertwined into the very design of Dark Souls, and your triumph at conquering an area will probably be preceded and followed by plenty of cheap deaths. A rental may help you decide if you are ready for the task.