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Happy 10th Birthday ‘Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune’

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Hard as it is for me to believe, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune celebrates its 10th birthday this month. Ah, it seems like only yesterday I was marveling at the game’s brilliant characters, entertaining story, and incredible visuals.

To mark the occasion, I considered looking back on the series as a whole and discussing some of its defining moments. However, aside from the fact we did just that in the run up to the release of stand-alone spin-off The Lost Legacy, anyone who visits Goomba Stomp regularly will know we’ve covered Uncharted pretty extensively over the last few months.

From indies editor Katrina Lind’s excellent in-depth analysis of Drake’s Fortune, Among Thieves, Drake’s Deception, and A Thief’s End, to site founder Ricky D Fernandes’ effusive tribute to the sheer artistic beauty of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy; editor Mike Worby’s entertaining musings on the series’ future to my own ramblings on the proposed film adaptation.

That being the case, this article instead focuses solely on the progenitor; Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Specifically, how a game that, I think we can all agree, is far from perfect mechanically speaking, became one of PlayStation’s most beloved series and a standard bearer for narrative-driven action games in general.

The thing I remember most fondly about Drake’s Fortune (and perhaps every other game in the series, for that matter) is the ridiculously strong cast of characters, led by the now iconic Nathan Drake.

Superbly written and acted, Nate is that perfect balance of roguish explorer and fearless hero, whose razor-sharp tongue, resourcefulness, and surprisingly powerful intellect make him an utterly compelling and likable protagonist; despite the fact that, by the end of the game, his membership to the guild of mass murderers is all but assured.

As engaging as Nate is, however, it’s his interactions with Sully and Elena that make playing Drake’s Fortune so enjoyable.

Nate’s morally questionable mentor, Sully almost immediately establishes himself as one of gaming’s finest supporting characters, with his charming personality, easy-going demeanor, seemingly endless supply of cigars, and penchant for sexual innuendo. I’d even go so far as to say Sully’s at his best in Drake’s Fortune, simply because, knowing little about his past, his loyalty to Nate is, initially, far from certain. It gives his character an additional layer of depth; an edge that, though gradually smoothed away later in the series as it becomes clear he’s earned Nate’s trust, makes the old rogue that much more lovable.

Elena, meanwhile – appearing at a time when most women in video games tended to be depicted as the archetypal damsel in distress (Mario’s Princess Peach, Resi 4’s Ashley etc.) or an overtly sexualized male fantasy (Lara Croft) – was a breath of fresh air. Tough, intelligent, and governed by her own motivations rather than simply following the lead of her male counterpart, Elena was the first in a succession of strong female characters, paving the way for the likes of Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross.

Admittedly, the villains aren’t particularly memorable by comparison. Neither Gabriel Roman nor Navarro offer much more than standard villain fare in terms of their goals, and thus can’t compete with the likes of A Thief’s End’s Rafe Adler or The Lost Legacy’s Asav. Aside from Eddy Raja, that is.

He wasn’t exactly threatening; as anyone who’s played the game will know, Eddy very much fits the mold of inept yet inexplicably confident and ostentatious, comic relief antagonist. Nevertheless, he was both highly entertaining and an excellent foil to the competent and assured Nathan Drake.

Of course, it helps that these wonderful characters are part of a good old fashioned, Indiana Jones-style adventure story; one that, crucially, has a greater level of complexity than many of the games and films that have tried to capture the spirit of Spielberg’s classic trilogy (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a bad dream, right?) since the 1980s.

Nathan Drake himself, for instance, isn’t simply a mercenary looking to make a quick buck selling his ill-gotten treasure on the black market, or a squeaky-clean paragon of virtue seeking to preserve the world’s ancient artifacts for future generations. He’s something in between these two extremes. Nate is certainly hoping to earn some money for his endeavors – which is only fair, given the number of Nazi-zombie-beast hybrids he has to put down over the course of his adventure – but it quickly becomes apparent his main reason for wanting to uncover the secrets of El Dorado is to vindicate and add to the legend of his spurious ancestor, Sir Francis Drake.

Aside from the character of Nate himself, Naughty Dog’s handling of the game’s supernatural elements display a similar level of subtlety and class that’s not always observable in comparable adventure stories. True, vague hints as to the true nature of El Dorado and the forthcoming supernatural twist appear at regular intervals during the course of the game, but it’s not until the last few chapters that these disparate elements come together. As a result, the sense of mystery is preserved for far longer, increasing the effectiveness of the big reveal in chapter 17.

That’s not to say Drake’s Fortune is a flawless example of modern video game storytelling. The similarities between it and the aforementioned Indiana Jones franchise can’t be ignored, while, as stated above, primary antagonist Gabriel Roman’s motivations are pretty unimaginative. Yet, despite the presence of such common elements as Nazis, inexplicably well-preserved and efficacious ancient traps, and a ruthless villain whose only concern is money, Naughty Dog manages to construct a relentlessly compelling narrative that, though not completely original in tone or content, never feels truly derivative either.

Moreover, it provided a solid narrative foundation on which the rest of the series was built. We didn’t pick up Uncharted 2: Among Thieves for its gameplay mechanics, after all; it was to enjoy another one of Nate’s thrilling tales, reunite with some old friends, and enjoy an array of stunning vistas.

Indeed, although it’s easy to forget when comparing the PS3 original with modern titles like Forza Motorsport 7 and Horizon Zero Dawn, Drake’s Fortune was a visually stunning game by 2007’s standards.

My 18-year-old eyes were astounded by the cutting-edge graphics: the character models which, at the time, looked almost photo-realistic; the parade of wonderfully rich, vibrant environments; the incredibly detailed, and distinctive textures that brought these locations to life.

Every new location was a feast for the eyes. From the derelict 16th century Spanish buildings Nate and Elena explore either side of the game’s laborious jet ski sections; to the dark, dank, rubble-strewn corridors of the secret Nazi bunker the pair find themselves trapped in during chapter 18 and, my personal favorite, the lush jungle environments of South America, in which much of the action takes place.

The dazzling color and evocative sound effects, the detailed textures, the interaction between the characters and the terrain; every inch of in-game geography left me in awe of the power of the infant PS3. I vividly remember, for example, how impressed I was when, shortly after witnessing Nate emerge from a waist-deep pool of water for the first time, only the lower half of his body showed signs of recent submersion. Pretty innocuous by modern standards, certainly, but for me, at the time, it symbolized how far the industry had come in just a few short years and how far it would eventually go as video game technology continued to evolve.

Now, I realize that, thus far, I’ve barely mentioned gameplay. In fact, aside from labeling it as unspectacular in the intro, I’ve not mentioned it at all. The combat and parkour mechanics are, I think it’s both fair and accurate to say, the least impressive aspect of the game.

That being said, Drake’s Fortune still offers players plenty of entertaining set-pieces to enjoy, albeit smaller-scale versions of the cinematic sequences that would come to define the series.

Nate’s desperate chase to stop Navarro escaping with El Dorado (spoilers: turns out, rather than an ancient city made of gold, El Dorado is a large, ornately carved golden sarcophagus filled with some sort of nefarious gas) at the game’s climax is a good example. Though not as gloriously over-the-top as the train or cruise ship sequences from Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception respectively, it captures the spirit of both. It’s tense; it’s hectic; it’s interrupted by waves of low-level grunts who don’t seem to appreciate the urgency of the situation; and it culminates in a desperate, last-ditch display of heroism during which Nate disregards his own safety for the greater good.

It’s not the only one, of course. The plane crash that marks the end of chapter 3 bears all the hallmarks of a traditional Uncharted action scene, complete with witty one-liners and a conspicuous lack of serious injuries, while the car chase at the beginning of chapter 7 provides a spot of simple, mindless fun; a welcome distraction from the trickier free running sections and the more tedious shoot outs.

Even the jet ski sequences, bad as they are, had one redeeming quality: they made Naughty Dog understand that the hitherto obligatory video game water level was somewhat passé in 2007 and should thus be removed from all future sequels.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune might be the weakest title in the series, but it is nonetheless a fantastic game in its own right, with its immersive story, wonderful cast, and astounding last-gen visuals.

More importantly, it provided the blueprint for the rest of the series, helping Naughty Dog understand how best to refine some of the game’s deficient elements and turn  Uncharted into one of the medium’s most popular modern franchises. For this reason alone, Drake’s Fortune earns its place in the video game hall of fame.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.

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Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 

Dark-Souls-Remastered-Darkroot-Garden

The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

Dark Souls

The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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