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10 Years Later: ‘Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’ Is Naughty Dog’s Most Important Treasure

‘Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’ skyrocketed Naughty Dog to its modern-day pedestal and has become by far the developer’s most important release to date.

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“I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed…” 

– Marco Polo on his deathbed.

Seeing Nathan Drake, Elena Fisher, and Victor Sullivan ride a boat into the sunset with a jackpot of Spanish plunder from El Dorado seemed like a perfect place to end off the story of the fortune-hunting heir to Sir Francis Drake back in 2007. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was considered Naughty Dog’s magnum opus after the standalone entry in PlayStation’s first-party later to be franchise released to critical acclaim and blockbuster sales that immediately sent the game into direct sequel territory.

There was one major lesson that Sony Interactive Entertainment should have learned after the groundbreaking Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter trilogies helped establish the PlayStation name during the previous two console generations; give Naughty Dog an even larger budget than before and the standards for action-adventure games will be pushed to a higher bar. As if the original Uncharted‘s thrust towards a technologically advanced future of games was not enough, the house that the marsupial built was prepared for round two during an age of young developer innovation.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves skyrocketed Naughty Dog to its modern-day pedestal and has become by far the developer’s most important release to date. The sequel became a precursor to the golden years of Naughty Dog by opening the gateway of opportunity that would later spring their most acclaimed spectacles, The Last of Us and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Naughty Dog embarked on a journey to become an entertainment creator whose games could rival the most popular adventure titles. Now 10 years later, Among Thieves is the reason Uncharted and Naughty Dog stand among the gaming industry’s highest standards for both game design and storytelling.

Breaking and Entering a New Age For The Industry

“Oh, crap.”

The opening chapter of Uncharted 2, ‘A Rock and a Hard Place,’ instantly sets the stage for part of what Naughty Dog had been attempting to demonstrate with their sequel. The developers were striving to break the proverbial gaming standards of action-adventure games by building massive ongoing edge of your seat cinematic set-pieces that players would feel a part of due to interactive moments involving quick-thinking climbing and satisfying gunplay.

Although the developers were already creating incredible action scenarios in Drake’s Fortune, no other game was slightly comparable to the technological marvel that the sequel presented in its mere opening minutes. The iconic derailed train sequence saw players escaping a cliffside in the Himalayas after Nathan Drake mysteriously wakes up to only the sounds of high winds and the feeling of laying on his back. The deceptive opening makes players believe that Nate was previously in trouble only to reveal that he is still stuck in trauma as the protagonist clings on for life moments away from falling through the back end of a collapsing railroad car.

Scenarios on a massive scope such as this were only possible thanks to Naughty Dog’s deep knowledge of the PlayStation 3’s internal architecture inherited through time spent with the first entry. Drake’s Fortune had previously only made use of a shy 30% of the Cell’s SPU’s that the system could potentially pump out; which provides realistic environments and animations. Naughty Dog’s lead designers, including head writer Amy Hennig, insisted on using the entire 70% left over for their sequel to create the most ambitious atmospheres to date in a game. Even by today’s standards scenes such as Uncharted 2‘s Nepal section still holds up to most modern games.

Desperate Times

Uncharted 2

“Oh, is that an ancient Tibetan ritual dagger in your pocket?”

The most important aspect of what made Uncharted into the massive franchise it is today was, of course, the characters that have become leading icons of the PlayStation brand, derived from an incredibly heartfelt and comedic script written by Amy Hennig, Neil Druckman, and Josh Scherr. The writers aimed to solidify a stronger feeling of adventure in the second story for the player while continuing to explore a previously established cast that could become just as memorable as those featured in adventure movies like the Indiana Jones trilogy.

The idea of Uncharted 2 was to create a globe-trotting adventure featuring a revolving cast of companions rather than having a group of characters who settle down in one stationary location. Instead of focusing on a remote location in South America containing El Dorado, Uncharted’s sequel saw the cast travel from Borneo to Nepal and even the Himalayas, allowing the player to see a variety of locations as Nate attempts to track down the Chintamani stone with the help of a group of old friends before the war-mongering criminal Lezaravic, and his previous thieving partner Harry Flynn, can gain eternal life.

Nolan North, Richard McGonagal, and Emily Rose returned to reprise their roles as the wise-cracking and captivating trio that was Nate, Sully, and Elena with the help of what was considered revolutionary motion capture at the time. While Sully did not appear for the majority of the game, during the time he is present the improv done between North and McGonagal throughout gameplay became the highlight dialogue interactions for many fans once again. Meanwhile, Nate and Elena’s complicated relationship would further be explored for the majority of their time spent together searching through Asia, after both characters unexpectedly split before the events of Among Thieves.

Fun fact: Chloe Fraser’s odd position during the meeting scene was not a design choice made by the animators. Actor Claudia Black naturally keeps her feet posed inwards while sitting.

Female fortune hunter, Chloe Fraser, played by Claudia Black, debuted as a second love interest to Nate, but the character quickly went on to be a self-served, independent treasure hunter who could even rival the protagonist. Chloe became so beloved by both Naughty Dog and the fans over time that not only would she be guaranteed a role in the sequel Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, but she would also later go on to be the star of the only current Uncharted spin-off that does not feature Nathan Drake, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy.

Keeping The Adventure Moving

Uncharted 2

“Any chance this is sector nineteen?”

While Uncharted 2 continued to build on the third-person cover-based shooter gameplay of Drake’s Fortune, besides refining firing mechanics through a more flexible camera, flashier hand to hand combat, and adjusted climbing controls the game’s sense of scale truly was the upgrade players received. There are still 101 collectible treasures to find throughout the game’s new locations and tons of extra nonsensical post-playthrough gameplay tweaks that can be used under the ‘bonuses’ section, but overall the snappier and swift gameplay updates have never been the series’ core focus.

The stories of Uncharted are the most important pieces of Naughty Dog’s quest to greatness. The addicting gameplay and meticulous puzzles are highlights for many people, but the Hollywood script and scenarios, on top of a strikingly realistic feeling cast that started with Among Thieves, is what built Naughty Dog into the studio it is today. The story and everyone placed in it is what fans cared — and still care — about the most from the developer’s games now. Nate, Elena, Sully, and Chloe became major action hero names because of the grand spectacle Among Thieves delivered on.

The game’s characters inspired an entire generation of third-person story-based games from both independent and triple-A developers, including Naughty Dog’s own Neil Druckman who went on to write The Last of Us after Uncharted 2 went gold. Without Nathan Drake’s cinematic journey to claim the Chintamani Stone from Shambala, the genre of action-adventure games would look entirely different compared to today’s landscape. All of the developer’s future projects have Among Thieves to thank for their existence.

Naughty Dog helped lead the charge to a future of cinematically engaging games and today they are still doing so because of the legacy they created shortly after Among Thieves‘ launch. Whether you are playing on your original release copy or The Nathan Drake Collection remaster, Uncharted 2 still shows how Naughty Dog became the leader of PlayStation’s storytellers through their most important treasure.

Journalist major and part-time film writer. I have always held high interests in the fields of professional writing and communications. You can find me with my head deep in the espionage genre, on a collectathon, or in a kayak upstream. I’ll always be first in line for the next Hideo Kojima or Masahiro Sakurai game.

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‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season

Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.

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atelier ryza

The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.

Ryza starting her alchemy journey.

Like a Warm Blanket

Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.

The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.

The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.

The titular Atelier Ryza.

An Intimate Take on Storytelling

Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.

It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.

The town drunk and Lent's father, Samuel.

Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.

The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.

Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.

Atelier Ryza

Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’

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PAX South

This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.

Tunic

Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.

Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.

All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.

Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.

Foregone

Foregone

These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”

Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.

If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.

And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.

The Artful Escape

Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.

As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.

It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.

This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.

For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.

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PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love

A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

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Boyfriend Dungeon

In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.

Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.

There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.

“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

Boyfriend Dungeon

My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.

“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.

The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Boyfriend Dungeon

I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”

Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”

After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.  

Boyfriend Dungeon

Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”

Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.

An arcade environment

“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”

The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”

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