— The following post contains spoilers.
A Thief’s End.
One of these things is not like the others.
2007's Drake's Fortune and 2009's Among Thieves were action-packed adventures elevated to greatness by well-told stories and fantastic characters. They were fun, engaging, and made players fall in love with Nate, Elena, Sully, and their cast of cohorts. Then, in 2011, Uncharted 3 came along and revealed that there was depth to the tale. Things weren’t quite as they seemed; our hero hadn’t led a charmed life. He had a troubled past, secrets kept even from his friends. Even his relationship with Elena wasn’t as perfect as it might have appeared when the credits rolled on his previous adventure.
But, despite its depth, Uncharted 3 was still a game very much in the vein of its predecessors, still the over-the-top adventure players had come to expect from PlayStation’s leading man.
It's long-awaited sequel, however, takes things down a notch. Those over-the-top moments are still to be found in Uncharted 4, but the context around them has shifted. Nate’s latest — and final — outing feels, to use that most overused of overused descriptions, more 'grounded' than those that came before.
It’s this shift in tone that sets A Thief’s End apart — and that makes it my favourite of the lot.
I realise that statement might cause eyes to roll, that some might think I’m jumping the gun, seeing A Thief’s End through rose-tinted glasses because it’s something new and fresh. But that’s just not the case. I’ve written before about how it usually takes time for me to warm up to new entries in series I love, about how there’s usually a period of uncertainty before I can decide if I like the new as much as the old, and just as that wasn’t the case with the game I was writing about then, so too was it not the case with Uncharted 4. First time through, I knew exactly how I felt about A Thief’s End — and subsequent playthroughs have done nothing to change that.
I’m not, however, going to tell you that it’s a perfect game. I do have issues with it, and some of them are quite significant.
One of those issues is the models for returning characters. We should recognise them, feel like we’re being reunited with old friends when they appear on the screen, but, with Uncharted 4, we don’t.
The worst offender — purely because she’s the returning character we spend the most time with — is Elena. Between Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves, the fidelity of Elena’s model noticeably improved, but she still looked like Elena. Then Uncharted 3 came along and rendered her unrecognisable, and somehow less realistic-looking than before.
In Uncharted 4, Elena looks incredibly realistic, but loses almost all visual familiarity. Sully, too, suffers the same unfortunate fate, and young Nate will have to go through one hell of a transformation in a very short space of time if he’s to look anything like the boy we met in Uncharted 3.
It’s worth noting, of course, that Uncharted 4 is in no way the only game guilty of this — I’m looking at you, Rise of the Tomb Raider — but I can’t deny that its differences affected me more than others'. I think there’s a lot to be said for continuity — not just from a purely logical perspective, but from a storytelling one, too: feeling like you’re on an adventure with the same characters lends a certain weight to proceedings. Weight isn’t a department in which A Thief’s End lacks — not in the slightest — but I couldn’t shake that nagging sense of unfamiliarity as I played, that sense of something approaching disappointment during some of the game’s best scenes.
And speaking of continuity…
There’s a Trophy in Uncharted 4 called Ludonarrative Dissonance. It’s a great Trophy — Stage Fright is another standout — awarded for killing a thousand enemies, and poking fun at the countless think pieces pointing out that Nathan Drake, all ’round nice guy, has murdered infinitely more people than most of us are likely to meet in our lifetimes.
That’s not, however, why I bring it up. I do so because there happens to be a fairly glaring instance of said dissonance outside of all the killing: the grappling hook.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the thing. It’s a great addition to the gameplay, and incredibly satisfying to use — the notoriously poor rope-swinging mechanics from previous games have, thankfully, been given an overhaul — but almost every time I did use it, I couldn’t help but wonder where the hell it had been on Nate’s previous adventures. Seems like something that could’ve come in handy on, oh… several hundred occasions before.
Part of me does feel somewhat conflicted about making this point. After all, I have no problem with things like Nate’s climbing abilities changing from game-to-game, but the grappling hook is set up as being such an important element of his early exploits that I find it hard to believe that he just suddenly stopped using it. Narratively speaking, you might argue that he did so because it reminded him of Sam, but given that much of his early style was so obviously inspired by that of his brother, said argument is about as thin as the hair on Charlie Cutter’s head. (A head, along with Chloe's, sadly absent from the adventure.)
This all seems very negative, eh? Fear not, I’m almost done with the main problems I had with the game. There are little things, here and there, that I’ll get to later, but there’s just one more of the serious ones — and it’s my personal biggest let-down of all.
Before May 10, if there was one thing I thought there was no way I would come away from Uncharted 4 feeling disappointed about, it’s this: the soundtrack.
I’m cringing even as I type, but I can’t pretend I wasn’t thoroughly underwhelmed by that soundtrack. The obvious reason would be that it was composed by someone other than Greg Edmonson — who provided the music for the other three games — but that’s not it. Neither is it because the game’s music is objectively bad — it’s not. There’s just something about it, however.
There are some wonderful moments in there. I really like the new, three-note motif that, you could argue, is the main theme of the game, and I can’t overstate how much I love the whistling notes heard every now and then — featured prominently about a minute and-a-half before the end of the track Lure of Adventure, and again during Epilogue. To my thoroughly overactive imagination, those notes — and similar ones in other soundtracks — speak of eternity, of time gone by, and yet to come. I like them quite a bit, and I more than like the fact that One Last Time finally gives us an official, and hugely satisfying, rendition of Nate’s theme on piano.
However, and even if it hadn’t come at the beginning of the sentence, that one would get a capital H, none of that changes the fact that I was disappointed with the soundtrack.
By far its biggest crime — and I use that word absolutely intentionally — is that there’s no Nate’s Theme 4.0. The admittedly fantastic track that plays over the game’s opening credits doesn’t count — Nate’s theme has always been the same piece of music, with subtle differences making it specific to each particular game. I absolutely get that the new composer might’ve wanted to set his score apart from the others, but that the final Uncharted game doesn’t feature something that was such a staple of the others is baffling to me.
I’ve come across the argument that it wasn’t included because A Thief’s End is a more sombre affair, and such an upbeat track playing over the main menu wouldn't have had quite the same impact as the silence in its place. Nonsense. Take the tune, and give it a makeover. Make it specific to A Thief’s End. Who says it has to be upbeat? I get the impact of that music-free menu screen, but a softer, more contemplative take on Nate’s theme would’ve worked just as well. I think it might even have been better, because that silence takes something away from the Uncharted experience; it takes away that sense of exhilaration over being about to set out on another adventure with Nate.
On top of that, the soundtrack's use in-game is incredibly repetitive. The same music plays over a number of battles, and, similarly, tender moments often feature the same section of score. On the surface, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but I found that, after a while, it made the soundtrack feel stale. Been there, heard that.
This also isn’t helped by the fact that some of the music isn’t all that original. Various moments feel as though they could have been lifted straight from any of the Pirates of the Caribbean scores, and there was one particular instance — during a huge firefight in Avery’s Libertalia mansion — that I could’ve sworn I was listening to something from the Captain America films. Not surprising, perhaps, given that Henry Jackman — who provided Uncharted 4’s music — also scored the last two Cap’ instalments, but I found it distracting all the same.
Hard to believe, after all that, that I consider A Thief’s End my favourite of the Uncharted games, eh? Still, though, it is. Even with all of the above, it is. I adored it. I can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt saying it, given the unfortunate business with Amy Hennig (whose contributions I was glad to see acknowledged in the game’s credits, even if said acknowledgement should’ve come much earlier on) —
— but I can’t pretend otherwise. I loved the shift in tone from the previous games. That shift is nowhere near as drastic as it might sound, but Uncharted 4 felt quieter than those that came before, the story more muted, reflective. Breaks in the action were both longer and more frequent. I absolutely understand why this might’ve turned some people off, but given that I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and am more than happy to sit back and enjoy some fantastic performances, it really, really appealed to me.
As for the performances themselves… those of the previous Uncharted games were excellent, but the huge improvement in visual fidelity A Thief’s End packs well and truly lets its cast’s work shine through, making the game not just a pleasure to play, but a pleasure to watch, too. The sole issue I have on the performance side is that Nadine’s accent can be somewhat questionable at times — but that is, quite literally, it. The rest of her portrayal is excellent. She and Rafe are easily the best villains of the series, with the latter's descent from having at least some small semblance of control, to blank-eyed psychopath in particular being fantastic.
As for the nostalgia: if A Thief’s End wasn’t already there, Naughty Dog could’ve gotten away with subtitling this one Nostalgia Done Right. From the tremendous opening credits, to the wonderful scene in Nate’s attic — and accompanying musical cameos — to reminiscing about previous exploits… every little callback is handled beautifully. Even the very environments evoke adventures past.
Some of the later stages with Elena feel like they could’ve come straight out of Drake’s Fortune, the pirate caves in Scotland are dripping with visual throwbacks to Among Thieves, and the market in King’s Bay recalls a certain spot of historical research from Drake’s Deception.
Among all the nostalgia, however, A Thief’s End brings plenty of new stuff to the Uncharted table. A word or two of caution, though: its revelations are best discovered for yourself, at your own pace, so I’m going to go ahead and warn you, reader, that this is where the real spoilers begin. I’ve been as vague as possible about certain events and plot points thus far, but from here on out, I’m throwing caution to the wind. Read on if you wish — but turn back if you must.
Uncharted 4’s secrets can only be discovered once, and this review — should you care to finish it — will still be here when you’re done.
Other than finding out how the story ends, of course, the thing I was most eager to learn from A Thief’s End was the resolution to Uncharted 3’s bombshell, ‘Of course, that’s not your real name, is it?’ scene — and I felt said resolution more than delivered. If ‘chills’ were a literal thing, I would’ve gotten a severe case of frostbite as Sam held out his hand to his brother, as the music swelled and Nathan Morgan became Nathan Drake.
However, with the question answered, I can’t help but feel something of a sense of loss. I loved the revelation, I really did, but I can’t help but mourn, as ridiculous as it might seem, the mystery that was. And there is, of course, the issue of Nate and Sam’s mother. In Uncharted 3, it’s explicitly stated that she committed suicide — yet, here, we’re told that Cassandra Morgan’s demise was brought about by illness. What said illness was, exactly, is never disclosed, so there is the possibility that it might have been something so severe that she took her life to escape it — depression, perhaps — but, still, I would’ve liked a little more clarity on this.
And speaking of death… I went into Uncharted 4 thoroughly expecting that not everyone would make it to the end. First time through, I spent almost every second of the game filled with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, eager to find out what happened next, but frightened of what the cost of doing so might be. Now that I’m finished, I can’t tell you how much I love the fact that no one died. Well, none of the good guys or gals, anyway.
I know I’m not the only one who went into A Thief’s End expecting death, and to have that expectation subverted so completely was really, really great. HOWEVER — and this particular instance of the word gets each and every letter capitalised — before those expectations are subverted, they’re played with. Horrifically.
The scene in which Elena fakes her death is as terrifying as it is — eventually — satisfying. When I first happened upon it, I wasn’t alone, and when I noticed, before Nate, that Elena wasn’t moving, I smashed my thumb into the pause button and waited until my company had vacated the room before continuing. If Elena hadn’t made it, my reaction would’ve been one I wanted to keep to myself. I would’ve had to set down the controller, walk away for a while.
Thankfully, though, no walking away was required, and I was able to continue my journey towards the end.
When I first reached it, when the camera first settled upon Cassie Drake, I didn’t quite know what to feel. I couldn’t decide whether I liked this particular turn of events or not. The whole thing felt a little off to me, a little at odds with the rest of the game. That changed, however, when Cassie unlocked a certain wardrobe, and her parents were forced to divulge their secrets.
I sat back, watched, and felt content.
However, having had some time to think about it, I’ve realised what it was that felt off about the ending: honestly — and I hope you'll bear with me even though I'm well aware of how this is going to sound (especially given today's climate) — I think it would’ve been a little more effective if Nate and Elena had had a son rather than a daughter. Or, at least, if Cassie’s part had been that of a son — no reason Cassie herself couldn’t have been a toddler, or a steadily growing resident of Elena’s womb.
Imagine if the camera had panned around to reveal young Nate — or someone who looked a lot like him — sitting on that bed. Given the context of the rest of the game, it would’ve created a nice moment of wondering whether we were seeing another flashback before the truth of the situation was slowly revealed — would’ve, I think, given the thing a nicer feeling of having come full circle. Not that that’s something the ending is without, of course, because — son or daughter, Cassie or Francis (?) — it works.
There are, however, some elements of the story that I feel don’t work — or, at least, not as well as I would’ve liked. There are a few of these elements, but easily the most notable of them is Elena’s realisation that she, too, misses the life of adventure.
I wouldn’t have a problem with this… if it weren’t for Uncharted 3.
In Drake’s Deception, Elena not only appears to be doing perfectly fine living a ‘normal’ life, but she states outright that she no longer likes ‘all this’ as much as Nate, which makes her post-Libertalia revelation seem a little too convenient — not quite as convenient as Sully having spent the majority of the story flying around in his plane, but convenient all the same.
It works within the story of A Thief’s End, though, which brings me to my overarching point about the game’s narrative: standing alone, Uncharted 4’s story is stellar. It really is. I consider it far and away the best of the series — but just as certain elements are given weight and resonance by Nate’s previous adventures, that same context robs others of both, renders questionable developments that should have been nothing but satisfying.
Nathan Drake’s final adventure isn’t perfect. There are wrinkles to be found — but, then, is anything really without them? And those that are there pale in comparison to the sheer magnificence of the rest of the game. Uncharted 4 didn’t deliver the conclusion I thought — even feared — it might, but I found the closure it did bring more than satisfying.
Not a single one of Nate’s adventures ended with him getting what he set out to get. Not one — except for this. In A Thief’s End, Drake finally finds his fortune.
So long, guys. I’ll miss you.