After the Uncharted-trilogy on the PS3, I was very happy to see that Sony’s successor to the PSP, the Vita, would get some love from this series. I am not going to talk too much about this system, but it really is one of the most underappreciated consoles ever (even by its developers), which is a terrible shame due to its potential and solid library of titles. However, it was not Naughty Dog who would be developing this sidestory for the Vita, but rather SIE Bend Studio, who is probably most known for the Syphon Filter-series and Resistance: Retribution. Seeing as they have had a hand in the shooter genre on handhelds before and gotten far away from their start with Bubsy 3D, I am intrigued to see what they could do with their take on the Uncharted-series with Golden Abyss.
A smaller adventure
The story takes place before the events of the first Uncharted, and is set up as a smaller tale. After a prologue showcasing Nathan Drake hunting down a man named Dante, we cut back to the beginning of this story where we see Drake working together with this prick in order to explore a dig site in Panama. They are not alone, however, as a dangerous man going by general Guerro is searching for treasures to fill his greed. Right after this, Dante is replaced by another partner he neglected, Marisa Chase. Chase and Drake share a similar interest in historical artefacts and seeing as they both have had issues with Dante, they figured they should team up for now as they can at least trust each other more than the third wheel.
I am just going to get this out of the way; Dante is a terrible character. He is a spoiled brat who takes every opportunity he sees to get out of harm’s way, even if it includes backstabbing his companions. All he cares about is fortune and his comfortable rich life, which makes it hard to see him as a character Nathan would ever consider working with, especially since everyone around Dante thinks poorly of him. Including Nathan himself. This makes Dante an annoying character to have around and with how much the story makes him into an unlikable jerk with every opportunity it gets, it becomes old and tiresome quickly. Thankfully, he is replaced early on with the more interesting villain, Guerro, who despite being a traditional patriotic and power hungry general, is charismatic and entertaining.
Marisa Chase is the best addition to this series, and probably one of the best female treasure hunter since Lara Croft. She is a strong and interesting female character, who works as a good support to Drake’s obsession with history, while also being different enough to make them seem like fitting contrasts. I also enjoy that while she has a personal reason for why she wishes to explore this dig site Drake is headed towards, it never feels forced as she clearly has had a lot of interest in this subject before. Later on, we will also meet up with Victor Sullivan and the banters between this lady’s man and the young newcomer, are sweet and humorous. It is such a shame the dialogue with Dante just hammers in what a worthless addition he is. Thankfully, the dialogues between Nathan, Victor and Marisa are more common and makes the adventure entertaining, since you will easily care for this trio of adventurers.
Throughout the adventure, Marisa and Drake creates a strong bond between each other and it makes me happy to see two characters sharing a common interest for different reasons, making them more fleshed out as characters. The adventure will include many historical faces and mythologies that I will not spoil, but can say is engaging and easy to follow. The plot is forwarded by these discoveries wonderfully, while letting the bond between Drake and Chase shine. The story is short, but sweet and knows how far it needs to go. Again, only one character hurts the story drastically, but it is made up for by the intriguing historical facts, interesting theories, and the rest of the strong cast with their memorable dialogues.
Story Score: 7/10
Showcasing the Vita’s capabilities
Despite dealing with a smaller hardware, Uncharted: Golden Abyss follows the footsteps of its console brethren by being a linear action title, with platforming and shooting at focus. Although, the platforming is truly straightforward, even more so than ever before. There are some alternate paths to look out for in order to find hidden goodies, but scenarios where you climb are so effortless to the point where you have the option drag alongside the touchscreen to make Drake climb in a specific pattern. The longer jumps only requires you to tilt the system towards where he needs to jump, and this is really it. These segments are still cinematic thanks to the nice camerawork and believable constructions, but are to the point of automatic.
Luckily, the shooting is much better handled. Nathan can still shoot from the hip, take cover, dodge-roll, blind-fire and, of course, aim down sight. One lovely addition, is that the game compliments the shooting by having gyro controls as an optional way to aim, helping out to make accurate shots. Despite the fact that the platforming can be severely limited, you will often find yourself shooting while hanging onto edges or constructions, which is a neat way of combining the two mechanics. The enemies are also smart and aggressive, to the point were you cannot camp and have to move around to keep yourself alive.
Due to the lack of buttons, you will automatically pick up ammunition for the gun you are holding and it is a wonderful touch. Sadly, while you will gain a good variety of handguns, the two-handed options are limited with only a few types to find and they can become rare. Since you can only hold one handgun and one two-handed, it makes it clear how little focus was given to the latter. Although, thanks to the hectic shooting and a good amount of enemies to fight against, shootouts are still entertaining. Even if the enemies could need some variety outside of the armoured goons.
There is one major flaw to the shooting, however, as your handgun has unlimited ammo in situations where you are stuck hanging. It is an understandable design-choice, as it is hard to find ammo when you cannot run around the stages, but this just fixes an issue with another flaw. You can become incredibly overpowered when you do not have to worry about ammo at all. Speaking of, there are a few instances of turret sections, which are clearly there to give you two seconds of making you feel overpowered and nothing else. These parts were never fun, unfortunately. On the other hand, there are some really clever ideas put in, such as making grenades rare and pack more of a punch. You cannot throw back grenades anymore, but they are sparsely used against you, making it feel balanced and more like an equaliser in tight situations.
Should you be unarmed or enemies getting too close, you can always resort to melee combat. This only requires presses of the square button or touching the enemy in order to make punches and kicks, but must be timed in order to get the upper hand. This is a nice way to make combat simple, but fun. However, the QTE-swipes for finishing off an opponent are awkward and there are no option for having button-inputs instead. Besides this, there are many instances where you can go stealthy and perform quick kills, which is a nice option if you wish to get the upper hand. Areas are small, but still gives opportunities to sneak and wait for the right moment to strike the enemy down silently. Should you wish though, going all gun-blazing is still a viable and fun option.
As you might already be able to tell, touch elements and some motion controls has been added to this game for immersion, and they are a mixed bag. Some are very entertaining and cleverly used for puzzles, such as putting together pieces of articles, using charcoal on paper to find hidden clues or holding up a piece of paper towards the sunlight in order to read its words. However, other implementations feel forced, like opening doors, cutting cloths and the mentioned finishing moves, as they all require uninteresting motions of the finger. Then we also have things that are tedious, such as paddling by using the touchscreen on the back to simulate directions you wish to go, running segments with quick platforming, and opening locks with combinations you are already given.
The game might be less in some aspects, but provides an entertaining journey that is atmospheric and fun. It has noticeable flaws, but the studio clearly gave a good effort to both provide a worthy Uncharted game, and at the same time showcase the PS Vita’s potentials. While it at times bites more than it can chew, I was still satisfied and happy for the adventure I partook in when the credits rolled, since more ideas worked than not and nothing was downright terrible. Just unnecessary additions.
Gameplay Score: 6/10
Welcome to the jungle
This adventure will take you through thick jungles, mystical ruins, dangerous military camps, dark tombs, and cliffs far above the ground. All areas look believable and sublime, clearly pushing the Vita to its limits. It is amazing what this console can do and despite that the backgrounds are 2D, they still provide such an effective immersion of how small you are in this ginormous world. Every area feels connected and while you will be only be in this one location in Panama, they make the most out of every area with small details and clear constructions, which is a delight to witness.
A contrast I noticed compared to the previous Uncharted-titles, is how Golden Abyss focuses on being more calm and taking in the scenery. There are moments of action that will put you on the edge of your seat, such as fire spreading throughout a camp or running from collapsing temples, but most events are simply silent ones where you take in every single detail presented. This is a wonderful way to make the player take in the atmosphere, giving the fans a different but welcoming tone. The characters are designed well and are memorable due to their visual features. I also just love the small upgrades to them, such as Nathan actually carrying a backpack. This is something all adventurers should have!
The voice actors are phenomenal, with even the voice of Dante being distinct and solid. Everyone gives the characters clear personalities and charm through their direction and tone, making them believable and immersive. The ambient sounds filling up the locations add to the setting of jungles and caves, and the sounds of everything from the huge gunfights to simply using charcoal to reveal hidden symbols on surfaces, are all pleasant.
The star of the audio, is the music composed by Clint Bajakian, who you might know from the previous Uncharted-titles, and many LucasArts-games such as Monkey Island 2 and a couple of Star Wars– and Indiana Jones-titles to name a few. The record this man has, shows that he knows how to create a fitting atmosphere to mystical journeys with treasure hunting, and it is no different here. There are plenty of diverse music pieces, creating a lot of memorable tunes that includes varied instruments like harps, tribal instruments and even choirs, and all are fitting for the scenarios you are inn. I believe Greg Edmonson would be proud of the tone Clint created for this title.
The only negatives I have with the presentation are two things. The first one, is the uneven frame rate that while never breaks the game, are noticeable. The second issue I have, are the the long loading times with just black screens. I believe there could have been something done to neglect these issues or polished them, though these are simple blemishes in what is an outstanding presentation provided in Golden Abyss’ small, but beautiful adventure.
Presentation Score: 9/10
There are a lot of side activities you can do in this game, so lets go through them one step at the time. First off, Nathan is able to take pictures of locations or evidences throughout the game, with a symbol of a camera being shown in the upper corner whenever you are near something interesting. Secondly, there are small treasures, represented by sparkles. These are hidden well, and can offer a fun mini-game, like wiping an artefact clean in order to look at it properly. Lastly, are torn papers you can assemble to create a full picture, such as a wanted-poster, or use charcoal on surfaces in order to create a picture to discover more trivia.
All findings come with interesting lore, not just historical, but also in-game such as a skull showcasing how a man died. If that was not enough, all items are tied into specific themes, such as the tribe Kuna, the Odessa Mining and more, providing plenty of lore and trivia to Golden Abyss. However, the only reward you can get, are unlockable cards for a different game: Fight for Fortune. It is an interesting feature, but strange to not provided rewards to Golden Abyss itself and forcing you to buy another game in order to experience those you got.
There are also collectables to acquire by killing enemies, but these can only be used for trades at the Black Market. It seems to be used for competitive play with other players, but it never becomes more than a novelty. At least there is the stronger difficulty to unlock, and while the cards might be useless unless you own the other Uncharted game for the Vita, it is still entertaining to search out for everything and read more about the lore they provide.
Extra Score: 7.5/10
The PS Vita might not have had plenty of killer-titles, but Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a great showcase for the potential the system had, while still providing an entertaining adventure worth coming back to. It has some strong ideas for the handheld’s features, provides a fun adventure the Uncharted-series is known for, has characters you will quickly enjoy, and it all comes together with a presentation that is gorgeous. It stumbles a bit and might be too ambitious with what the Vita could offer, but clearly shows how much the developers loved the series. Golden Abyss is not a system-seller, but essential for any owner of this handheld.