Publisher: SCEA / Developer: Sony Bend Studio/ Played On: PS Vita/ Price: $49.99/ ESRB: Teen (Suggestive Themes, Mild Language, Violence, Drug Reference, Blood)
Of the PlayStation Vita launch titles, I don’t think any of them are meant to exemplify Sony’s “console experience on a handheld” philosophy like Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Since the bigger brothers in the Uncharted series have typically acted not just as great games but also as glorified tech demos for what is possible on the PS3, this positioning seems consistent. And in many ways, Bend Studio successfully manages to deliver on this promise, from both a visual and writing perspective. But on the other hand, Golden Abyss is burdened with annoying mini-games and lame touch controls that are in the game for no other reason than because they can be.
Golden Abyss technically takes place before Drake’s Fortune, however its ties to the first three Uncharted games are almost entirely non-existent. Drake, as he’s prone to do, finds himself on a wild goose chase, this time to discover the mystery behind a lost city of gold in Central America. There are good guys, bad guys, bad guys you thought were good guys, and Drake’s best pal, Sully. Don’t expect any deep insights into Drake’s psyche or flashbacks to his childhood. This is very much a standalone experience and that’s okay.
Uncharted has always been at its best when the slightly silly, globetrotting, treasure hunter stories are just an excuse to highlight the series’ loveable daredevil of a protagonist and the crew of equally relatable characters that he interacts with. In this sense, Golden Abyss is a perfectly functional Uncharted title. I’m not clear how much involvement Amy Hennig and the team at Naughty Dog had in Golden Abyss (though she is credited as a “Story Consultant”) but Drake’s one liners and snarky back-and-forths are as good as they have ever been. And it’s all cemented by Nolan North’s (once again) impeccable performance.
There are a few gameplay mechanics that have become signatures of the Uncharted franchise: epic platforming sections, straightforward third-person combat, and puzzles. Some frustrating encounter design sprinkled through the back half of Golden Abyss (thanks mostly due to Uncharted’s signature floaty shooting controls and painfully slow animations) tarnishes what otherwise is a solid recreation of the platforming and combat sections you’d expect in an Uncharted game. What’s new this time around are the Vita-specific controls.
It’s not really difficult to image how these came about. As part of being a flagship launch title for the system, Bend Studio were probably required (or, if you’re less cynical than I, maybe took it upon themselves) to highlight as much of the Vita’s touch and motion controls in the game as possible. These additions range from mundane and inoffensive to frustrating trial and error augmented by inaccurate touch controls.
Instead of using the analog stick and jump button to direct Drake through the game’s platforming sequences, you have the option to draw a line of your desired path with your finger. This traversal stuff works fine although you may find yourself feeling a little more disconnected from Drake’s actions than when directly controlling him. Unfortunately not all of this stuff is optional. Using the Vita’s accelerometer to stay balanced on a narrow beam or having to preform quick time event-like swiping gestures in the middle of melee combat (the final boss fight is particularly egregious) make Golden Abyss, at times, feel like a cheap iPhone game rather than the “system seller” it’s supposed to be.
Golden Abyss is a goddamn great looking game. For a handheld. I feel like I have to use that qualifier because it’s still nowhere near on par with its PS3 brethren. And any comparisons stating so are totally disingenuous. That said, many of the environments look stunning (again, for a handheld) and the game keeps the visual style of said environments just varied enough that you won’t get bored with it. Some of the textures can be a bit muddied if you stare at them, and there’s plenty of jagged edges to the geometry but the character animations are full-on Uncharted quality and still second to none.
There’s a lesson to be learned from Golden Abyss. Don’t treat your games like tech demos. I understand the need to make the masses aware of all the cool things your device can do but there’s plenty of better ways to do that than shoe horning touch controls into a game that doesn’t need them. That said, there’s a lot to like about Golden Abyss. I was surprised at how willing I was to jump into another Uncharted game so close to the release of Uncharted 3 thanks in most part to some superb gameplay and writing that, if I hadn’t known better, I would believe came straight from the team at Naughty Dog.