Sony wants to make the PlayStation Vita the handheld for hardcore gamers, and they squeezed their most lucrative PS3 franchise onto the system to prove it. The very idea of taking an Uncharted with you on the go is a titillating one indeed, but could the full console experience be fully replicated in the palm of your hand? Could the experience live up to the expectation?
Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a prequel, taking place before the events of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. This allows Bend Studio to tell the story that they want without having to worry about what’s been established by Naughty Dog in the mainline console games, but don’t expect anything of consequence here. There’s no setup or reference to any of the future events that Nathan Drake will experience, and nothing in Drake’s Fortune is a result of what happens here. Golden Abyss is a vacuum, so to speak.
What does occur is a rather simple: Nate is contracted by his sketchy buddy Jason Dante to help him search for clues that will lead him to an ancient lost city. While on this job Nate meets Marisa Chase, who also wants to find the city using clues that her grandfather had collected over the course of twenty years, although her plans are strictly nonprofit. In the mix is Guerra, former dictator of the unnamed Central American country that Golden Abyss takes place in — before a revolution removed him from power, that is. He feels entitled to everything found in the land, and wants every artifact he can find to help him fund an army in the hopes of taking back power.
Unfortunately, everything about the story is highly predictable. Each betrayal is exactly you would expect, perpetrated by exactly who you would expect. Everything that you think can go wrong does, and Nate’s relationships with the other characters are almost formulaic. Drake’s dialogue is as sharp as ever, though, and his banter is like catnip to those that enjoy the franchise’s humor. Dante’s character is an exception, however, and even though he’s meant to be unlikable he simply ends up being grating and insufferable.
The entirety of Golden Abyss more or less feels like a callback to the original Uncharted game. The jungles of Central America fit like an old glove, and the visuals here are as awe-inspiring as the first time we saw Drake’s Fortune in action. While it’s not quite the fidelity of a PS3 game, the fact that it’s running on a handheld is more or less mind-blowing; the character models, environments, and lighting effects are truly a sight to behold.
Golden Abyss also has a few nagging issues that carry over from that original game. The biggest offender is the fact that there are no cinematic, “Holy shit!” set pieces that pushed Uncharted 2 and 3 over the top. It sort of makes sense for a handheld game, but it’s disappointing that none of the jaw-dropping moments come from the game’s story. Balancing on logs using motion control makes a comeback, and once again the idea of a man that can climb a sheer rock face having trouble traversing over a 3-foot-wide piece of wood is pretty unbelievable. The ability to throw grenades back at enemies is also absent after making its debut in Uncharted 3, which goes from disappointing to frustrating when you’re being flushed out of your only cover in a huge firefight.
There are also a couple of problems that are unique to Golden Abyss, chief among them being rubbing. If you’ve ever played an Uncharted game and thought, “This is pretty cool I guess, but I wish I could touch every goddamn thing that I find,” then you’ve come to the right place. Nate will find many artifacts — way more than usual — and you’ll have to “clean up” many of them to find symbols and whatnot. That means using the rear touchpad to rotate the item, then furiously swiping the screen to clean it. It’s rather cumbersome, and I found myself accidentally rotating a few items because of my grip on the Vita as I wiped the screen. There are also charcoal rubbings to produce, many with the purpose of building puzzles (more on that later).
There’s also a heavy reliance on quick time events, which I could have lived with if not for the fact that they’re all touch-based as well. Sometimes Nate will lose his grip after a tricky jump, and you’ll have to swipe up get his bearings back. Melee is also completely touch-based, tapping furiously on an enemy until another swipe QTE appears for you to finish him. Considering all of the other touch controls in the game are completely optional, it’s frustrating not to be able to punch people with simple button commands like we’re all used to.