Uncharted: Golden Abyss Review

Kevin Mitchell on February 28, 2012

The Uncharted series is without a doubt a huge hit on the PlayStation 3 and some even call it the best series this generation. Bend Studio, the developers behind Syphon Filter and Resistance on the PSP have set out to create the flagship title for the launch of the PlayStation Vita, but does its shortcomings keep it from being a masterpiece?

Taking place a few years before the events that transpired in Drake’s Fortune, Golden Abyss shows us a Nathan Drake that is the same we know yet different simultaneously. Nate feels too trustworthy and a little wet behind the ears in this adventure. It is as if the events that happened in this game turn him into the Nathan Drake we have loved and adored back on the PS3.

The game starts off with Drake tagging along with an old friend, Dante, through a thick jungle in search of an archaeological dig site. Of course, there is an easy way into the site, but Dante wants to take the “scenic route” which is perfectly fine as this serves as the tutorial for players to familiarize themselves with controlling Drake. The dig site is only the beginning and soon Drake realizes the significance of the massacre of Spanish soldiers that occurred over 400 years ago. Trying to find her grandfather who was originally in charge of the site, Marisa Chase befriends Drake who helps her figure out why her grandfather vanished — and more importantly who was behind it.

Golden Abyss almost feels like a complete separate entity and not a precursor to the first Uncharted, though it actually is a prequel. You aren’t going to find any obscure references to events that happen in the other games that will make you say “Oh yeah, now that makes sense.” Although expect to see at least one returning character to make an appearance. This helps leave the timeline before Drake’s Fortune completely wide open to further prequels to the PS3 series.

The story is very well done and doesn’t have any type of supernatural elements that were prevalent in the three previous titles. While I did enjoy the twists, just having them show up at the end of the game really broke up the flow that the first three quarters of the game. This time around there is nothing supernatural, but it ends up being a very strong story and even has a few surprises along the way — just don’t expect fake Yeti creatures climbing walls going “boo!”

The level design leaves a bit to be desired, however in one moment you can be too far to make a jump, but the next you have to leap over a chasm twice as long as the previous impassable gap and you can clear it without issue. Usually a ledge, crate or pipe marked in yellow will lead you to where you have to go, but once or twice I was stuck wandering in circles until I realized I had to backtrack for a custscene before I could continue. It isn’t game breaking, but it does disrupt the flow of the game.

Being the showcase title of the PS Vita at launch, expect to use all of the alternate control methods at one point or another during the game. Sadly this means the balancing mini-game is back from the Drake’s Fortune. I hated it then, and I hate it even more now. Getting jelly legs on a plank or a fallen tree, you need to balance Drake out by tilting the PS Vita one way and then to the other — the problem being the extreme degrees that the system must be tilted to to keep from fallen off. Doing this in public garnered a few looks and led to a few cheap deaths. I can’t help but feel that if he fell off, but hung on the side instead of plummeted to his death it wouldn’t be so bad.

While examining items found throughout the adventure, you must rub the dirt off them by swiping your fingers across the screen and using the back touchpad to spin the objects around to get to the other side. All of these things simply could have been done with the face buttons and the analog sticks: making charcoal rubbings, putting puzzles together and cutting down bamboo with the machete. Most of these weren’t too bothersome, but does get tiring when you near the end of the adventure. Another requirement is holding the system up to a light because items responds to direct light.

Shooting can be accomplished by using the shoulder and analog sticks, but using the system’s motion controls you can perfect your shots. Just gently tilting the system will help small adjustments that do so much in the long run. Swiping the rear touchpad helps Drake zoom in and out on his sniper rifle’s scope. The biggest advantage of using the touch controls comes when using the grenades. Simply hold the grenade icon at the corner of the screen and drag to where you want Nate to throw it and release. It’s very intuitive, except for the times the grenades gets stuck in the piece of cover you are hiding behind and lands at your feet — with no way to throw grenades back.

The music in the game really helps to set the moods throughout the adventure. The gun sound effects however sound a bit hollow and leave a lot to be desired.

Bend Studio went all out trying to match the sheer beauty that has become synonymous with the Uncharted series. There are some issues though. The background images at times look a bit pixelated, low-res 2D flames will jump out at you and the aliasing will scream out to the graphic whore inside you. The facial animations during the cutscenes are not perfect, but the bright side is the game runs without ever dropping in frame rate and the fact that this game looks this good on a handheld is a feat in itself.

Golden Abyss does so many things right, it’s hard to talk about what it didn’t do right or in this case what it was missing. Gone is the cinematic camera that had you on the edge of your seat in the previous games, although it does make a subtle appearance in one of the chapters. There were a few times in the game when it looked like you would be led to one of these high intensity scenes, but every time it just ends abruptly or jumps to a cutscene. There is one moment where an out of control jeep comes barreling towards you and I thought this would lead to a chase down the mountain until you leap out of the way just in time as the jeep glides over the cliff. Instead we are given a quick 3 second max cutscene of the jeep turning and hitting a rock or a tree directly in front of you. How anti-climatic.

No Uncharted game would be complete without plenty of treasure to find and collect and this is one area where I believe Golden Abyss trumps all the previous Uncharted games combined. Each chapter is littered with different collectibles to find and photos to be taken. Did I not mention that? Nathan Drake is now a photographer taking photos of statues, pictoglyphs and all sorts of ancient structures. Everything is fully documented in his journal, so it is a snap to see what chapter you have to travel back to to finish collecting a set.

On top of the items found hidden in the chapters, bounties are collected by taking out specific mercenaries that are standing in your way. Don’t worry, Drake is still the same mass-murderer he has always been, Through the use of the Black Market DLC, these items and bounties can be traded through the Near app to people on your friends list.

Simply Put

Even with its shortcomings, the game is truly a marvel to look at with a solid story and beefy adventure. Bend Studio were able to carry on the Uncharted look and feel on the Vita, but just fell short of making it a landmark Nathan Drake adventure. Everything is mostly there that we all love — the characters, the gameplay, the presentation, the constant banter between the characters, but the lack of any cinematic experiences leaves a little to be desired.

Note: The Uncharted: Golden Abyss review was written based on the Vita version of the game.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss

Uncharted: Golden Abyss 8.5
Uncharted in the palm of your hands
Great Music
Sound Effects are lacking
Lack of Cinematic Moments