UNCHARTED: Golden Abyss is one of the most highly anticipated launch titles of the Playstation Vita, and is the first portable entry in the venerable Playstation-exclusive series. More than just a launch title for the Playstation Vita, though, Golden Abyss also serves as a demo for most of the fancy features the Vita offers.

I’m almost hesitant to start this way, since, given everything you’ve heard about the Vita to this point, this should come as no surprise, but Golden Abyss looks good. It’s not on the level of UNCHARTED 2 or 3 – two of the best looking games of this console generation, in my humble opinion – but it certainly equals, or maybe even surpasses, how UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune looked. By now, you know what to expect from an UNCHARTED game: Nathan Drake looks every bit the rugged, smartass hero we’ve come to know and love from the console iterations of the franchise, the jungles look lush, the ruins… ruined. It all comes together in a very nice package that you can take with you wherever you go. The hit here is that Golden Abyss doesn’t branch out a whole lot in terms of environment: you spend the entirety of the game looking at the jungle, crumbling ruins, there’s a dilapidated base that the revolutionaries call home within the jungle, it’s all very same-y. I know that Drake’s Fortune didn’t exactly span a whole lot of terrain, either, but UNCHARTED 2 had cities, villas and tundra, and UNCHARTED 3 had it’s cities, villas, and desert. I just felt I wanted a little more in terms of environment from Golden Abyss: something that truly showed how diverse the Vita could be. Then again, this is a launch title, and asking a launch title to push the limits of a console, even if it’s a handheld, is just the slightest bit ridiculous.
UNCHARTED Golden Abyss Screenshot 3
Golden Abyss differentiates itself from its console brethren just the slightest bit by having huge breaks in the action. I felt like I was spending a lot more time traversing the jungle, and navigating the crumbling ledges of old ruins than I did gun fighting, which came off as strange, because the console UNCHARTED games always felt like they split the two focuses a little bit more evenly. I’m not exactly complaining: I feel that UNCHARTED is at its best when I’m trying to find out how to reach that out-of-the-way ledge, as opposed to when I’m crouching behind a crate and firing at bad guys. Then again, when the game does do the gun fighting action-y bits, the sequences feel a little lengthier than the action sequences in the console games. I wonder if this is just Bend simply trying to figure out their own way to structure the UNCHARTED experience to fit a handheld, travel-oriented game: a ten to fifteen minute traversal scene, a ten minute gun fight, a twenty minute traversal scene, so structured to give you ample opportunity to quit the game during a lull, so you don’t restart when you’re in the middle of navigating a ruin, or in the midst of a heated battle with thugs. That would be understandable, but as I’ve been playing Golden Abyss more or less like a home console entry in the series, it means the game is constantly switching focus, and sometimes it becomes extremely jarring. There’s a scene, for example, where you work your way into the depths of a ruin, looking for a big old something. It’s about twenty minutes to a half-an-hour to make your way into the ruins, wherein you see barely a glimpse of baddies. Once you find what you were there for, though, the bad guys start pouring in, and getting out of the ruins again basically becomes one long, twenty minute gun fight, with only a few smatterings of traversing the environment in the mix. Granted, there aren’t many moments in the game that have such a jarring and noticeable shift, but there are minor ones throughout, and as a result, there are times when the game seems to have trouble finding its flow.

When it does hit its flow, though, it’s very clearly an UNCHARTED title. Golden Abyss takes place before the events of UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune, but I think they could have technically set it anywhere (as long as it wasn’t after the events of 3), and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. The story, as far as I could tell, has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the events that have occurred within the UNCHARTED series. Take out the budding romance with Chase, (come on, that’s not a spoiler, it’s practically required), and there is absolutely nothing about the story that could continue into the console UNCHARTED games. Once again, you play as plucky, rapier-witted adventurer/treasure hunter Nathan Drake. For this adventure, he’s called into a Panamanian jungle by an old friend, Jason Dante, to investigate some strange statues/symbols that have popped up during a dig. Unfortunately, though, the dig is taking place near the base of a local revolutionary militia, and, as always happens in UNCHARTED games, something’s gotta give. What’s odd about Golden Abyss‘s story is the way it’s structured. The first chapter takes place in the present, and shows Drake jumping and shooting his way through some ruins, (as per usual). The thing is, (and this really isn’t a spoiler, so don’t hate me), it clearly shows Dante as having betrayed Drake. It then jumps back several weeks to when Dante first asked Drake to investigate the jungle with him. The problem here is that, since you know that there’s a betrayal in the works, you find yourself just waiting for it to happen. I actually didn’t feel like the game had started properly until I got to the point where Dante’s betrayal actually occurred. Now, Drake being betrayed is like the sun rising and setting: it just happens. There’s always some manner of betrayal in UNCHARTED games, so it never really comes as a surprise, but that it is so blatantly implied at the beginning of the game comes as a bit of a shock. In addition to a backstabbing bastard, you also have your standard female fare, this time coming in the form of Marisa Chase, an archaeologist working alongside Dante in the jungle. From the very get-go, it’s clear that while Chase is a strong character in her own right, she never quite hits par with Elena, or Chloe. Chase also plays the role of the ‘I-know-a-whole-lot-more-than-I’m-telling-you-at-the-moment,’ character, which is never anything but obvious, as she often evades questions with ‘It’s a long story,’ which basically screams, ‘I’ll tell you later, and make it a bit of a plot point.’ She also refuses to use a gun. Given that AI support in UNCHARTED‘s gunfights has never been much, this doesn’t come as a huge hit, but it’s very surprising to meet an character in this series who’s not comfortable touting a firearm. She never really explains why, either, though there are a couple times when it seems like she’s about to. I think what most of the stereotypical and somewhat flat characterization comes down to is that Bend isn’t quite up to the same snuff of storytelling as Naughty Dog is. Drake and Sully, who are the only two characters from the console UNCHARTED series to appear in Golden Abyss, are both the same sarcastic, wisecracking characters they’ve always been. So given a template to work from Bend can clearly emulate the characters already established, but the stumble a bit when creating their own. While Dante’s motivation for betraying Drake is always pretty clear, (he’s a money-hungry bastard), the other big baddy, leader of the local revolutionary militia Guerro, is never given much of a motivation for trying to reach the treasure before Drake, other than a vague mention that he’ll use it to further fund his revolution. If the whole ‘revolutionary’ aspect of the story was more fleshed out, this would probably work fine, but since the revolutionaries serve as little more than opposition for you, it just manages to feel flat.
UNCHARTED Golden Abyss Screenshot 2
The biggest problem with the story/gameplay flow aspects of the game is the lack of any grand UNCHARTED moments. Think the opening sequence with the train in UNCHARTED 2, or the sinking ship in UNCHARTED 3. Huge moments like this were lacking in UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune, but as that was the series’ first entry, you can’t really fault it for that. But we’ve come to expect grand moments from our UNCHARTED games, and Golden Abyss doesn’t really manage to deliver. There are a couple moments that seem like they could’ve been big: at one point, you’re escaping a ruin while it collapses all around you, which in itself screams UNCHARTED, but these few moments are never capitalized on. Were this another handheld system, this could easily be overlooked. But I know that the Vita could’ve easily handled one of those big moments, if they would have been added. I wanted that little bit more out of Golden Abyss because I know it could’ve given it, if it had the chance. It isn’t a problem big enough to make me dislike the game outright, but it could have given the game so much more ‘oomph.’

So Golden Abyss looks like an UNCHARTED game, plays like an UNCHARTED game, minus a few flow issues and a lack of grand moments, and, less a bit of a characterization problem, clearly has an UNCHARTED story. If those alone were the merits on which to judge this game, I’d be done. But, it’s a Vita title, and, as I said, serves as a bit of a demo for what the Vita can do. Forcing these features into a game, though, could very easily ruin it.

But the addition of the Vita’s features doesn’t feel forced. In fact, it feels as though the game was built around those ideas. The front touch screen serves several roles. When climbing, you can use your finger to trace the route you want Drake to follow, and then sit back and watch him move. I think most gamers will, for the most part, use the analog stick and buttons to climb, to make it feel more authentically UNCHARTED, but the fact that the option is there, and that it works as well as it does, is still really cool.

You can also just tap on your screen to swap the weapon you’re holding with a weapon on the ground, or to throw a grenade, of which, by the way, there seemed to be a very scant amount. The front touch screen is also used in the game’s puzzles: you have to rub a piece of paper to take charcoal rubbings, turn combination locks, piece together torn paper, and so on. These features serve to showcase just how well the Vita’s touch screen works, as you shouldn’t ever have a problem completing these tasks.

The rear touchpad can be used for climbing ropes, changing the zoom on your sniper rifle or camera, and rotating objects that you then have to clean off by swiping your finger across the front touch screen. Again, the rear touchpad works extremely well, and I found I actually preferred to use it to climb ropes, rather than just pushing up on the analog stick.
UNCHARTED Golden Abyss Screenshot 4
The tilt sensor is used to keep Drake balanced while walking across narrow bridges, but I did have a problem with this feature. The tilting itself works very well, but instead of having to keep Drake balanced while he’s walking, when you’re crossing a narrow bridge, oftentimes Drake will just stop in the middle, and you’ll have to use the tilt to make sure he keeps his balance, and then keep walking. Having him stop on the middle of a log while you’re crossing a river just comes off as abrupt, and I think the feature would have served better if Drake had kept moving while you tilted the Vita to have him keep his balance.

Aside from this, the tilt sensor can also be used to aim your gun. What I found personally was that while tilting to aim a pistol or an AK just didn’t work, while you had a sniper rifle, sometimes nudging the reticule over that extra smidge to rest on a target’s head was easier if you just tilted the system a little, rather than trying to brush the analog stick gently. There are all sorts of little moments that the game uses to take advantage of the hardware it’s using. One of my favourites was when I had to hold the Vita up to a light source to make symbols appear on a piece of paper. It’s things like that that make this game actually feel at home on the Vita, as opposed to simply the handheld entry in a console series that most people will wait until it’s ported over to the console to play, (the PSP entries of God of War come to mind, here).

UNCHARTED: Golden Abyss is not without a few faults. There are no grand moments to speak of, some of the characters feel a little flat, and the story isn’t constructed nearly as fluently as its console counterparts. But all of that can be completely overlooked when you realize that you are playing an UNCHARTED game, pretty much a full console experience, in the palm of your hands. Golden Abyss shows off what the Vita can do graphically, and how well its touch and tilt features can be added into a game, without making the game feel as though it is forced to use them. There just isn’t really any other way to put it: if you’re an UNCHARTED fan, or, hell, a Tomb Raider fan, or a fan of action games in general, and you own, or are planning on buying a Vita, Golden Abyss has to be in your collection. It’s an extremely strong launch title in a launch line-up that looks to be full of strong titles, and simply shouldn’t be missed by anyone who owns the Vita.
UNCHARTED Golden Abyss Box
Title : UNCHARTED: Golden Abyss
Format : PS Vita
Developer : Sony Bend Studios
Publisher : SCEA
Release Date : 02/22/12

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*Article first published as Uncharted: Golden Abyss: An Honest Opinion on The Honest Opinion Corner.