Uncharted Golden Abyss Review: My Sony Summer Blockbuster

Uncharted Golden Abyss is an action/adventure game developed by Bend Studio with the supervision of Naughty Dog. It was published by Sony and released on the PlayStation Vita in February 2012.

It’s no secret that Sony loves making cinematic games, and it’s no secret that critics love playing them. When Naughty Dog released Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune back in 2007, the series quickly became Sony’s movie poster child for AAA production values and breathtaking spectacle. As the company began preparing launch titles for the PlayStation Vita, well, what better way to showcase Sony’s blockbuster “console gaming on the go” than to make an Uncharted game for it?

Uncharted Golden Abyss is a prequel to Nathan Drake’s treasure-hunting saga. I’ve never played an Uncharted game before, so I’m not sure who Dante or Victor Sullivan end up being in later games, but I was still able to follow along. Dante brings Drake along to Panama to help him solve the mystery of a conquistador expedition looking for the Seven Cities of Gold. They meet up with an archeologist, Marisa Chase, who holds a key to the mystery and well… one thing leads to another, betrayals happen, heists ensue, and what began as a simple archeology dig becomes a much more complicated affair.

On one hand, I enjoyed the popcorn movie plot and characters, but for all the quip one-liners that came out of Drake’s mouth, nothing really showed me that he changed or developed much. I guess as a Vita game they didn’t want to interfere with the main plot, but by the time the credits rolled, the story felt like a fun yet inconsequential story. I guess I was expecting something more profound from a publisher who seems to want to appear as the artsy film studio of the video games industry, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

The gameplay for Uncharted is a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none. Each chapter has the player explore a level, which is usually a straight line from Point A to Point B, with a few places to go off the beaten path and find hidden collectibles. You are shuffled through various gameplay modes — you’ll walk through some jungle ruins, climb a few cliffs, then engage in a gunfight or two. You might have to sneak by a few guards, then solve a puzzle near the ruins. Each chapter then usually ends in some kind of firefight and a big action-filled cutscene. The cutscenes are less like an interruption and more like the connecting tissues holding all of these disparate gameplay modes together. While some people may complain that the game is linear, I think it’s actually one of Golden Abyss‘s biggest strengths. Bend Studio could craft a finely-tuned ride through each level with the perfect amount of pacing. You never spend too long on any one game mechanic, and the game usually alternates well between ever-escalating tension and quiet, thoughtful moments.

In the moment, it was a very fun game, though in hindsight some gameplay stood out more than others. The puzzles are the best part of the game — finding the right statues, solving riddles, manipulating ancient stone tiles — along with those puzzles, the hidden collectibles would often unlock some new entry in Drake’s journal. The most compelling part was filling out that journal with all sorts of artifacts and charcoal rubbings of ancient inscriptions.

Uncharted Golden Abyss uses several of the Vita’s unique hardware, such as using the touchscreen to make charcoal rubbings, or the gyro function. One of the most interesting moments was when I literally had to hold up my Vita to a very bright light where the “heat” would reveal hidden words on a paper. Thankfully the Vita’s gyro controls helped me with aiming during the shooting segments. The cover shooting segments, unfortunately, lasted too long and were very repetitive. Anything to make it more tolerable was welcome. I don’t quite understand how Drake, an athletic, charismatic archeologist, suddenly turns into a super soldier capable of gunning down dozens of goons.

I know, I know, I’m not supposed to think about it too much. I can’t help it. In the end I had a fun time solving the puzzles and poking around the beautiful levels. And they are, in fact, beautiful. Nothing can showcase the Vita’s graphical power better than Golden Abyss. It’s hard to recommend the game, seeing as Vita games are getting more expensive by the day, but hopefully one day it’ll be included in an Uncharted collection. It didn’t make me feel the need to buy a PS4 to play the rest of the series, but I’m glad I looked into one of Sony’s premier last-gen series.

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