When Sony unveiled its PlayStation Vita handheld at last year's E3, Uncharted: Golden Abyss was one of the first things they showed. This sent a clear message: "Our new handheld is a portable current-gen console. To prove it, we're going to show it running one of our most technically demanding current-gen games." After all, the Uncharted franchise is synonymous with everything that Sony wants people to think of when they think of the PlayStation brand—polished, fun, classy, high production values, and amazing graphics.
Now that I've played it, I can report that yes, Golden Abyss is an Uncharted game to the core. But too often it feels like an off-brand copy, and despite doing its best to make use of the Vita's unique features, it brings nothing new of substance to the table. Rather, by engaging in such diligent mimicry, Golden Abyss primarily highlights the technological gulf between the PS Vita and the PS3, as well as a sizable quality gulf between itself and its console-based brethren.
Make no mistake: Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a fine showcase for the brand-new PS Vita. It's the launch-title that many folks are going to want—it has plenty of sweeping vistas that nicely fill the Vita's huge OLED screen, and it moves and plays for the most part like a full-on console game. Playing a third-person shooter with two thumbsticks while on the go truly does feel like carrying your PS3 around with you, and it's exciting and cool.
There are moments of real beauty here, when the camera sweeps out and Nathan Drake climbs along the edge of a cliff, flocks of birds flying up against a color-drenched sky. A couple of segments really do capture the frenetic, improvisational action of the console Uncharted games.
But the specters of past, better Uncharted games loom over Golden Abyss from start to finish. This game mimics the Uncharted formula to a fault—we all know the banter, the pacing; when a handhold is going to crumble, when enemies will turn up at an inopportune time.
More specifically, Golden Abyss is more or less an inferior carbon copy of the first game in the series, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. It takes place in and around a single jungle in Argentina, the cast is limited to four main characters, and there's even a bit where you pilot a boat down a river while blowing up guys with a grenade launcher. After spending Uncharted 2 and 3 going on globe-hoping adventures, it feels like a step backwards.
Everything feels smaller than it should. There are only three or four enemy types, and encounters never have more than four or five foes on screen at a time. There are only two or three types of encounter in the whole game, and they play out over and over again. The guns are piddly and feel insubstantial, grenades are laughably inconsistent and underpowered, and aiming feels loose and imprecise.
The touch-screen implementation in the game feels shoehorned in and awkward. Much has been made about how the platforming bits can now be performed simply by swiping one's finger along handholds, but that's actually one of the neater touch elements, partly because it's optional.
The frequent, mandatory touch-screen quicktime events, on the other hand, are just plain bad—every one is just swipeswipeswipeswipe. They're finicky and easy to miss, and often failure results in instant death. Several of the story's big climactic encounters rely entirely on such quicktime events, and are a forehead-slapping disappointment. Other smaller things—rotating and cleaning artifacts, performing boring charcoal rubbings —feel tacked-on and finicky.
For a meat-and-potatoes third-person adventure game, Golden Abyss sure has a preponderance of tacked-on junk. Photo challenges could have been a fun addition, but their implementation ends up with the player endlessly tweaking his shots, trying to perfectly match the angle and zoom of a pre-existing photo template that pops up in the corner of the screen.
The aforementioned charcoal-rubbing and artifact-scrubbing are distracting flow-killers with no challenge to them. The levels are littered with collectible treasures that all look the same, and there's no real pull to collect them. Cut-scenes even have collectible treasure, and I found myself distracted from the (admittedly meandering) historical conversations, tapping on glowing "clues" in order to collect them. Often (but not always) when you're crossing a log or plank, Drake will freak out and pause, forcing you to wobble the Vita until he "regains his balance." It's silly.
All of this serves to distract from the story and the core jumping and shooting, and does nothing to enhance the experience. It feels tacked on in a clumsy effort to make the game "a Vita game," and instead winds up making Golden Abyss feel at cross-purposes with itself.
Golden Abyss's puzzles could have leveraged the touch-screen to stand out, but they have been brutally simplified to the point that they aren't actually puzzles at all. Assembling documents from torn-up pieces of paper is a pleasant diversion, but the game automatically snaps the pieces into place, so solving each one become an exercise in sliding the pieces over the board until they lock down. A couple of combination locks require that you turn a dial with the touch-screen, but the combination is written right next to the lock, and at one point Drake even walks you through which direction you should be turning the dial. "And now right… and now left…" One puzzle appears to be a nicely challenging sliding-tile puzzle until you realize that you can simply pick up and move the tiles to any open square, thereby removing the challenge entirely.
I solved both of the game's elaborate-seeming puzzle-doors with no real idea what I was supposed to be doing. The characters just told me when I was doing the right thing, so I never had to figure out how the puzzles worked. Which was actually good, because the rules that were explained and the solutions I was shown didn't logically connect to one another. Golden Abyss's puzzles are both bafflingly designed and overly simple.
Golden Abyss seems to operate in some parallel Uncharted universe. The game's developers told Kotaku that it's not a prequel, but it's unclear in the game whether this is all happening before, after, or concurrent to the events in the main games. It wouldn't matter in most other games, but the ongoing fiction of Uncharted has long been one of its most endearing elements—with that continuity broken, the story loses a substantial chunk of soul.
The way that characters deliberately abstain from mentioning a single event from the PS3 games makes things feel strange and isolated. Who is this Nathan Drake? Why is he falling for this woman, what of his great loves and friendships and adventures, what of the journey we just took with him into his own past?
The new characters include a boring, swarthy villain, a winning and somewhat useless love interest, and a highly grating frenemy character named Dante. None of them does much to make themselves stand out, and their blandness is brought into sharp focus when a character from the PS3 games makes an appearance. I was so happy to see this person that I immediately realized how bummed out I had been spending time with the rest of these second-rate clowns.
While Golden Abyss' technical shortcomings are perhaps understandable given its less-powerful platform, there's no reason at all that the writing needed to be a drag. And yet it is. Jokes feel undercooked and forced; characters drop lame sexual innuendo, curse regularly, and say things like "God damn, it smells like shit in here!" and "I will kick you to sleep!" The very first line in the game, muttered under Drake's breath, is, "Dante, you son of a bitch. I'll see you in hell." The writing simply didn't need to be this clunky and bad. It's a shame.
Unlike the fleshed-out multiplayer and co-op offerings in Uncharted 2 and 3, Golden Abyss has no multiplayer features at all, excepting an odd asynchronous treasure-collecting minigame tied to "Near," the Vita's equivalent of the 3DS' social functions. Given how many of the Vita's other launch games feature online functionality, this feels like a missing feature and diminishes Golden Abyss' lasting value. Unless you're hardcore into collectables, there's no compelling reason to go back to it after finishing the 8-hour story. That said, while the story starts out sluggishly, it starts to gain some traction about halfway through and the final act is largely well-executed and -designed.
When all is said and done, Golden Abyss feels like a cut-rate version of the Uncharted games that most people have already played. It's mostly affable, it's functional, but it mimics its console big brothers so deliberately that its shortcomings stand out. Everything feels like the console version but smaller—smaller levels, smaller set-pieces, smaller combat encounters, smaller stakes. A bolder, more distinctive game, more-creatively designed for the platform and built around the characters we love could have been a great showcase for the Vita's unique elements and its console-like power.
In this review, I've been comparing Golden Abyss to its PlayStation 3 predecessors quite a bit. That may not feel fair, but time and again, the game all but demands the comparison. Much of the time, it feels like the folks at Sony's Bend studio have been cast as illusionists rather than game-makers. These are talented people, no doubt, and at times they have pulled off quite a trick: They have made the PS Vita appear capable of playing a fully fledged Uncharted game. But of course, a trick is just a trick, and the problems I've listed above combine to bring down the full experience.
If Uncharted: Golden Abyss lacked the Uncharted brand and wasn't accompanying the launch of a highly anticipated new handheld system, I suspect it would be much easier to simply deem it middling and move on. When I look at the things I liked about the game and compare them to the things I didn't like, I can't come away with any other conclusion: Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a disappointment.