Uncharted: Golden Abyss — Into the Abyss

On the eve of Nathan Drake's final adventure, I took a trip back to one of his first.

The following post contains spoilers.

UPDATE (May 8, 2016)
In typical fashion, I’ve come to realise that there is something I left out of this review — something that was, in fact, one of the points I was most eager to make about Golden Abyss. For whatever reason, I forgot to add said point to my notes, and so completely forgot about it when the time came to sit down and write.

That point is this: I loved the way, as the end neared, Golden Abyss played with my expectations. Each of the pillar Uncharted games — thus far, anyway — features a supernatural twist, or variation thereof. Abyss doesn’t, but with the Quivaran corpses towards the end, and the debate over the cause of their demise, it doesn’t hesitate to make you think it will. I found this exceedingly satisfying. It’s one of those occasions on which bucking the trend delivers a positive outcome, rather than a negative.

If there’s one game that is well and truly representative of the weird, on/off place I’ve been with games for… well, for longer than I care to think about, it’s Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Admittedly compounded by my just as on/off relationship with the PlayStation Vita, it took me just shy of a year and-a-half to finish Golden Abyss. December 2014, to April 2016.

Normally, this would be cause for concern, would set those most proverbial of alarm bells ringing. Taking so long to get through a game could be taken as a sign that I loathed every second of my time with it, or that I encountered a massive amount of problems in the playing. But that’s just not the case with Golden Abyss.

Nathan Drake’s portable prequel holds the title of being the first true Vita game I played. Before it, I’d used the handheld primarily for the original PlayStation Classics it provides access to. Stretched from their intended aspect ratio to fill the Vita’s screen, the visual presentation of these games — some of them, horrifyingly, now approaching twenty-years-old — became the level of graphical quality I was used to from the Vita. Booting up Golden Abyss for the first time, I was blown away. I’d known, of course, that it was going to look better than the aforementioned Classics, but I didn’t expect it to look as good as it does.

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Though it is in no way their defining feature, the Uncharted games have always been visual showcases for the platforms on which they’re released, and Golden Abyss doesn’t buck that trend. If it weren’t for the admittedly huge amount of jaggies in the game, it would be right at home alongside its non-handheld counterparts. In fact, in some areas — such as the detail of Drake’s character model (pleasingly based on that of Among Thieves) — I’d argue that it even manages to surpass the first of those counterparts, Drake’s Fortune.

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Water effects are frequently impressive, and the contrast between the vividly green, jungle-heavy meat of the game and the cool, blue-gold tones of the final few sections is fantastic. I was a big fan of the atmosphere of those closing sections — the journey across the Lake of Ghosts, in particular, is spectacular.

So I was thoroughly satisfied by how Golden Abyss looked — how it sounded, however, is another matter. Unfortunately, I found the game’s soundtrack to be somewhat hit-and-miss. That’s not because any of the music is bad, but because the frequent reuse of themes from Drake’s Fortune can be a little jarring at times. I wouldn’t have minded if there were only the odd statement from that soundtrack — I loved the subtle allusions to the score of Among Thieves — but there are whole sections of music lifted straight from Nate’s first adventure, and, to me, they just didn’t fit with Golden Abyss. It’s a shame, this, because much of the game’s original score really shines.

Just as the visuals of the final few chapters impress, so too do the pieces of soundtrack accompanying them, standing well out from the rest and imbuing Golden Abyss with its own distinct identity — and identity, I might add, that would have been further underscored if the game had a unique death sound. It’s a picky point this, yes, but the sound that plays when Nate meets a premature end, different in each of Uncharted’s main, console entries, is, in Golden Abyss, the same one from Drake’s Fortune. Those sounds help set each Uncharted game apart, and so I found it more disappointing than I probably should have that Abyss doesn’t have its own.

Continuing the theme of being hit-and-miss is the gameplay. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how Golden Abyss feels. The vast majority of the touch-based stuff is gimmicky, yes, but not offensively so. Though I spent most of my time with the game using the tried-and-tested combination of sticks and buttons to manoeuvre Drake through the environment, I found some satisfaction in dragging my finger along the various ledges and handholds every now and then, sitting back and watching as Nate negotiated them.

I found a similar satisfaction in having to rub the dirt off various objects to reveal information about them, thoroughly enjoyed the occasional touch-based chopping of bamboo to reveal new paths or secrets, and thought it brilliant when I discovered that you had to hold a map up to a real-world light source to reveal hidden information.

I’ve heard more than one person express the opinion that Golden Abyss is a better game than Drake’s Fortune. Where the story and the characters are concerned, I really don’t agree — we’ll get to that shortly… — but I will admit that both the platforming and general gameplay are much more varied and enjoyable than what is to be found in Nate’s search for El Dorado.

Where the gameplay stumbles, though, is with the combat. During some of the larger firefights, the game tends to stutter with distracting frequency. Combined with imprecise aiming, this can quickly push some sections across the line between difficult and frustrating.

Frustration, however, isn’t limited solely to Abyss’s combat. Personally, I found that the story, too, occasionally gave rise to the feeling.

Here’s the thing: Golden Abyss feels like an Uncharted story. It does — but only on the surface. The camaraderie between Nate and Sully is there, the adventure is there, and the witty quips and humour are there, too — ‘Deaf kids in Caracas have heard of him!’, ‘Quit your bitchin’!’, ‘And her brother was Isabel…’ — but there’s something off about it. I don’t know if it’s because Golden Abyss was written by someone other than Amy Hennig — who served as Story Consultant, with the actual writing carried out by John Garvin — but there are just some elements that felt out of place, that didn’t quite find their mark.

The masturbation jokes Dante makes when Nate carries out rubbings are amusing initially, but more than outstay their welcome. The other Uncharted games often toe the line with their jokes, getting a wry smile, but never going too far. Abyss, however, jumps, rolls and swings right over that line, crossing from amusing to outright crude. I’m no prude, but I found myself cringing rather than smiling at some of the attempts at humour — and when Chase was on the screen, that cringing became a feeling of genuine discomfort.

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Maybe it’s because much of the game’s dialogue — not just limited to Chase, I might add — felt somewhat forced, but something about how she was portrayed really didn’t click for me. She’s a little too damsel-in-distress for a considerable chunk of the game, and though she does become less so as the story goes on (the scene in which she tells Guerro’s men to go ahead and shoot her because they’re all going to die anyway is fantastic), the damage was done — and only compounded by the awkward, hero-gets-the-gal element of the finale, the only sour note to an otherwise great Uncharted ending.

I will say this for Chase, though: when Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer are your main touchstones for female characters in a particular series, the bar is set incredibly, incredibly high.

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Much of the other issues I had with Abyss are standard Uncharted fare. As a villain, I found Guerro a little on-the-nose, but then I felt the same way about Uncharted 2’s Lazarevic. Dante turning on Drake feels incredibly familiar —

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— and there are undeniable shades of Drake’s Fortune in Dante becoming more of an antagonist than the General as the game progresses. But despite the fact that these final few sections read a lot more negatively than I thought they would when planning this review, I can live with most of the above. Reservations aside, I enjoyed Golden Abyss. It doesn’t hold a candle to the other games in the series, but being able to carry a rich, full-fledged Uncharted adventure around in your pocket — to be jumped into lengthy journeys, or while sitting in various manners of waiting room — is fantastic.

Golden Abyss was a gaping hole in my Uncharted experience, but no longer. It may have taken me a year and-a-half to fill that hole, but experiencing one of Nate’s first adventures on the eve of his last was more than worth it.


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