A Treasure In The Rough
After the announcement that Sony Bend was working on Golden Abyss in Naughty Dog's stead, my expectations for the game dropped harshly. It would be near impossible, I thought, for a third-party studio to capture the charm and the excitement that made the console entries such a pleasure to play. It didn't help that the game sported gimmicky-looking touch controls and played with a B-cast of unknown characters. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when I ended up not just enjoying Golden Abyss, but actually preferring it to the recent Uncharted 3. Sure, there are some blemishes here and there due largely to the touch controls, but overall it seems like Bend just gets the Uncharted formula, and the end result is a tightly paced and intelligently-written adventure.
First and foremost, I can't stress just how impressive it is to see a console-caliber Uncharted game running on a handheld system. Other Vita titles flirt with the system's power, but Golden Abyss is the only one to close the deal. This title is easily comparable to Uncharted Drake's Fortune on the PS3. Get ready to be stunned all over again by just how nice the facial animations, water physics, and leafy foliage look on the Vita's massive screen. Even now, in the middle of my second playthrough, I still find myself stopping to gawk at the scenery sometimes. It's just that good, by handheld standards.
Like the visuals, the gameplay is most comparable to Drake's first outing on the PS3. There is a certain feeling of a studio coming to terms with a new system full of features that they aren't quite sure how to utilize here. Remember how you had to tilt the controller around to balance and throw grenades in Drake's Fortune? Similar mechanics return here, despite having been proven less than effective last time. Tilting the Vita back and forth to balance on a precariously placed log isn't exactly thrilling, especially when it happens in every other level. Worse are the touch-based minigames that see you dusting off lost relics and piecing together documents that Drake will pick up from the ground during cutscenes. It's never clearly explained why, exactly, he would give two shits about a perfectly average looking spade lying on the ground. Throwing grenades using the touch screen is the clear outlier in this case, as your accuracy will often benefit from the ability to "click and drag" the grenade to the desired position. In most cases, however, the presence of touch controls doesn't really change the action. In past Uncharted games there were often button-based quick time events littering the levels. Replacing the buttons with touch screens isn't exactly the most offensive or even noticeable change in the world.
Luckily, these rare moments of gimmickry do little to detract from the overall experience that is Golden Abyss. The climbing, shooting, and sneaking that make up the series' core are intact and as fun as ever, if not more so, in Drake's first handheld adventure. Jumping from glowing handhold to glowing handhold has never exactly been the most demanding experience, but Bend throws in just enough real danger to give the climbing portions some teeth. There are times when a handhold will give way as Drake is climbing across it, often due to an explosion or some other unforeseen intrusion, and you will have to quickly swipe upwards on the touch screen to avoid falling to an untimely demise. It sounds like a gimmick, yes, but the levels are checkpointed well enough that these deaths never set you back, and the sudden change of pace is greatly appreciated. I love it when a game keeps me on my toes, and Golden Abyss does this far better than Uncharted 3 did.
The overall pacing of the game is probably the most consistent of all the Uncharted games. The past games have always taken a little longer to get going than I would've liked, an issue that Golden Abyss deftly sidesteps by introducing you to combat through stealth before thrusting you into any big gunfights. Now there is still tension in the beginning acts, but it's not so overwhelming as to alienate inexperienced players. In fact, I'd say that Golden Abyss has a greater reliance on stealth mechanics than any of the other games. The beginning chapters are heavy on the optional sequences, although you can of course whip out your AK-47 and go to town if that suits you better.
When sneaking, as when moving through the game's environments, the game controls perfectly. The Vita's miniature analog sticks are put to good use here, and any initial unease that may come from using the truncated sticks will soon wear off. Aiming weapons using the right stick took a bit of getting used to, as I'm used to using a PS3 controller which provides far more room for maneuverability of the stick. After a few hours, the weridness went away and I was capping bad guys with the best of them. The only minor complain that I can leverage against the controls is that sometimes the cover mechanics didn't work quite right. Looping around and jumping over cover has always been a breeze in the Uncharted series, but here it can be a bit bothersome. Specifically, Drake had the tendency to simply detach himself from cover and walk out into the open instead of turning up and around the cover like he so easily does in the console games. It was never bad enough to cause a death, but it was mildly annoying nonetheless.
The earlier concern of "B-cast unknown characters" proves unwarranted as well. Okay, so the villain this time around is hardly the most memorable or imposing out there. When you think about it, though, only Uncharted 2's Lazarovich made a lasting impression. Golden Abyss's Guerro, an ex-general searching for gold to fund his coup, is pretty much par for the course. Marisa Chase plays the role of plucky lady friend this time around since, as a prequel, Golden Abyss couldn't feature Elena Fisher. Chase and Drake do a fine job of bouncing off of each other thanks to some particularly funny and insightful writing. After beating this game, you will have a deeper understanding of who Drake is as a person and how his sketchy morals can withstand the test of treasure hunting and capping pirates. It's never clearly spelled out, but by reading between the lines a little you can get to learn a lot about these characters through the excellent dialogue in this game. It's still a bit weird seeing Drake flirt with Chase since we all know that it somehow doesn't work out in the end, but in the moment it's fun, funny, and surprisingly touching.
Golden Abyss may make a poor first impression because the developers have placed such unusual emphasis on the touch and motion controls, but at its heart it is still a traditional Uncharted game. In most cases, replacing the button prompts with touch prompts does little to sully the experience, and what little annoyances do arise still don't really interrupt the flow of the game. With traversal and combat controls that mirror those of the console chapter's almost perfectly and graphics and writing that never fail to impress, Golden Abyss should be one the first games to enter your Vita collection and one of the last to leave.