Uncharted: Golden Abyss Review: Treasures Within A Treasure

After last Fall brought us Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, it seems like it’s too soon to enjoy a new Uncharted game. That’s where you’re wrong, jerks! Because SCE’s Bend Studio (with Naughty Dog’s help) has gifted us with the wondrous experience that is Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the PS Vita. Not only does it shimmer almost as much as the PS3 titles have, but the new methods of gameplay make this a refreshing experience both in the realms of Uncharted and in handheld gaming.

Platforms: Vita
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Bend Studio, Naughty Dog
Genre: Violent Scavenger Hunt
Release Date: February 12, 2012
ESRB Rating: Teen

Golden Abyss opens with Nathan Drake and Jason Dante, a stereotypically “don’t-get-dirt-on-my-expensive-shoes-made-from-an-endangered-species” Italian guy. Quite literally, in fact. Dante and Drake are in Central America, in pursuit of a lost Spanish expedition from the 1600s. The first few chapters introduce the player to the new optional gyroscope and touch-screen controls while getting them acquainted with the story. Personally, I found it tough to focus on the details of what was happening, as I was so engrossed in the new controls available to me. Drake and Dante meet up with Marisa Chase – an archaeologist who is trying to complete the initial efforts of her grandfather involving that same expedition. After all, what’s a good Uncharted game without a secondary male lead and a female lead role?

Players will encounter the new control options throughout the first several chapters, from touching several rocks in order to cross a river, to tracing your projected climb path up a cliffside, to switching the guns you’ve picked up by tapping the appropriate icon on-screen. The new controls are very intuitive, and work very well without getting in the way.

Much of Golden Abyss has a similar feel to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, but improves on many shortcomings that Drake’s Fortune had. As far as the edge-of-your-seat level design shown in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and some of Drake’s Deception, there isn’t really a ton of that here until progressing further into the story. But even then, it doesn’t quite rival what was shown in those two games. That being said, Golden Abyss looks fantastic on the Vita’s OLED screen, and definitely makes great use of any resource that it’s been offered. At several points, I completely lost track of the idea that I was indeed playing a handheld system; it felt like a console-worthy experience in the palm of my hands.

As always, there are some very obvious treasures in the first few areas, which can be a very inviting prospect, luring players to continue their search for the rest throughout the game. Around the third chapter, it becomes apparent that the “sparkly objects” that have shown up in past Uncharted games aren’t the only treasures waiting to be collected. Drake makes several charcoal rubbings on statues in the area, as part of the main story events. These require the player to rub the screen until the markings are recorded. They are then added to Drake’s journal, and to the player’s completion percentage – a hint that the realm of treasures and collectibles is nigh endless in Golden Abyss. In this same segment of the game, the opportunity arises for Drake to take his first shots with his camera. As if looking around the environment with the Vita’s gyroscope isn’t rewarding enough, the rear touchpad can be used to move the on-screen zoom slider up to match the recommended zoom for each picture opportunity.

Pictures, as with charcoal rubbings, are stored in Drake’s journal; in fact, many charcoal rubbings make up quadrants of ancient symbols when re-arranged, and these finished symbols are stored in the journal as well. Simply put, Drake’s journal is a very important tool for completionists and progress-checkers. I also purchased the Treasure Map add-on content from the PS Store for a dollar, which includes strategy-guide-esque layouts of each level, displaying where each treasure can be found. Unfortunately, the maps made it tough to differentiate one part of an area from another, and it took a lot of trial and error to figure out exactly where I should have been headed.

The Vita’s gyroscope can also be used during gunfight sequences, bringing me back six months to my time with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, but the gyroscope functionality seemed much more solid here. Generally, my personal preference was to aim with the gyroscope rather than with the Vita’s joysticks. Much of the combat in Golden Abyss is similar to what appears in other Uncharted games – hiding behind chest-high walls or pillars for cover, and occasionally ducking out to nab some distant headshots before finding yourself in the midst of a close-quarters fist fight from the opposite side. These fight sequences appear much more frequently towards the end of the game, and this makes for a nice transition away from the first half’s “exploration and discovery” vibe.

Drake’s enemies are probably what you’re used to from other titles in the series – the brainless mercenaries who make up the army of a rebel leader willing to sacrifice everything he’s got to find the treasure that Drake is after. Yeah, sounds about right. The other, more complicated enemies make an appearance in Golden Abyss as well – the armored goons with their shotguns, as well as the increasingly threatening bullet-sponge soldiers equipped with deadly GAU-19s. I won’t go into spoilers, but yes – Guerro is the aforementioned power-hungry rebel leader, and he’s after the same mysterious expedition as Dante, Drake, and Chase – and its spoils.

Speaking of spoils, it’s worth noting that not all treasures in Golden Abyss are found by discovery, but some treasures actually appear in the game’s cutscenes, sparkling in the background. I assumed that I would get to claim these as my own once the cutscene was over, but then it clicked that I had to use the touchscreen to grab them. Other treasures, called bounties, are obtained by randomly killing enemies throughout the campaign, simply chalking the odds up to a deciding factor of whether each enemy is carrying a bounty. Bounties are a totally separate entity than other treasures – generally they’re items like old Spanish coins, old valuable and collectible Spanish playing cards, or relics. These bounties are also carried over to the game’s Black Market functionality.

Golden Abyss does have a wireless feature, using Near – the Vita’s offshoot of the 3DS’ StreetPass. However, for those of us with Wi-Fi-only Vitas, we may not use this feature as much. As it stands, Golden Abyss’ Black Market feature searches your friends list for other friends playing the game, and looks at any Bounties that Drake has picked up throughout your save file. It then acts as a bartering system of sorts for these bounties, essentially matching up needed bounties and distributing them to each player. This feature may get more complicated for those with 3G data plans enabled – such as trading with other players near your current location – but the extent of my Wi-Fi Vita experience only left me with one incoming bounty from one friend.

I recommend Golden Abyss to fans of any previous Nathan Drake expedition, and sincerely hope to see another effort further into the Vita’s life cycle, but I can’t ask for much more than what Golden Abyss delivers. It is apparent that the partnership between Bend Studios and Naughty Dog has fostered Drake’s triumphant entrance into the handheld category, and a successful collaboration in games is hard to find. My advice for Bend and Naughty Dog? Set out on a game-creating expedition, and reap the rewards by bringing home the treasures!

Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Uncharted: Golden Abyss was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.

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