There aren’t many phrases more liberally used, and abused, in Uncharted: Golden Abyss than “we need to find another way.”
This is, in part, because Uncharted is all about the obstacles that stand in the way of progress, and how to get around them. The gates, doors, towers, and cliffs that block paths are merely physical manifestations of the game’s most basic theme. However, when the player gets to the thirtieth or so broken ladder or cut rope, and the game switches to another short video in which All-American rogue Nathan Drake says that, yes, we have to find another way around, it’s entirely reasonable to raise some concerns.
It’s entirely reasonable to ask why, in fifteen chapters, this has happened thirty times. It’s entirely reasonable to ask what these detours do to advance the plot or the characters, besides revealing that Drake has the worst luck in the world when it comes to path-finding. It’s entirely reasonable to ask why, given the reputation the Uncharted series has for tight, cinematic storytelling, there’s so much flab on Golden Abyss’s narrative bones.
Perhaps Golden Abyss’ shortcomings can be traced to the new crew on deck. Nathan Drake’s handlers this time around aren’t the revered team at Naughty Dog; instead, erstwhile Syphon Filter developer SCE Bend Studios has taken the reins and Naughty Dog is credited as ‘overseer’ (whatever that means). This change in creative control can be felt throughout the game, but it’s most apparent in the way that Drake’s latest story is told.
The premise itself is excellent and puts another modern spin on the classic pulp formula of films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Mummy. This time, Drake is dragged to Central America by the greedy, fast-talking Dante to investigate a wide array of Spanish, Kuna and Visigoth symbols dotted around a dig site; naturally, Drake soon finds himself embroiled in a conflict between Dante, the brutal General Guerro, and strong-headed archaeologist Marisa Chase, as they all try to figure out the meaning of these symbols and, hopefully, profit from that meaning.
Part of Golden Abyss’s success is in the spin it puts on the typical Indy formula. Unlike those films (and ones following their footsteps), Uncharted doesn’t treat history as something great, terrifying, and unknowable – here, things can be explained and history can be rewritten to match new developments. The artefacts and relics that Drake pursues aren’t grounded in superstition and science fiction; rather, they’re realistic enough to tap into more pertinent twenty-first century anxieties. Indeed, it owes as much a debt to classic films such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as it does to pulpy adventure films.
Unfortunately, the game is padded out to what is presumably an ‘acceptable’ playing time through the frequent use of ‘scenic routes’ and obstructions, to the point where the game even acknowledges its own abuse of the convention. Winking at the audience as if to imply ‘yeah, we know’ doesn’t excuse lazy storytelling, and given that part of the draw of the Uncharted series is that it makes the player feel like the lead in an adventure film, packing the game with detour after detour only serves to kill the pace and lessen the player’s excitement without contributing to narrative or characterisation in any meaningful way.
The game’s structure also contributes to a sense that Golden Abyss is less of an experience and more of a diversion. Split into 35 small chapters, the story can easily be completed in eight to 10 hours, and relies on the gamer’s unquenchable thirst for trophies to draw the player back in. When one factors in how much time the game spends with the aforementioned blocked paths and alternate routes in lieu of telling that story, it’s difficult to see it as a fully fledged adventure and a lot easier to approach it as more of a side-dish to the PlayStation 3’s main course.
That’s not to say that Golden Abyss is boring or unenjoyable, far from it. While they never really break out of their stock character types, the game’s five-strong cast are well-drawn and entertaining, from the pithy banter between Drake and fellow returnee Victor ‘Sully’ Sullivan, to the delightfully loathsome Dante, a man so unpleasant that one can’t help but relish every mishap he suffers. The gameplay, outside of navigating the countless ‘scenic routes’, is also exciting, and surprisingly intuitive given the proliferation of touch screens and motion controls and all that hoo-hah. In fact, outside of a few charcoal-rubbing and relic-cleaning minigames, the gimmicky tech the Vita comes with is given little use, and only really comes in handy during the main gameplay when hands are cramped and it becomes necessary to lift weary fingers off the buttons for a few minutes.
Golden Abyss' greatest strength is its presentation. The graphics are gorgeous; Bend Studios offers a colourful, beautifully rendered Central American jungle filled with surprisingly detailed ruins and fauna. While there’s a noticeable disparity between the quality of the character models and the quality of the landscape (Drake’s eyes have a creepy glassy sheen, and Marisa’s face looks different in each shot), it’s forgivable when the environments are this damn good-looking.
The music is also fantastic, blending a classical, John Williams-homaging adventure score with Spanish guitars and traditional Central American instruments to great effect. It looks and sounds like an old-school boy’s-own tale with a new-school attitude, and as cheesy as that sounds, it works incredibly well.
It goes without saying that a strong console launch requires strong launch games – games that offer the best overview possible of what the console has to offer while still being eminently playable in their own right. Uncharted: Golden Abyss gets most of the way there; it is a stunning exhibition piece for the Vita’s power and graphical capabilities (and a more subtle exhibition piece for its gimmicks), and it’s a smart, modern take on treasure-hunting fantasies with enjoyable characters and classical themes.
However, in the push to make something with longevity, some basics of cinematic storytelling have been left by the wayside, preventing Uncharted from becoming what it could, and should, be.