Nathan Drake's first outing on the Vita is—for good or bad—a test case of everything that Sony's new portable can do. Pretty much every feature that Sony has been touting for the Vita makes its way into the game in some way, meaning you'll be using the camera, the touchscreen, the rear touchpad, and tilt as you battle your way through hordes of goons on another dangerous treasure hunt.
So is Uncharted: Golden Abyss an innovative masterpiece or simply a series of gimmicks grafted onto a successful franchise?
Golden Abyss sees Nate back down in Latin America, this time working alongside his friend and rival (mostly rival), New Jersey tough guy Jason Dante. This slick operator has a bead on some kind of treasure, but it'll involve them both teaming up with Chase, a young woman with her own agenda, and making their way through revolutionary General Guero who doesn't take too kindly to a bunch of Americans coming in to loot his nation's treasures. Along the way, Drake will be shot at, do some shooting himself, hunt for clues about a mysterious golden treasure, and try to survive the jungle itself.
In terms of its story, Golden Abyss is more limited in scope than its console counterparts, so don't expect to be trotting around the globe or fighting blue monster men (spoilers: no blue monster men here). That doesn't mean that developer Sony Bend Studios hasn't dropped in some truly fantastic-looking environments and setpieces and the core environmental traversal is here, albeit with some of the hardware's tricks tacked on.
You'll be watching out for slippery ledges requiring you to swipe at the Vita's screen to hold on, or walking across beams where you'll have to tilt to keep your balance. Both mechanics are pretty forgiving and the Vita is fairly sensitive to your movements, but these crop up so frequently that they lose their surprise and charm fairly early on. Attempts at keeping you touching the screen persist throughout (with varying degrees of success), with the best being the one I thought would be most problematic, throwing grenades (simply drag and choose your arc on screen), while tapping ledges to jump between them seems like something no one would really actually want to do.
Bend Studios didn't mess around with the shooting with a bunch of touch nonsense, but initially, I was going to come in at this point grousing about the lack of precision in the controls, but realized that I had an unreasonable number of headshots throughout the game. It's mostly a sensitivity issue of moving your reticule around on the default settings. The only real gripe I have with shooting bad guys in Golden Abyss is that it seems to take a lot of bullets to put them down (a minimum of two headshots with pistols, based on my experience), meaning you'll be going through ammo pretty quickly.
In terms of puzzles, Golden Abyss doesn't really "do" the environmental puzzles you might be used to in the console counterpart and it was actually about a couple of hours in before I properly encountered anything that required solving. I'm still trying to parse through Sony Bend's decision here to omit the usual lever-pressing/environment-smashing puzzles from previous games in lieu of several jigsaw puzzles involving ripped maps and sheets of paper, some safe cracking (and by cracking, I mean you already have the combination), and stone and object rubbing/cleaning. None of this adds up to compelling gameplay and actually feels like something that would be included for much younger gamers on a much more juvenile title about treasure hunting (Drake's Jr. Fortune Hunters).
These are really the main strikes against the game and don't belong with the rest of the otherwise solid gameplay experience.
So far, one of the best-looking titles at launch
Let's say it has PS2.5-level graphics and it maintains the loose animation style of the console games. Drake moves like Drake, which is to say, there doesn't seem to be a really noticeable compromise in the number of frames of animation used to make him get around, and it's actually quite impressive.
Same goes for the audio
Likewise, the score is a treat, working in the main theme from previous games while also mixing it up with some new pieces. There is a bit with the didgeridoo that feels out of place, but even typing that out right now feels nitpicky.
Ease of interface and controls
Putting aside the touch and gestural controls, navigating the game is as easy as you might hope, and the actual onscreen elements are easy to view and manipulate.
The lack of puzzles is really noticeable
By my count, it was about two hours before I first encountered anything that might be considered a real, non-shredded map/picture puzzle and even then, that was undercut by simply having to find a series of statues and make rubbings of placards on their front. Later in the game, there are a couple of more interesting puzzles that break the formula, but if I recall, theses run up to a total of maybe four by the time the game is through.
Pretty by-the-numbers story and characters
The hunt for the titular Golden Abyss and the actual treasure itself aren't especially memorable, relying on a lot of elements done better in previous games to pad along the experience. Guerro is mostly a cartoon villain, so when you're expected take him seriously in the story, it falls flat, and Dante has a couple of interesting moments and motivations, but his character overall feels schizophrenic in execution. Chase is the real missed opportunity, though, presented as a young woman who's been treasure hunting for years, so of course most of the game involves Drake explaining the plot to her.
Yahtzee, the man behind the Zero Punctuation reviews has joke-seriously held that the Uncharted games mostly involve shooting a lot of brown-skinned people and Golden Abyss really doesn't do much to reverse that impression.
There are two touch-based boss fights and they are terrible
There are two very, very long swipe-based QTE's that round out the end of the Golden Abyss experience, and if so much of the rest of the game hadn't been so solid, would have really left me hating my time with it. They're not challenging in any real way, and feel like a step back from the action for about two to three minutes while you don't get to fight the game's heavies.
Here and there, Sony Bend Studios finds a few interesting twists on the hardware while others simply feel like cases of "good enough, let's move along" and actively impede your potential enjoyment of this fairly strong portable showing for the series. As a compelling case for the hardware, Golden Abyss shows that it has the visual chops and can handle big, console-level experiences. At the same time, the tacked-on mechanics spoil the fun somewhat, and every time you twist around a ripped piece of paper or do another stone rubbing, you'll feel like that was a spot where a far more interesting interaction was skipped in order to showcase features that are kind of inessential here.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss is available now at retail or for download through PSN.