Uncharted: Golden Abyss review for PS Vita

Platform: Vita
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: SCE Bend Studio
Medium: Vita Card / Digital Download
Players: 1
Online: Yes

It doesn?t take much time with Uncharted: Golden Abyss to see why Sony?s been showcasing this game as their flagship launch title for the Playstation Vita. It?s a gorgeous game, and while it does take some technical shortcuts necessary for the hardware in comparison to the PS3 Uncharted titles, my jaw was in a constant state of drop while playing through the game. Seriously, Uncharted fans shouldn?t be disappointed with how this game looks and performs on the Vita.

This adventure predates the first Uncharted, showcasing a slightly younger, slightly more na?ve adventurer Nathan Drake as he gets embroiled in a conflict between a group or revolutionaries and his treasure hunting ?friend? Dante. The new characters introduced here, both Dante and female lead Chase, are pretty decent additions to the cast. It?s hard to deny that Chase constantly feels like a less than ideal Elena replacement, but there?s still a pretty great dynamic between all three characters throughout the game.

Much of the gameplay from the Uncharted series remains unchanged in Golden Abyss. There?s still a heavy emphasis on exploration through crumbling ruins, guiding Nathan across a number of slightly discolored handhelds that crumble through after releasing your last grip. Nathan still kills a whole lot of dudes, and the action is all in third person, incorporating a cover system and melee options as well. There are still a lot of optional treasures to find, marked by sparkling spots seen in various places across the 32 chapters that make up the game?s narrative.

But, there?s a lot of new stuff too. The game certainly goes out of its way to incorporate as much of the Vita?s abilities as it can, some of which work and some that don?t. For instance, when faced with a climbing section, you can now use the touchscreen to trace the path across the ledges for Drake to traverse, and the game will automatically move Drake across. When aiming your weapons you can not only using the analog sticks to adjust the crosshairs, but also assist using the built in gyro features of the handheld.

You?ll come across a serious of option and non-optional events that involve charcoal rubbings, piecing maps or photographs together, and other little tasks involving the touch screen. You?ll even encounter a moment that involves holding the back of your Vita to a strong light source to make some previously invisible letters on parchment show on screen. Granted, a lot of this is gimmicky, and thankfully the developers do give players the choice to opt between regular button controls and the touchscreen for some of this, but not everything. Charcoal rubbings, the light shining thing, an awful balance beam mechanic, those are all forced on the player. The charcoal rubbings aren?t particularly intrusive, they take seconds to complete and are mostly optional, but the balance beam mechanic makes an odd return to the series after being used once in the original Uncharted with the Six Axis controller, and I can?t imagine why anyone though it was a good idea.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, a couple hardware gimmicks actually work out in the game?s favor. One is the grenade toss, which can still be performed with a button press, but becomes deadly accurate via the touch screen. Other little mechanics, like following a series of sliding directions on screen to move a door or guide a canoe down river, simply replace the button mashing mechanic that usually involves these actions, and for me I found that to be a welcome change. If nothing else it probably expands the lifetime of my little handheld ever so slightly since I?m not mashing the hell out of the X or O button.

The game doesn?t use a multiplayer mechanic, which is a little disappointing, but not a huge loss considering the main story is still pretty beefy for a handheld. There?s a ton of optional treasure stuff to seek out, way more than any other Uncharted game has used before. There?s also a feature called the Black Market, which incorporates the NEAR app on the Vita, and allows you trade treasure items between other people you encounter playing the game on the Vita. If you?re at all OCD in your video game playing, you?ll be spending a lot of time hunting down all the optional treasure stuff here.

I?m really impressed by how well realized Uncharted: Golden Abyss is on a handheld. I had been a little skeptical at how well the series would translate to the small screen, but I?ve found myself really enjoying this game. It does lose a little bit of the scope, especially compared to the Uncharted 2 or 3, but I feel like that?s to be expected here. Still, the excellent third person gameplay is extremely strong, and the game actually paces its combat and exploration mechanics better than Uncharted 3 did. I definitely urge new Vita owners to pick this one up; it deserves to be a marquee title for the Vita.

Grade: A-