I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum in this article, but I would recommend you finish UNCHARTED; Golden Abyss before reading this article. This isn’t a review. (There are also mild spoilers for the other games, too.)
The launch of Sony’s Playstation Vita heralded yet another story from the life of Nathan Drake and chums. I say ‘yet another’; to date we have had five canonical tales, up to and including Golden Abyss, but with the release of UNCHARTED; Drake’s Deception still relatively fresh in our minds it does feel like we are being spoiled rotten. In what feels like the dim recesses of history when the Vita was first announced (and we were still calling it the NGP) UNCHARTED; Golden Abyss was rather unsurprisingly outed as a launch title. Naughty Dog had their hands full with UNCHARTED 3 and The Last of Us (although we didn’t know that at the time) so the making of Golden Abyss was assigned to Sony Bend. Yes, I panicked a little bit. For me, a massive chunk of what I love about UNCHARTED comes from the mind of Amy Hennig, and she does not work at Bend. I knew that Naughty Dog would be ‘consulted’ but what the hell does that mean?
It was not that I didn’t trust Bend to make a great game, just that I am pretty possessive of UNCHARTED and would hate to see it sullied by a title that didn’t fit in with the feel of the others. Golden Abyss, we found out, was a prequel to Eye of Indra (the motion comic released just prior to the release of UNCHARTED 2; Among Thieves which showed the events preceding UNCHARTED; Drake’s Fortune) but would not link us directly to it. So; ‘a tale from Nathan’s younger days’ was in hand.
We’ve had some juicy hints about what Nathan was like pre-Drake’s Fortune scattered throughout the yarns we already know. We learned in Among Thieves that Nate was not adverse to a little shady dealing and blatant criminality in his formative years. His exploits (for which I have never forgiven him) in the museum in Turkey with Harry Flynn were not even the first time he’d broken into that museum. I’m not going to list his past misdemeanours because, for a start, that would take a long time, but also because I do not want to open the can of worms that is a discussion on how ‘good’ Nathan Drake is. We also learned a great deal about Nathan’s past from Drake’s Deception; mostly regarding his relationship with Victor Sullivan, but also in terms of his motivation for doing what he does. The setting of an entire story pre-Drake’s Fortune was a fantastic opportunity to shed even more light on these years, especially in light of the revelations of Drake’s Deception.
Unfortunately Golden Abyss isn’t quite what it could have been in this respect. Obviously there was a lot of crossover in the periods of time that it and Drake’s Deception were being made, but I feel more could have been made of this chance. That isn’t to say there isn’t continuity, because there certainly is, but mostly Golden Abyss is a standalone story. The game, in terms of its narrative can be largely broken into two sections; I will refer to them as pre-Sully and post-Sully. The pre-Sully section of the game sees Nathan accompanied by two new characters, off and on. The first we see is Jason Dante, a treasure hunter of superior years to Nate. Dante seems to personify all that is bad about Nathan’s world; he is slimy, he cheats, he backstabs and he is in it for himself. He will side with whoever will get him the best deal, no matter the consequences for anyone else. You thought I hated Harry Flynn, right? At least he had a certain charm, and could match Nathan for witty one-liners.
The other character we meet is a woman, probably of similar age to Nate, named Marissa Chase. She is a capable and intelligent woman who has teamed up with Dante in the hunt for answers to questions raised by the unearthing of the remains of murdered Spanish soldiers. It’s all a bit of a mystery as to why these poor guys were murdered, so along comes Nathan Drake. Apparently he is good at this sort of thing. Anyway, he and Chase (as she likes to be called, although God only knows why) hit it off and in a slightly forced bit of dialogue she claims to trust Nate, and they buddy up. It is fairly obvious that Dante may turn around and stab them in the back at the earliest opportunity.
I said that the dialogue between Nate and Chase seemed forced; it was only really so at this point. She has no idea who Nathan is, and he has been bought in by her ‘partner’ who she clearly does not trust further than she can kick. So why does she trust Nathan? She has no real reason to, and charming though he may be, he may be as slippery and untrustworthy as Dante. I realise for narrative purposes it is required for those two to buddy up fairly promptly, but I don’t feel it was handled particularly well. The story didn’t require them to be best friends, so why did Chase declare that she ‘didn’t know why she trusted Drake, but for some reason she did?’
This particular moment was the only time that I felt the storytelling was genuinely poor; but the rest of the pre-Sully dialogue was… not especially meaningful. Dante and Chase are great characters, but they are not great UNCHARTED characters. I’d take a moment of Elena Fisher over an entire Marissa Chase story. And Dante? Not a patch on Harry Flynn who causes me constant inner turmoil; I love and hate him in equal measure. Were Chase and Dante in almost any other game, however, I would think them astonishing; such is the strength of Naughty Dog’s creation.
Nathan is still clearly Nathan, and there are some really lovely moments of continuity in the pre-Sully scenes that tie Golden Abyss firmly to the first three games. There is one section in which Nate climbs, swings and shoots effortlessly as is his wont, and Chase comments that he must’ve been bought up in the circus. “God no! I am terrified of clowns.” It’s a small thing, but we are reminded that this is Nathan Drake as he ever was. I also viewed this particular exchange as Chase’s attempt to wheedle some information about Nathan out of him. We all know that he gives approximately nothing of his real self away, so his complete ignorance of her repeated comment about his circus upbringing serves to enforce this. Nate, as in previous titles talks to himself, and by extension, the audience. Particularly pre-Sully, he makes a few slightly self-referential jokes; about being sick of climbing crates, and needing bigger pockets, etc… Some people are not keen on this style of comedy; it works here, though, because there is a need to feel the cohesion. I also got the impression from some of these moments that Nolan North had possibly even more fun making this game than the others.
The other moment that I, as UNCHARTED uber-fan, enjoyed came when Nathan and Chase cross a bridge together. Not surprisingly the bridge collapses and leaves Nate dangling. At this point one of the major unanswered questions of the UNCHARTED universe is answered. That scar on Nate’s forehead? Yeah. I guess the odds were fairly high that it would be a collapsing bridge related injury, but we need speculate no more. Obviously I am joking a little bit, but it was tiny details like this that made me (as UNCHARTED uber-fan) really appreciate Golden Abyss as an UNCHARTED title in its own right.
Anyway, if I don’t talk about Victor Sullivan and his part in this soon you will all just give up and go to bed. In the scene leading up to Sully’s most welcome entrance, we see Dante and Nate squabbling. Dante accuses Nate of essentially screwing everything up (drakifying the situation?) which, in Nathan’s defence, he didn’t really. So he could have handled things a bit better, but in this instance Nate wasn’t entirely at fault. There is a dark moment when Dante pokes Nate in the chest and makes reference to his ‘stupid heirloom ring.’
Nathan stumbles backward, shocked and pulls a gun quickly and silently on Dante. In light of everything that we learned in UNCHARTED; Drake’s Deception his reaction to his heritage being derided in a such a way is especially poignant. The scene ends with Dante telling Nate to go crying back to Sully, as that is what he always does. I’ve always believed Nathan to be naïve, and I think a lot of the reasons why are explored in *that* scene in Yemen between Katherine Marlowe and himself. Although it was an argument, Dante’s words seem well chosen. I can imagine Nathan running ‘crying’ to Sully for help and advice when he has gotten himself into something too deep. I suspect Sully has been somewhat indulgent of Nate since they met in Colombia. He was certainly protective of him right from the start, so I doubt that ever changed. The scene ends with Nathan sulkily saying that he doesn’t “need Sully.”
Cut to Nathan apologetically telling Sully; “I need you, Sully.”
Sully is introduced and we see him in a different light to his appearances in Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves, especially, but even Drake’s Deception. Never before have we seen Sully be such the caring father that we know he was in all but biology to Nate. Nate is down, disillusioned and fairly sheepish. Sully understands, and importantly Sully knows how to make it right again. But while this scene belongs to Victor Sullivan, Nathan also has a valuable moment in the complete UNCHARTED story. He points out to Sully that he, at least, has started to see all this as a business, and that wasn’t why he got into it all in the first place. In case you haven’t worked out from my convoluted paragraph; Nathan is referring to raising the coffin of Sir Francis Drake, and to chasing everything that goes with that. This game may have a different feel overall to the others, but it is still very much a part of the world of the others.
Sully and Nate depart together, and we follow them upstream in a canoe. The ensuing bit of gameplay simply involves you stroking the screen to paddle the boat. Sounds pretty boring, except it isn’t, as you become privy to some brilliant and endearing dialogue between the two. The conversations between Nate and Sully have always been great fun to listen to, and this one is no different. It follows directly from the much more sombre scene that I previously described, so the change of mood is welcome. Nate seems to have his mojo back, and Sully appears once again much closer to his equal; his mentor role takes the back seat. It isn’t long before Nathan is separated from Sully, but you feel enriched and lifted by having spent some time with him. The rest of the game tumbles forward to its inevitable conclusion. Nate triumphs as he always does, and I can’t help but feel that if it weren’t for Sully neither Nate would have come out on top, nor would the story.
A brief word now, about Nathan and his female companion. It becomes clear that Nate and Chase end up bumping uglies and to all intents and purposes it looks like they mean it. Maybe I am a bit old fashioned, but they looked to me like they actually might make a go of it, rather than simply shagging and saying ‘thanks for the ride’. But we all know that it is not long before Nate meets Elena, and thence begins the start of their turbulent yet beautiful relationship. So what the hell happened to Chase? Maybe Nate realised she was actually just a teensy bit annoying… But seriously; I felt that it didn’t lead into the events of Eye of Indra, or Drake’s Fortune particularly well at all, but we know it didn’t mean to. It just bugs me. We do not know exactly when this all took place, but by the looks of Nate it wasn’t that long ago. The Nathan of Drake’s Fortune gives off the impression of having been on the reserved side when it came to the ladies, but this is clearly not true. He is also obviously single. I am sure his bashful reaction to Elena saying she had him pegged as a ‘girl in every port sort of guy’ was an act, but his sheepish response to Sully spotting his early feelings for Elena did seem genuine. As it is, there is not a woman in all his stories so far, barring Marlowe, that he has not had in the sack. Seriously, dude; there are words for people like you.
Technically, as we all know, the Vita has an extensive set of nifty controls of which UNCHARTED; Golden Abyss makes, for the most part, excellent use. It also adds a new dimension to UNCHARTED games; and that is collecting items, not just for the sake of getting your Platinum trophy, but also to flesh out the story by the solving of ‘mysteries’. This works immensely well, and I am still playing to find the very last of those treasures and items. Sony Bend have done something very clever; they have added a new concept into an UNCHARTED game yet have kept it feeling very UNCHARTED. The narrative also feels UNCHARTED, although it isn’t the same quality that we get when Amy Hennig is in charge. We don’t learn a great deal new about Nate, but we do get his character (and that of Victor Sullivan’s) expanded on more than I had really hoped for.
So there you have it; that is the emptying of my mind, as is traditional following an UNCHARTED release. I haven’t even mentioned the main villain. I suppose this is because he doesn’t add a great deal to the whole franchise, and that is what I am mostly concerned with. I enjoyed meeting him, though; Guerro is his name. He was fun to kill. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else had other responses to this this game, especially in terms of its relationship with Naughty Dog’s titles. As I said, I was a little scared that this wasn’t one of theirs, but I came away feeling very satisfied, and for many reasons. Nathan is still Nathan; he has not been brutalized by Bend.