There’s a reason people keep watching the trilogy of Indiana Jones movies and not The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Most people only give a damn about the man’s big adventures. Who cares about when he was slumming it on patient digs in Egypt, or struggling to get tenure at Barnett College? It’s more engaging when he reconciles with his dad while seeking the Holy Grail. It’s unfair to compare Nathan Drake of Uncharted to Henry Jones Jr., Ph.D.—the half-tuck and guns just aren’t as cool as the chocolate fedora and whip—but the rule stands. Uncharted: Golden Abyss, a Vita prequel about Nate’s work as a for-hire treasure hunter, isn’t as engaging as the key events in his PS3 adventures. But Golden Abyss does unearth some great ideas.
Abyss sees Drake traveling to Panama with employer and veteran scumbag treasure-hunter Jason Dante (think Flintheart Glomgold to Drake’s Scrooge McDuck) to suss out the history and meaning of ruins discovered by missing archaeologist Vincent Perez. Nate arrives, discovers that Dante is actually in league with vicious Robert Guerro and his private army, and teams up with Perez’ granddaughter, Marisa Chase, to discover the secret of renegade medieval Christian sect Sete Cidades and find Quivira, the lost city of gold.
It’s a good setup to put Drake through his usual paces of crawling over cliffs and ruins while shooting hundreds of identical gun-toting aggressors. Abyss does mix up the Uncharted formula, using Vita’s touchscreens and gyroscope: Rather than just pressing X at a specific moment during a cinematic fight, you swipe the screen. These additions are mostly tedious, a barrier between players and the story. Stopping in the middle of crossing over a crevasse to tilt the Vita left and right to regain your balance doesn’t ramp up the tension, it breaks that tension in half.
These asides don’t dull Uncharted’s basic pleasures, though. Climbing around ruins and finding hidden artifacts between shoot-outs is still fun. In Golden Abyss, though, that action doesn’t mean much. Drake isn’t a man on a quest, he’s collecting a paycheck, so it doesn’t feel like much is at stake. Quivira isn’t his golden city, as in the first game, Drake’s Fortune. Even when the story gets more personal and Drake moves to save Chase and find Quivira, it doesn’t hit hard because it was never clear why Drake connected with Chase in the first place.
But Golden Abyss isn’t a wash. Its greatest contribution to the formula is compiling the adventure’s would-be Grail Diary. Drake always has a journal containing hints for puzzles, but you actually compile it in Abyss, making charcoal rubbings of reliefs, taking photos of ruins, and reassembling torn maps. Much of it is optional, only good for earning trophies for finding them all, but it creates a wonderful bond with Drake and his world. Abyss is hardly a nuke-the-fridge moment for Uncharted. But the series lives and dies by its heart and spectacle, and this one is missing too much of both.