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February is the month of romance, and the time where we show our appreciation for those we love the most. That's why this year, the year of its tenth anniversary, I am writing a love letter to my favourite ever console and the blockbuster game which launched with it. Yes, I am writing a letter to the PlayStation Vita and that one mainline Uncharted game you probably never tried, precisely because it was on the PlayStation Vita - Uncharted: Golden Abyss.
There are plenty of reasons the PS Vita failed commercially, though it wasn't to do with the hardware which was way ahead of other portables of the time, or to do with the launch line up which included almost 30 games, many of which were outright bangers. Gravity Rush, Wipeout 2048 and Lumines Electronic Symphony were all excellent experiences along with the obvious Uncharted entry. Yet, because of the console's small install base this pretty part of Uncharted's gaming history is lost to the majority of fans.
Check out the trailer for Golden Abyss here to get a taste of what the game is about.
Golden Abyss wasn't developed by Naughty Dog, but by Bend Studio best known for Days Gone. That fact may not give you too much hope depending on how you feel about that game, however, Naughty Dog were reportedly so precious over its darling IP that it kept a close and watchful eye over the whole process. Bend Studio were cautious and nervous during development. The team was creating the game on a completely new console, with never before seen features, while working with a character like Nathan Drake, who everyone already adored. The pressure and expectation was enormous, and yet it rose to the occasion.
The fact is, when asked to make a PlayStation Vita launch game, Bend chose Uncharted. When asked in an interview with 1UP ( sadly lost to the annals of time but still readable via Wayback Machine here) about the release, now director Christopher Reese said "We knew about the Vita, we knew [Sony] needed to have a launch title, [and we knew] we were going to be doing it, so we basically got to choose what we wanted to do for that." What he chose, of course, was what became one of the most popular franchises exclusive to PlayStation. John Garvin, writer and director of Golden Abyss confirmed:
"We chose Uncharted for a few reasons. We were fans of the game, we knew Uncharted 2 was going to be awesome and that the franchise was going to continue to grow and get better and better, and we felt that its style of gameplay lent itself to the Vita's new controls. In fact, our first slide deck, 2008, concentrated almost exclusively on interesting ways to use the controls: Touch melee, our grenade mechanic, examining objects, the touch-based journal, use of the camera, and so on."
While the Nintendo DS had launched years before, the touchscreen capabilities of the bottom screen were very limited. The new tech which Sony was developing allowed players to flip the pages in Drake's journal as if they were the man himself, they could tactically take charcoal rubbings of important artifacts, and rotate relics to examine them from all angles. If you couple these capabilities with the portability of the console, these features let players immerse themselves in the world in a way they couldn't before. The only issue was there was no precedent for their development or how to implement them.
As development took place pre-launch, the team were working with hardware that hadn't yet been built. They would share the single development kit between everyone at the studio, and it was months before they had a touchscreen which actually responded. They were developing a game based on Sony's concept rather than anything which was reality. It soon became apparent that Uncharted would push the not yet created hardware to its limit. As such, Bend started to balance optimisation against the soon-to-be console bursting into flames.
Despite the technical hardships, Bend had amazing insight from Naughty Dog on what exactly Uncharted was. There were several meetings with Nathan Drake's mother herself, Amy Hennig, about what it means to make an Uncharted game. She outlined it as a well researched historical mystery based on reality with exotic and romantic locations which provide combat, traversal, and puzzles. It also has to have a sense of humour, be a pulp adventure, and have great characters, dialogue and surprises. This is the magic formula for what makes a game feel as if it fits in the franchise. Getting this formula just right, and in turn getting Hennig's approval, was the final piece of the puzzle.
With everything working against them; writing for a story and character which wasn't theirs, on hardware which wasn't complete, and with a team which would go on to make Days Gone, it seemed that Uncharted: Golden Abyss was destined for failure. Yet, Drake still had a twist up his sleeve. Golden Abyss didn't fail. It was not only loved by critics, but went on to be the best selling game for the console.
You may have noticed that this article says a lot about Uncharted: Golden Abyss without saying very much about Uncharted: Golden Abyss. That's for the simple reason that I want you to play it. Learn to love tactile combat better than quick-time events, uncover the mysteries of Marcos de Niza, and explore an exotic and romantic location which provides combat, traversal, and puzzles. Play Uncharted: Golden Abyss. That recommendation is my Valentine's gift to you all.
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