After the first three Uncharted titles had sold close to 15 million copies worldwide and enjoyed astounding critical success, it didn't take a genius to decide that launching Sony's new PlayStation Vita console with another Uncharted game would be a good idea. This time, protagonist Nathan Drake found himself in Panama, following secrets left by Spanish conquistadores and an ancient Christian sect called Sete Cidades, on his search for the titular Golden Abyss. The resulting game, Uncharted: The Golden Abyss, still achieved satisfying critical acclaim and emerged as the handheld's best-seller, but its sales greatly lagged behind those of previous Uncharted games.
One of the most memorable aspects of the first three Uncharted titles had been their music, written by Greg Edmonson. Not only did he manage to create one of the most iconic video game themes of recent years "Nathan's Theme", a suitably swaggering brass melody for the games' Indiana Jones-style hero Edmonson's work also brought him a BAFTA Award for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. It was all the more surprising then that he wouldn't go on to score Uncharted: Golden Abyss, the likeliest explanation being clashing schedules, as Golden Abyss was released only about a month after Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, a game for which Edmonson had written close to two hours worth of material.
However, Sony Computer Entertainment had a worthy replacement within their own ranks: Clint Bajakian, who supervised previous scores in the Uncharted series and, back when he worked for LucasArts, scored acclaimed games including Indiana Jones and Outlaws. The fact that Golden Abyss' story took place before the other Uncharted games gave Bajakian some freedom to shepherd this score into stylistic directions unexplored by Edmonson's soundtracks. Like Resistance: Burning Skies some months later, Golden Abyss received quite a lavish treatment for a portable game score and was recorded with a full orchestra at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville.
Within seconds of its opening track "In Search of the Sete Cidades", Golden Abyss introduces its most significant addition to the Uncharted franchise's musical universe: solemn, Gregorian-style choir chants, which in their commanding solemnity add an unexpected degree of weight and spirituality to the score. Beyond this quite impacting effect, these vocal elements are also a reasonably clever way to address the Sete Cidades sect and the Spanish conquistadores behind the game's story. It's a not a unique device Vangelis did pretty much the same in his score for Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise but it's still a sufficiently novel idea to give the score an individual musical footprint.
The air of awe that these choir chants exude never fails to make its impact during the album's running time, although they dominate the album through their imposing nature rather than through their frequent occurrence, as they're only heard on three tracks in total. During the first half of "In Search of the Sete Cidades" and throughout the majority of closing track "Sete Cidades Theme", the choir lines are accompanied by relatively sparse orchestrations that underline the spirituality of these vocal melodies, such as the inward violin melodies on "Sete Cidades Theme". The feeling of wonder that the choir carries with it is teased out most clearly on "The Sword of Steven", where it's paired with other sonic trademarks of wondrousness that include light female choir, gong strikes and chromatic string harmonies. Apart from being greatly atmospheric, "The Sword of Steven" also displays Bajakian's steady hand at writing winning melodic content, typified here through regretful, moving violin melodies that carry the track's final third. On the other end of the spectrum, the second half of "In Search of the Sete Cidades" pits the majestic, static choir chants against increasingly busy and dramatic action sounds to great effect, making this composition the most rousing track on the album.
The fact that Bajakian bookends Golden Abyss with two choir-focused tracks that mostly eschew surface drama and go for intimate, almost religious tones is telling of the direction into which he's taking the music of the Uncharted franchise with this soundtrack. This is a score that is not so much concerned with throwing the listener into rollicking adventures, but rather tries to establish a feeling of mystery and quiet astonishment at the game's centuries-old locales and enigmas. The score's most attractive and lyrical expression of this tendency is "Chase's Theme", which uses much lighter choir lines than the pieces associated with the Sete Cidade, going for peacefulness rather than gravitas. Bajakian surrounds the choir with hopeful horn melodies and inserts for ethnic flute and acoustic guitar, increasing the track's allure further when he reduces the vocal elements to a single soprano that is intriguingly mixed just far enough into the background to function as a bringer of otherworldly ambiance. The most broadly melodic piece on the album, "Chase's Theme" is quite a spellbinding composition that beautifully teases out another facet of the score's bend towards mysticism. It's worth pointing out that not only on "Chase's Theme", but throughout the whole score, all musical ingredients solo and ensemble elements of both instrumental and vocal nature are performed with aplomb and brought together seamlessly in the album's full, but always clear sound.
The third and final vocal element that Bajakian uses on Golden Abyss are ethnic chants specific to the game's Middle-American location. They are first heard on "Snake Temple", both in solo and choir form, and it's particularly the striking ethnic tenor soli that are fetching in their unusual timbre and sometimes pained expression (at least to Western ears). The whispered warrior chants on "Snake Temple" are less creative, but still add another facet of mystery and colour to the music. Set against swelling orchestral statements that echo the enigmatic air of "The Sword of Steven" once more through elegant, chromatic string lines these ethnic vocals are another potent source of Golden Abyss' often enveloping atmosphere. That being said, they're not always used to their full potential. On "Quiviran Warrior", an otherwise standard tension track backed by various hand percussion layers, these vocals add a welcome dash of colour. The same effect is not enough to make "Lake of Ghosts" consistently interesting, its four minutes feeling unnecessarily stretched out by more ominous tension material, punctuated occasionally by the warrior chants. The piece only gets more lively and interesting after the three-minute mark, but that's not quite enough to salvage it.
While these relatively fresh Latin vocals are another strong addition to the sound palette of the Uncharted franchise, Golden Abyss' other instrumental choices that are meant to address its Middle-American locations are less interesting. Throughout the score, acoustic guitar and fluttering ethnic flute calls are heard on various cues, but they rarely play a crucial role and are simply added here and there for surface effect, never asserting themselves as an individual musical identity in the way the various vocal elements do. There are a handful of occasions during which these Latin instruments come a bit more to the fore though. For example, "Guerro's Theme" underscores one of the title's bad guys through a slithery, descending five-note motif on acoustic guitar, albeit in not particularly memorable fashion. It's also on some of the quieter, mood-building tracks like "Ancient Mystery" and "Windows and Ropes" where the hand percussion, flute and acoustic guitar are given some room to shine, before these reflective, occasionally stark compositions become more outright emotional through some subdued orchestral passages.
Arguably the place where the Latin instruments are the least well integrated is on Golden Abyss' action tracks, which like "A Fighting Chance", "Trouble in the Rubble" and "Mano a Mano" suddenly change gears midway and slow down for a brief, Latin-inflected passage led by the acoustic guitar or flute. Arguably though, this structural issue is not the biggest problem plaguing Golden Abyss' action cues, all of which are solid, but rarely outstanding. The busy string ostinati and percussion rhythms that drive these robust compositions keep the music going at a steady clip, but are at best mildly exciting a step back after Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception had been the franchise's most swashbuckling score to date. Similarly, the brass motifs and rhythms piled on top of the cues' rhythmic foundations are mostly perfunctory and never turn the music into something truly stirring. The climax of "Mano a Mano", the album's final action track, is reasonably rousing, but it's not the spectacular finale that it wants to be.
This lack of adventurous spirit is best exemplified by the fact that Nate's theme doesn't carry over from the previous Uncharted scores in any recognisable form. While this makes sense to a degree considering Golden Abyss' function as a prequel it's still a disappointment to see the theme's sense of excitement gone without much to replace it. Curiously, these action tracks are most engaging when they layer unexpectedly sweeping violin melodies over their rhythms, as on "Dante's Army" and "Protect Chase". Similar to "In Search of the Sete Cidades", it's the interplay between these melodic moments and the persistent orchestral rhythms that dramatically increases the music's scope and finally imbues it with a sense of grand adventure.
While Uncharted: Golden Abyss is the first Uncharted game not to be scored by series' mainstay Greg Edmonson, fans of the first three soundtracks in the franchise will find much to like here. Bajakian writes an adventure score that is never less than competent and often enough quite inspired. His biggest innovation is to add choral elements to the soundworld of the Uncharted franchise, and this move pays off in spades, as the Gregorian and ethnic choirs give the music just the sense of wonder and gravitas that the game's century-old locations and mysteries require. In fact, what's surprising about the title is how much it focuses on painting an atmospheric portrait of the game's sites, carried by several strong and emotional melodies.
The other Latin elements heard on Golden Abyss flute, hand percussion, acoustic guitar make less of an impact than the vocals and are used mostly without much consequence, but these instruments certainly add some timbral variety to the music. Where Golden Abyss stumbles is in its adequate action tracks that are hardly the pulse-pounding pace-setters that featured so prominently on Drake's Deception, typified by the surprising absence of "Nate's Theme" here. Strangely enough, Golden Abyss ends up being a score that does a great job at scoring its locations and even some of its secondary protagonists, but leaves its main character without a musical identity. Despite these shortcomings, the game and score alike are worthy entries into the Uncharted franchise.