Book Review: ‘Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth’ by Christopher Golden

The tie-in novel can be a tough proposition to pull off well, but even more challenging are those books based on video games. It’s a lose-lose situation in most respects; for the majority of games, the narrative doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny and is merely tolerated for the fun gameplay, but even those titles with rich mythology and great characters might not prove as memorable and enthralling when you’re a passive observer instead of an active participant helping shape the story. Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth attempts to adapt the exhilarating action and adventure of the Uncharted games to the printed page, and while it’s a fun little pulpy adventure to help tide fans over until the new game arrives, sadly it never comes close to rivalling the video game adventures of Nathan Drake.

When college professor and noted archaeologist Luka Hzujak turns up brutally murdered in New York while investigating the myth of Daedalus’ labyrinths, his grieving daughter Jada turns to her godfather, Victor ‘Sully’ Sullivan, for help. Wise-cracking adventurer Nathan Drake leaps to the aid of his best pal/partner in crime and he and Sully head off to Egypt with Jada in tow, intent on unravelling the mysteries of the lost labyrinths, discovering the treasure at the heart of it all and uncovering the truth behind Hzujak’s murder. But with an army of mysterious hooded assassins and a sinister German industrialist on their tail, the treasure-hunters’ latest adventure might prove to be their most dangerous yet.

Though he crafts an entertaining adventure for Nathan Drake, Christopher Golden never quite manages to manoeuvre around the overlooked fact that, at least on paper, Uncharted isn’t an exceptional series. They’re solid, old-fashioned Indiana Jones-inspired adventures that’re masterpieces of presentation rather than plot. The masterstroke of the Uncharted games is in the storytelling rather than the story, combining fantastic gameplay, incredibly cinematic, dynamic and interactive action narratives with voice acting and motion capture performance that’s far above and beyond that of most other games. Take away the exceptional voice talent of Nolan North, Emily Rose and Richard McGonagle, the cinematic, visual action and the interactivity and we’re left back at square one, with an enjoyable, but derivative and familiar pulp adventure story.

Not that that’s a terrible compromise, but without the defining, elevating elements that make the games such phenomenal experiences, the wear in the foundation is much more apparent and harder to forgive. The Uncharted series has always owed a colossal debt to the Indiana Jones movies; without the globe-trotting, treasure-hunting adventures of Henry Jones, Jr., the roguish, quip-happy Nathan Drake we know and love wouldn’t exist. But Christopher Golden goes a few steps further, borrowing almost the entire plot of Temple of Doom for The Fourth Labyrinth. (Spoiler alert!) A mysterious, sinister, catacomb-dwelling cult kidnapping the locals and feeding them potion to turn them into mindless worker drones? Check. One of our heroes momentarily turned slave-zombie and forced to attack his friends? Check-oslavakia.

(The spoilers are over, you can look now!) In fairness, Golden does weave an otherwise entertaining and fairly gripping tale which, true to the Indy/Uncharted formula, weaves mythic history lesson with cryptic, supernatural-tinged mystery and tomb-raiding adventure to engaging effect, with a fun re-imagining of the Daedalus/Minotaur myth. Sadly it’s more than a little damning that The Fourth Labyrinth’s most original and interesting story moments are shamelessly yoinked from an Indiana Jones movie. The action is naturally never as dynamic or as heart-stopping as its gaming counterpart, propped up by too much exposition, and the dialogue’s never quite as snappy, but Golden manages to strike a decent approximation of the game’s tone. A high-octane jungle jeep chase/impromptu rescue sets the scene and reintroduces Nathan Drake perfectly, and a couple of underground labyrinth exploration set-pieces offer fast-paced, well constructed action to have you speeding through pages at a steady clip.

There’s the obligatory woman-of-the-week love interest in Jada Hzujak, a fiesty and amiable girl who gives Nate a run for his money in terms of both wit and adventure. There’s more literary real estate devoted to constantly reminding us of her hair colour than there is to her actual character (keep a hip flash handy and take a swig whenever ‘magenta streaks’ are mentioned – hangovers will ensue), but Golden throws in plenty of fun, flirty banter that works well in effectively nudging along their ‘will-they/won’t they?’ relationship. The usual friendly back-and-forth ribbing between snarky Drake and playful curmudgeon Sully is intact, too, and the pair are great fun to spend time with yet again. There’s brief mention of Nate’s parents, but otherwise there’s not much new light shed on familiar faces and precious little character development for our two heroes, while newcomers might be a tad lost as Golden makes only a sparse effort to introduce Nate and Sully to non-fans.

Those who loved the games will likely find that this paperback Nathan Drake outing never reaches the heights of its interactive equivalent. But while it’s derivative and light on character, The Fourth Labyrinth still makes for a fun, pulpy adventure that proves to be an enjoyable afternoon read. Consider it a fatty, but quite tasty Uncharted hamburger to tide you over until the delicious prime cut steak of Drake’s Deception arrives on PlayStation 3.


Christopher Golden’s ‘Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth’ is available to buy now .
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