Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth opens exactly as you’d expect it to. The franchise’s affable protagonist, Nathan ‘Nate’ Drake, is pictured driving through a tropical backdrop with a beautiful girl to his side – and a host of gun-toting thugs flashing submachine guns in his rear-view mirror. Within a single turn of the printed page, author Christopher Golden effortlessly captures the reckless nature of the iconic character, and sets the tone for the rest of this exhilarating adventure.
Video game novels are a tough proposition, typically because the material authors are given to work with is often so poor. As gamers, we tend to grit our teeth through shoddy fiction, dodgy writing and poor voice acting because the gameplay mechanics at the heart of the experience are the primary reason for investment. But in written form, authors don’t have the crux of gameplay to fall back on, leaving behind a shallow novel despite the best intentions of the author.
Uncharted is arguably one of the few franchises with fiction strong enough to carry a novel. While the property’s pulpy adventuring is largely derivative of Indiana Jones’ escapades in film, Naughty Dog’s games eschew cliché by virtue of their strong character development and great writing. That quality persists in Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth, prompting an enjoyable page-turner that captures the spirit of the series with ease.
Like Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, The Fourth Labyrinth hones in on the relationship between Drake and his mentor, Victor ‘Sully’ Sullivan. While the novel’s exposition chapters are wrapped in the poignancy of murder, Golden still finds room to explore the paternal banter between the duo; a theme that underlines the heart of the plot.
Having escaped from the jungle with an extra line of zeros added to his bank balance, Drake arrives in Chicago to find an urgent answer phone message from his stand-in father outlining the gruesome, and curiously public, murder of his archaeologist friend, Luka Hzujak. Racked with grief, and challenged by a sense of responsibility over the deceased’s daughter, Jada Hzujak, Sully enlists on the help of Drake to unravel the mysteries that led to Luka’s untimely demise.
At times, The Fourth Labyrinth comes closer to capturing Naughty Dog’s intent than any of the actual Uncharted games
The Uncharted series has always hinged on the inclusion of strong female characters to etch out the personality of Drake, and, despite being a newcomer, Jada Hzujak more than fills the role. While Golden plays with the prospect of a blossoming romance between the pair, he eventually steers the relationship in a different direction, prompting a warm sibling-like affection between the two that’s anchored by their dependence on the fatherly Sully. It’s a dynamic that’s believable, and prompts some feel-good exchanges between the trio that cuts through the narrative’s darker overtones.
Freed from the shackles of gameplay, Golden is able to develop the narrative at a slower pace than the Uncharted games. Shootouts are a rarity, with Drake’s exploration and archaeological skills brought to the forefront of the plot. There’s an anaemic pace to the story throughout, which makes the action feel all the more breathless when it arrives. At times, The Fourth Labyrinth comes closer to capturing Naughty Dog’s intent than any of the actual games, with Drake’s actions much more conducive to his tender personality.
Sadly, Golden’s restraint is undone by a hasty conclusion, which sees the pseudo-historical spiel that’s at the core of the plot unsatisfactorily terminated within a few short chapters. Considering the bulk of the novel relies on slow build-up and careful attention to detail, it’s clear that time restrictions thwarted the author’s ambition, and it’s unfortunate that the novel’s unable to conclude on the same high note as its opening.
Still, while the plot’s short on new character development – there’s a passing reference to Drake’s family that’s hurriedly brushed aside – it’s a novel that’s entirely befitting of the franchise. If you’re a fan of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games, then you'll almost certainly enjoy The Fourth Labyrinth. Golden’s mastery of the fiction, and, perhaps most importantly, the characters, is impressive, and it gives the novel a relevancy that makes it a must for followers of the franchise.