Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth – book review

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Videogame spin-off novels often get off to a running start, in that they leap from a springboard of low expectations; a depressingly large proportion of games writing struggles to deserve praise higher than ‘competent’. Having previously taken the bold decision to publish a Bioshock prequel novel, Titan Books have since put onto shelves The Fourth Labyrinth, the first official Uncharted novel. All three Uncharted games have strong, well-defined characters; witty dialogue; breathtaking action set pieces; and, in short, some of the best writing in the industry. Though almost perfectly suited to a literary adaptation, the Uncharted series (excepting a few irritating loose ends in the third instalment) sets the writing bar surprisingly high.

The book is written by Christopher Golden, who has previously worked on not only novels but also an online animated series, videogame scripts, comics, and screenplays. His acknowledgements end with thanks to somebody for “the music and for loving Nate Drake as much as I do”. The big question is: can his talent for writing novels match his apparent love for the Uncharted games, despite – or due to – writing for such a variety of fiction media?

Rather than being a direct sequel or prequel to any of the existing games, the events of The Fourth Labyrinth take place at an unspecified point in Drake and Sully’s globetrotting, treasure hunting career. The main adventure is soon set in motion thanks to the obligatory Uncharted Feisty Female, the part of which is played here by Jada Hzujak, Sully’s god-daughter. Her father (Luka), one of Sully’s oldest and closest friends, was a famous archaeologist – whose butchered corpse turns up in a steamer trunk on a train platform in Manhattan.

Before his death, Luka had almost finished unlocking the secrets of three labyrinths dotted across the world which were somehow connected; but Drake, Sully and Jada have access to only a small proportion of what he knew, in the form of hurriedly scribbled notes and drawings. A second murder and one very public attempt on their lives later, they race to find out what Luka knew, why he wanted to hide it from the man who hired him to research it, who’s trying to kill them and why. Of course, it soon transpires that there is a fourth labyrinth somewhere in the world, which holds something much more valuable and dangerous than treasure…

Sully seems to have a cigar in his mouth for most of the book; that's half his character right there.

From the first page to the last, The Fourth Labyrinth moves at a breakneck pace. This urgent pacing is masterfully married to an acknowledgement of the fact that a good book, unlike a good game, cannot rely on shootouts, puzzles and chases alone. Characters sleep, travel in planes and cars, stay in hotel rooms, have serious conversations… yet page to page, word to word, the whole story is utterly gripping. No moment is wasted. If things stay static geographically, the time is used to explore the nuances of unfamiliar characters or further the overarching plot.

One of the most important questions for Uncharted fans is: does it feel like Uncharted? The answer is, without a doubt, yes. Treasure and exotic locations aside, there are the characters. Sully and Drake are the only two from the games, yet these two have been so well painted there that any slip-up will ruin the tone of the whole book. Some of their banter is so sharp and witty it could have been pulled from any of the games, and they both always stay in character; all the more impressive when you consider that they are sometimes, by necessity, placed in prosaic situations that the games never have cause to explore. Jada would fit well into any new game, and in fact has more depth to her than either Chloe or Elena.

This picture would illustrate the first chapter perfectly. Read it and you'll see.

Rather than taking the easy option of dropping pantomime villains into the story, Golden introduces (and sustains) who are initially suspected to be the two villains – Jada’s stepmother Olivia, and Olivia’s boss (also the man who hired Luka) Tyr Henriksen – with carefully moulded ambiguity. Jada is convinced that Olivia is evil personified, and all three presume Henriksen is almost certainly the man behind at least some of the violence and death surrounding them. As the story progresses however the reader is soon unsure if things are quite that straightforward, especially when mysterious ninja-like warriors are thrown into the mix. When the final few pieces are put together near the end of the book, it’s unlikely you will have seen it all coming.

All of this is supported by Golden’s gift for immediately throwing the reader into the world he’s created and bringing it all to vivid life. Without needlessly lengthy location and character descriptions, telling the reader only what they need to know and allowing their imagination to summon the rest, it’s no exaggeration to say he rivals Stephen King and Terry Pratchett for immersive writing. This was an unexpected and more than welcome surprise.

That’s not to say that the writing is without a few hiccups now and again. Repeatedly describing those chasing Drake in the opening chapter as “killers” soon grates, and there are a few other rare instances of loose cogs in an otherwise powerful narrative machine. Toward the end of the book, Drake briefly reflects on his reluctance to kill, which is a little hard to swallow considering the literally hundreds of people he shoots his way through in the three games thus far released; and there’s a decision he makes in the closing stages, ordinarily at odds with his character, which isn’t amply justified (and which can not be explained here without spoiling the ending). Given the quality of all that goes before this is forgiveable; though the reader is forced to fill in a few gaps in the process.

Ultimately, if you’re at all interested in this book you will not be disappointed. It’s gripping, written with incredible skill, and very much Uncharted. Well worth a purchase, even for those unfamiliar with the games.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

One comment

  1. Oni-Samurai /

    I was going to buy this anyway, but you’ve definitely persuaded me that little bit more. I’d also recommend the Assassin’s Creed book series by Oliver Bowden, its really great includes the DLC (no seriously!) and doesn’t feature Desmond. At all! Well his name is mentioned once and thats it.

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