Enslaved: Odyssey To The West
Posted 2 years ago By kingquagmire - David Collins
Spinning an engrossing tale is a tough prospect. Seriously, it’s a lot harder than it looks. Trust me, I’ve been trying for the last year or so. I have a figment of a lead character and a notion of an origin that would make even the Jackass crowd roll their eyes. Regardless of my lack of storytelling skills, I do enjoy a well formed journey; regardless of the source - be it the written word or one of the various visual mediums.
In fact, I think it was the epic tales the made me really cherish video games as something more than arcade fodder. A prime example is Ninja Theory’s latest game, Enslaved. This is a developer that I’ve honestly not given a fair shake up until now. I passed off Heavenly Sword as a simple God of War clone (a mistake I’m scolded for time and again). Yet, there was something magical about Enslaved, something I felt from the first time I saw it. While I wasn’t on the bandwagon right away, I slowly but surely migrated there over the last few months and now I can be seen waving the Enslaved banner with pride.
The tale is loosely based on a 400-year old Chinese novel called Journey to the West. While my memories of the story are somewhat vague, the term “loosely” is very apropos as the game is set in a dystopian future where mankind is relegated to tribal life and are plagued by robotic slavers. The ties to the centuries-old saga come in the form of the journey itself as it is one that could ultimately alter the course of human life as they know it.
Additionally, the main characters carry the same names as those found in Journey to the West. Monkey is the hero. He’s the guy who’s begrudgingly (and I mean that literally) taken up this odyssey simply because his physical prowess allows him to both navigate the dilapidated landscape with acrobatic finesse and do battle with the robots standing in their way. Supporting him is Trip. To put it in today’s language, she’s the tech geek, the hacker whom also is the one roping Monkey into this adventure. Later in the game they meet up with Pigsy - another name from Journey to the West - and someone who quickly became my favorite supporting character of the year with his unique and well conceived personality and subtle one-liners made at Monkey’s expense. The dynamics between these three characters is one that is rarely seen this well done in video game form.
I don’t want to give away too much, but the gist of the tale sees Monkey helping Trip return home after being kidnapped by - and subsequently escaping from - the slavers. As I mentioned, this isn’t something Monkey wants to do. Trip has him leashed with a slave headband that she re-purposed during the escape. Should Monkey not follow her commands or let harm come to her, he will be killed. This is where I’ll stop. The centerpiece of Enslaved is the story and the narrative. Spoiling that will be a heinous act in itself. The pacing and the development of the characters and their relationship was nothing short of perfect. Just the furtive glances between Monkey and Trip at certain moments were enough to express a ton of emotion without speaking a single word.
The mechanics, while not quite as well executed as the story, are still solid. The player controls Monkey throughout the entire game and this guy emits a free-flowing grace while hoping on even the smallest of protrusions in an effort to find alternative means of progression. With the torn-up state of the world, getting around is difficult. So Monkey will need to jump, swing, and climb his way around the environment in order to open a path that Trip can move through. The controls feel a bit loose initially, but became second nature after playing with it for an hour or so. One thing that helped was the realization the it is hard to make Monkey fall. As the game opens, players will take tentative steps on ledges simply out of fear of plunging him to his death. Fret not, our spike-haired hero has incredible balance, fluid movements and most likely a dab of super glue on the pads of his feet. It’s not perfect, as there were a few instances where I did fall due to a poor jump, but those were very infrequent and never occurred when straddling a girder or ascending the side of a precipice.
However, the camera will be a much more glaring issue. It’s not a game breaker, but manually controlling it exposes how sensitive it is and when the game takes control, then awkward angles will prove to be a more difficult enemy than any mechanical creation Monkey may face.
The combat is not as deep as I would have liked. It boils down to Monkey swinging a retractable Bo (a staff) that he’ll swing with both standard and power hits. Should a Mech have a shield or if Monkey gets surrounded, he can charge up a stun attack that will drop the shields and glitch the robot baddie long enough for him to get control of the battle again. Part way into the journey, his Bo will gain the ability to shoot energy projectiles as well - be it for attack or to drop the shields of a ranged enemy. Having a ranged attack at Monkey’s disposal was probably one of the smartest moves Ninja Theory made with the combat since it presented a viable alternative to melee; one I used quite often, especially later in the game.
All attacks can be upgraded along with health and shields by collecting experience orbs littered about the landscape and dropped by defeated foes. Initially I wasn’t sold on the upgrades but as I made my way to the end, I did find a true sense of skill progression, making orb collection worth the effort. While the vast majority of the combat was serviceable and won’t cause any issues, it didn’t really stand out either beyond the cool looking final-hit animations that would crop up every time he landed the last blow at the end of a wave of robots. It’s functional as a means to get past the obstacles the group faces and get to the next piece of the narrative.
Trip, on the other hand, is basically helpless. She has no combative skills. Although, she is very tech friendly so she’ll still have some vital uses. Should Monkey need health, she can apply one of the health packs that can be picked up during the adventure. Need to cross an open area that’s under the watchful eye of an enemy turret? Have Trip create a bit of a diversion, catching the attention (and bullet fire) of it so you can pass. She also hacks a mechanical dragonfly early in the game that takes a preview flight over upcoming areas; marking both the current objective and any slaver enemies that are sitting in sentry mode. The entire game is dependent on these two working in tandem. Their need of each other to survive provided fertile ground for the development of their fledgling relationship.
A light puzzle element kept the adventure varied (along with a couple of cool robotic boss-like creatures, such as Dog) without posing any brain-busting difficulty. Now, note that I didn’t say interesting, just varied. The gameplay can get repetitive as progression boils down to the same few tasks. Opening doors or gates that will allow for Trip’s safe and unobstructed passage. I can’t say it bothered me a whole lot though since it became a means to an end. The minor variety and short nature of each area combined with the visuals were enough to keep me placated until the next story push. With that said, there is one element that I absolutely adored: Cloud. The Cloud is a hoverboard-like device that allows Monkey to skate through environments that he wouldn’t be able to tackle on foot. These sections were some of the most thrilling of the entire game and Ninja Theory certainly didn’t utilize it enough.
Traversing through the environment, one can’t help but pause to take it all in. Sweeping cityscapes overgrown with lush foliage, crumbling buildings, stark canyon walls, metal-laden dump sites and abandoned factories along with the various post-apocalyptic set pieces usher in feelings of desolate isolation. It reminded me of an episode of The History Channel’s Life After People. Forlorn bits of humanity such as the intact, yet abandoned apartments give hints of a life that’s long been lost. I did come across a few visual glitches here or there, but again - same as the camera problem - it isn’t game breaker by any means.
Adding to that is the character textures that not only drummed up the realism, but enhanced the story’s emotional impact that much more. One up-close look at Pigsy in motion - with his tattoos, beard stubble, dental problems and rolls of fat - will be enough to make you believe he is as real as you or me. Of course, the fantastic dialog helps, which is exceptionally delivered by a cast that includes Lord of the Rings veteran Andy Serkis. That - along with a haunting score that drove the “Last Man On Earth” vibe home - fleshed out and polished the experience to a level that not many other games came close to hitting this year.
My biggest complaint about Enslaved is that it ended. The camera does need to be tightened up a bit and the controls, while not bad, should get a once over as well just to help instill some confidence in the player. But beyond that, Enslaved hit the mark. The tale that Ninja Theory put together is video game story telling at it’s finest. The scriptwork and dialog delivery made me care about Monkey and Trip and the audio and visual ambiance drew me into the hardships of the world they live in.
Unfortunately, the story is all we have to bring us back for another go. There’s no multiplayer or other play modes and the collectibles that can be gathered (which will flesh out the story a little more) are probably not enough to motivate a second playthrough. Namco does have post-launch DLC plans though, so it’s a sure bet that Enslaved will be spinning in my disk drive again. Even still, what was great about Enslaved was so great that I was able to forgive the little things without a second thought. The 10-12 hours journey will enthrall you from beginning to end and easily make it worth the price of admission.
Enslaved, you might have coasted in under the radar, but now that you’ve been exposed, I can see many Game of the Year nominations in your future.
+ Exemplary character development
+ Voicework is exceptionally well scripted and delivered
+ Jaw dropping character textures
+ Wonderful dystopian ambiance
- Camera needs some work
- Little replay value
- It ended
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Release Date : 2010/10/05
System : Xbox 360
Publisher : Namco Bandai
Developer : Ninja Theory
Category : Action
ESRB : T
7.0 / 10
8.5 / 10
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8.7 / 10