I’m a big fan of developer Ninja Theory. Though it wasn’t without its flaws, Heavenly Sword was one of my favorite games in 2007, and had me eagerly anticipating the company’s next title, no matter what it was. While it would have been nice to see another entry in the Heavenly Sword franchise, Ninja Theory moved on with a new IP called Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Combining an epic adventure with impressive graphics, intriguing characters, and solid, if a bit simple, gameplay, Enslaved is another strong effort from the developer. Even though a few nagging issues prevent it from being a great game, Enslaved is still a lot of fun.
Confined to a holding cell on a slave ship, Monkey can do nothing but watch as a young woman escapes her own cell, and sets the ship to self-destruct. Freed by a chance explosion, Monkey follows the girl through the ship, hoping to find an escape pod. He manages to track her down just as she makes it into a pod, and Monkey makes a desperate move to grab onto the pod as it’s jettisoned. They crash into the remnants of Grand Central Station, and when Monkey awakens, he finds that the girl, Trip, has placed a slave headband on him. Forced to do whatever Trip says and protect her life under penalty of death, Monkey obliges to help her get home so she’ll set him free. The world Enslaved takes place in has been overtaken by a race of robots called Mechs. There’s never any explanation how the Mechs came to be, or how they came to power, but there are hints scattered throughout the world of what civilization was like just before the war for humanity broke out. Alex Garland’s script doesn’t elaborate on much of the world’s backstory, leaving it up to you to fill in the blanks however you see fit. Choosing instead to focus on character and motivations, Garland’s story is more about Trip and Monkey’s relationship than it is about how the world became so devastated. It’s an interesting tale, made all the more poignant by the performances, and it’s strong enough to keep you playing even during the occasional gameplay break down.
As much as I loved the story of Enslaved, there were a few moments where I was taken out of the experience by some pretty frustrating gameplay elements. From the start, you will always control Monkey, who has a modicum of combat maneuvers at his disposal, as well as a staff that can discharge projectiles. For the most part the melee combat is solid. You have a few attacks at the start (quick, stun, and strong), and you can utilize them in any order for some on-the-fly combos. Eventually you’ll collect enough orbs to upgrade your abilities to add counter-attacks and such, but you’ll always be able to get by with just your original move set. Some enemies can be studied by Trip, and a weakness can be exploited. Those weakness could be the ability to rip of a gun arm, or a faulty power source, which will blow up if used correctly. Occasional camera tracking issues, and the lack of a lock-on targeting mechanic, can create issues when you’re trying to take on multiple opponents at once, but that’s far from the game’s biggest problem. That honor lies solely in the hands of the Cloud mini-flying disc portions.
A few times during the game, Monkey will be able to use his flying disc to get around a level to solve a puzzle or chase down an enemy. The Cloud, as it is known in the game, is incredibly agile and fast, yet controls like a large shield on a block of ice. The handling is all over the place, especially when you hit one of the boost spots, and trying to navigate narrow ledges while jumping is almost impossible. There wasn’t a single Cloud-based level I finished on the first try. It wasn’t for lack of knowing where to go or what to do, but rather trying to force my will upon the Cloud to get it to do what I wanted. Late in the game there is a chase you’ll have to complete with the Cloud that is equal parts maddening and annoying. Thankfully, it’s also the last time you have to use the cursed device. While I can understand the idea behind wanting to put a mechanic like this into the game, I can’t for the life of me figure out how it failed so miserably on execution.
The shooting portions of the game are fairly frequent towards the end of the game, and though they’re nothing special, they work just fine. Monkey can fire either a destructive blast or a stun blast, which will disarm an enemy’s shield. There’s a light bit of cover mechanics included, and both Monkey and Trip will duck for cover when close enough to the object. Despite being out of the action for much of the game, Trip can be a great asset during a shootout. Throughout the game, Monkey will be able to give Trip commands to help traverse a portion of the level, one of which is a holographic decoy. All Mechs immediately focus their attention on the decoy, giving Monkey time to flank a turret or Mech with a gun. You’ll also be able to direct her to work puzzles in the game, but those are contextual, and only come into play when the game requires it. Trip and Monkey’s co-operative relationship also requires him to sometimes carry her around when traversing certain platforming areas, or throw her across large gaps she wouldn’t be able to cross on her own. Trip is, for the most part, a very competent AI partner. She doesn’t get involved the action too often, and even when she does, she doesn’t fight, but relies on an EMP pulse she sets off until you can make your way back to save her.
Enslaved follows the Uncharted/Assassin’s Creed platforming method in that all it takes to traverse a level is the ability to hit the X-button in the right spot. All you have to do is look for the shiny hand-hold/pipe, push the analog stick towards it, and hit X. Monkey will move through any level with ease, and can’t accidentally walk off any ledges or miss any jumps (on foot). There’s actually nothing difficult about progressing through a level, and though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it makes an already linear game that much more of a straight line between objectives. There’s an entire world ravaged by time and war that you never get to see because the developers want you to stay on track, and it’s really a shame Ninja Theory went so far in creating this wonderfully realized post-apocalyptic world, yet you don’t get to explore it. That said, the game is gorgeous.
The world of Enslaved is stunning. Instead of a wasteland, Ninja Theory’s post-apocalyptic planet looks more like Life After People than it does Fallout. Seeing nature retake urbanized areas is a refreshing take on a genre that too often settles for dust bowls and red skies. Sure, the buildings are all still collapsing, but when you get to the top of a building in Enslaved, the vista below is teeming with life, rather than being a barren waste. However, as great as the world looks, everything about the game’s presentation is ruined by constant screen-tearing, and the curse of the Unreal Engine, texture pop-ins. There’s nothing more disappointing than seeing the rich details of the world pop into existence after you’ve been looking at a blurry, textureless mass for a few seconds. That flaw is to be expected with the Unreal Engine though, and makes you wonder why it hasn’t been addressed by Epic for this generation. More annoying than the pop-ins, though, is the screen-tearing. It happens often, and all over the screen, ruining for those few seconds whatever imagery is on the screen at that time. It’s probably the most disappointing thing about the game, particularly when you consider so much of the visual presentation is so strong.
Fortunately, the game’s acting is top notch. Like Heavenly Sword before it, Enslaved is helped in the performance department thanks to the assistance of Andy Serkis. Alex Garland’s script doesn’t waste time with endless exposition, meaning the actors need to convey a great deal of emotion through their facial expressions and body language. Serkis, as the mocap actor for Monkey, is able to give the character great strength, but Monkey is also a very lonely man, who comes to welcome his companionship with Trip, regardless of the fact that she’s using him. There is, without a doubt, a lot going on behind those eyes, and the animators do a wonderful job of bringing that to life. Trip is just as complex and complicated a character. She’s vulnerable and intelligent, but most of all, she’s regretful about what she’s done to Monkey as a means to an end. Her face is animated with such expressiveness, it’s hard not to become attached. As for the rest of the animations, there are only a few times when actions look a little awkward. Any time Monkey has to throw Trip, things can look a bit jerky. Because Monkey can’t fall off of ledges, no matter what their height, it’s strange to see him try to balance himself out so often. Other than that, the characters look fantastic in motion.
While I was eagerly anticipating Enslaved: Odyssey to the West from the moment I saw the first trailer, I feel a little let down by the final product. Perhaps my hopes were just too high, because Enslaved is actually a really good game. There are some instances where the game swaps difficulty for frustration, and the odd graphical glitch appears every now and then, which takes away from the overall end product. Perhaps with a bit more polish, Enslaved could have catapulted itself into Game of the Year discussions, but sadly that’s not the case. It’s a good game with a very engaging narrative, and I hope to see more Enslaved in the future. I just can’t help feeling that this game could have been so much more than it ended up.