Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
I can’t quite figure out why people are raving about Enslaved. Though it’s an entertaining adventure game and the characters interact well, I feel like I’m the only one bothered by the fact that the game is a post-apocalyptic Uncharted, with elements from Prince of Persia, Resident Evil 4, God of War, Jak & Daxter, and Gears of War thrown in like some sort of “Will it blend?” video. And though it does blend well for the most part, it often feels as if a beefed-up Nathan Drake and a useful, hacker version of Yorda from ICO (who speaks your language this time) entered the non-computerized part of the Matrix world, but with more plant life.
Based loosely on the 16th century Chinese novel, Journey to the West, the game is more about climbing, leaping, and fighting than it is the spiritual journey to retrieve Buddhist scripture as highlighted in the ancient source material. Developed by Ninja Theory (best known for 2007’s Heavenly Sword and the upcoming Devil May Cry reboot), Enslaved: Odyssey to the West utilizes the company’s action/adventure style and high animation quality on the PS3 and Xbox 360. The environments are highly detailed even in the distance and facial movements are smooth, captivating, and believable, though these things are soured by the obvious “homage” to other games.
The story begins as Monkey, a large man with numerous scars and bulging muscles, (who never discovers the need for a shirt) is being transported on a slaver airship. A female hacker who goes by the nickname Trip sabotages the ship, and in a very Uncharted 2-like opening full of climbing and jumping over collapsing debris, Monkey follows her to an escape pod and actually holds on to the outside of it as it ejects toward the ground. As it turns out, the area their escape pod crashes in is a post-apocalyptic Manhattan, NY, 150 years in the future, and they later explore other less distinct areas of the country. Violent mechs are everywhere and their goal seems to be only to kill and not capture. The setting again evokes Uncharted’s design, with the lush greens of overgrown plants covering walls, buildings, and ruins as you leap from stone to pipe to ledge. When Monkey wakes up he finds Trip has put a slaver headband on him that responds to her voice commands and is linked to her heartbeat: if she dies the headband will detonate, killing him. This is how she ensures his help in getting home to the village the slave ship took her from. Their love/hate relationship that inevitably brings them closer works well despite being very easy to predict early on.
Unfortunately, we never really get any backstory except for what can be inferred (there was a crazy war using mechs and after the world was decimated the mechs remained, maintaining their programming to kill humans). I suppose this is to be expected from 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland, another post-apocalyptic story that doesn’t dwell on the past or the future. We never learn much about the current civilization, either, except for how Trip’s settlement was run, and even then we don’t learn much about the world. It’s a narrative that’s about picking up in the middle of two people’s lives, only concerned with the present and what they experience while you follow their journey and little more than that.
The gameplay is entertaining enough to make up for the lack of information, but don’t go in expecting anything more than a well-made conglomerate of other popular games. Monkey will leap from shining brick to shining pipe making inconceivable jumps and throwing Trip to platforms she can’t reach. Trip is able to get into places Monkey can’t fit and through a command system Monkey is able to instruct her through the headset in his headband to pull levers, run, or help him out by creating a holographic decoy while ensuring she isn’t killed. This adds a layer of strategy and puzzle-solving, as you have to follow her commands as well as command her yourself in order to create a path and continue onward. She’s not a fighter, so her only defense against mechs is an EMP blast that temporarily stuns them and allows her to escape while you protect her. She’s helpful in other ways though; a master hacker who can reprogram any computer system, security door, etc., comes in handy and early on she reprograms a robot dragonfly to act as an airborne scanner. When she launches it, the dragonfly’s camera connects to the slaver headband and allows Monkey to see the sensor radius of landmines and mechs that are on standby. Being that Ninja Theory is based in England, there’s British humor thrown into the technological mix; when Monkey fails at operating a computer Trip can’t reach, she asks “Did you try turning it off and on again?” – a popular line from the hit T.V. comedy The I.T. Crowd.
Robotic animals play a large role, as each of the boss fights are with a gigantic mech animal of some sort. Unfortunately, there are some critical moments in the game in which you’ll need to pull off a jump quickly and Monkey doesn’t respond to your controller properly, continuing to hang on to a pipe as fire bursts out of a vent in front of him or not allowing him to dodge enemy attacks. There are glitches in the graphics here and there, as well, and though noticeable, nothing I encountered hurt my experience.
Several of the boss fights require Monkey to ride his Cloud, a device that creates an energy-based hoverboard that acts and feels like Jak’s hoverboard from the Jak & Daxter series. Adding insult to injury, the game rubs in the fact that it has no intention of answering any questions. When Trip asks what the Cloud is, Monkey tells her that all he knows is it works sometimes and other times it doesn’t. Thanks for that.
I enjoyed the later half of the game most, as the ‘jump here, attack that mech, scan this area’ routine was getting stale. Pigsy, a weapons specialist who lives in an old mech factory, is introduced, and the game becomes more lively from there: the fights become more varied and interesting, the interaction between the characters is more fun, and the pacing picks up overall.
The dialog between the characters is well acted and feels natural, with Uncharted/Prince of Persia-esque banter during gameplay. This is probably due to Andy Serkis’ (of The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum fame) direction and motion capture know-how, as he both directed the game and voiced Monkey. I just wish there was more of it, helping us get to know Monkey, Trip, and Pigsy better. Great quips between the characters and realistic facial animation make for some very enjoyable cutscenes, though the love plot was not very subtle and never really pays off in any way.
If you didn’t like The Matrix or the end of Assassin’s Creed II, you may not enjoy the ending, and it was brief after so much build up. However, it probably would have satisfied me just fine if there had been more of it.
After going back and forth in my head I never truly decided how I felt about the game. For most of the first half of the game I was wishing I was replaying the Uncharted series, and for the second half of the game I was craving some back story to the world or the characters. In the end it’s a game that’s worth playing for the adventure, though you’ll often be spamming the jump button because you can only jump on a path and never fall to your death, and spamming the attack button because there are so few moves and combos. Give the demo a try and if you feel you want to play more then you’ll most likely enjoy it through.