Review: Enslaved – Odyssey to the West

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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West feels like something I’d have seen in a movie theater and enjoyed. Perhaps that’s the point Ninja Theory, its creator, is trying to make.

The fusion of techniques from the movie world into the creation of games has been a long-pursued subject. Gamemakers have always sought ways to make their works feel more epic or artistic. Some games offer cinematic treatment to their cutscenes, while others blast your ears with high-end sound engineering or dramatic musical scores. Some use their characters as the engine for the whole experience.

Enslaved attempts to do all of the above, using a blend of glorious visuals, exquisite voicework/character development and action, hoping the player will be too busy enjoying the ride to notice any shortcomings.

If this sounds familiar, you might remember Ninja Theory as the makers of Heavenly Sword, a somewhat polarizing action title for the PlayStation 3 that brought to light discussions about the balance between character development and story with effective gameplay elements.

The results were mixed. The game’s defenders will bring up it’s cinematics and powerful voice acting performances, thanks to the coordinating efforts of Andy Serkis (the voice of Gollum from “Lord of the Rings”), who treated readings with his fellow actors as creative, interpretive skull sessions. They will also bring up the quality of Nariko, the sword-wielding redhead who was voiced by “Fringe” star Anna Torv.

But detractors will say while that game was a blast to watch, it was hell to play. Not only was it seen as a lesser takeoff of the God of War series, players (including myself) were incensed by some of the clumsy applications of the then-new Sixaxis technology, which at its worst, allowed one to steer catapulted boulders in impossible directions.

It’s fitting then that Enslaved, a game that features a story laden with messages of captivity and freedom, carries a sort of bouncy, adventurous energy, as if it’s happy it doesn’t have to worry about force-feeding Sixaxis to us or bearing the pressure of being among the first of a console’s titles.

Ninja Theory treats the game as a way to stretch its creative legs, starting with its story. It’s a very loose interpretation of Journey to the West, one of the legendary centuries-old novels in Chinese literature.

This ancient story details the journey of a monk named Xuan Zang (Tripitaka in English versions) to India. He is accompanied by a man named Sun Wu Kong, aka The Monkey King in English retellings. They face a plenty of opposition on the way, with the Monkey King being especially adept at dealing with trouble.

Enslaved applies this tale into a machine-ruled world of the far future, where humans are perpetually in hiding from either animalistic battle machines or the people who seem to control them.

Players assume command of Monkey, a hulking, fast and athletic fighter who is forced to escort Trip, an extremely brainy girl who slapped a headband-like gadget on Monkey that essentially bends him to her will.

She doesn’t do this maliciously — she needs some muscle to accompany her and keep her safe on her journey west to her father’s farming community. Once there, she tells Monkey, the headband is coming off.

There’s also a catch … if one dies, so does the other. Another perk of the headband.

Visual beauty is the hallmark of Trip and Monkey’s journey. It starts out in the bowels of a massive airborne slave carrier and whirls through the lush overgrown remnants of New York, the innards of giant machinery, the swampy junkyard of one of the main characters and eventually on top of yet another extremely large war machine bristling with anti-air weapons.

Like Heavenly Sword before it, Enslaved treats its levels like elaborate set pieces to convey an expansive, detailed sense of atmosphere. When you head into a swampy junkyard to meet the character Pigsy, you can almost smell the stench emanating from the hazy air.

People who like detail will enjoy the work that’s been done with the characters, especially when it comes to facial expressions. Emotions ranging from terror to pure anger are delivered almost perfectly and complement the superb voice acting. The machines players encounter are whirring, churning wonders you almost feel terrible smashing to pieces, at least until you perish multiple times at their hands. Some of the more extensive ones, such as the “dog”, move with power and grace that actually adds to the drama of battle.

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Gameplay with Monkey is a mix of button-mashing and s extensive platforming acrobatics. You’ll have flashbacks of Nariko while Monkey bashes robots with his collapsable staff, which can also fire energy bolts. You’ll also have fond memories of Nathan Drake as you climb, shimmy and jump your way up a variety of impressive landscapes, be it the collapsing wing of the slave ship or the blades of a big windmill.

There’s not too much you haven’t seen before, but the co-op interplay between Monkey and Trip adds some strategic spice. Trip, the tech expert, can open doors, heal Monkey and also draw the fire of robots with a decoy, allowing Monkey to flank the enemy.

The reluctant partnership also manifests in other ways. Sometimes, Monkey will have to commandeer the machine gun of a robot and use it to cut down anyone chasing after Trip, who’s taking time to hack into a door. Another sequence has Monkey pursuing Trip to rescue her from a dog mech, which is running away at full speed.

It may sound like typical babysitting stuff, but Trip also comes across as useful and strong during certain parts of the story. This is apparent at the end, when for an instant, she turns out to be stronger than Monkey, her longtime protector.

The chemistry between the two characters feels relatively natural, considering the circumstances. I also appreciated that it didn’t degenerate into some kind of hackneyed love story, or even the kind of big brother-little sister tale we’ve seen before with other duos. They start off as opposites, grow together as partners and end as survivors. It’s a relationship that grows without being bogged down by overly introspective narrative.

I did have a few issues playing the game, and one deals with the “cloud,” which a blue disc Monkey sometimes uses like an aerial skateboard. Controlling the cloud felt loose and sloppy, as I was constantly running into things and missing jumps that seemed to arrive a little too quickly.

General movement of the characters also felt a little sticky, as if I, as the player, were interrupting the action on the screen. I felt like I was using the controller to convince Monkey to act at times, instead of feeling like I was in total control. There were also goofy graphical speed bumps and hitches that made me feel like I was playing a game that was too big for my system — something that’s not supposed to happen on a console.

Enslaved, while not the smoothest game to play, is certainly something worth experiencing and digesting. The storytelling, characters and pace of the journey helped deflect a lot of the gameplay stumbling blocks I encountered. If you’re not sure you want to try it yourself, you should at least watch someone else play it. Remember to bring snacks.

Enslaved
Namco/Ninja Theory
Xbox 360, PS3
Rated T for Teen