Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

In any game, be it shooter or RPG, there has always been one specific task that I dreaded: the escort mission. The thought of clunky snail-paced A.I. managing to seek out pathing anomalies and enemies while doing nothing in the interest of self preservation has always made my blood boil. When talk of Enslaved first began, I was instantly excited…until I realized that it would be one giant escort mission.

Luckily, it doesn’t play like an escort mission (at least not like the nightmarish ones of old) at all.

Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: T
Released: October 5th
Type: Action Adventure
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360
Version Reviewed: PS3

You play as Monkey, a gruff loner built like a body builder with a haircut that will surely allow this game to compete with Final Fantasy 13 for ‘Most Preposterous Haircut of the Year.’ At the start of the game, Monkey awakens inside of a pod, captured by slavers. He is released by Trip, a fellow slave in the process of escaping.

Shortly after being jettisoned from the ship on (read: not inside) an escape pod, he again regains consciousness only to find he has traded one captor for another. Trip has fitted him with a slave headband, effectively giving her control over him. If Monkey succeeds in escorting her home, she’ll free him, but if she dies, he dies with her.

Thus begins their journey across post-apocalyptic America, though not the drab monochromatic slew of desolate wasteland we’re used to seeing in video games. Instead, Enslaved’s world is composed of the lush and vivid colors of nature overtaking the ruins of human civilization. This is complimented by the unusual brightness, which gives the setting a similar feel, though not quite the same, to the city from Mirror’s Edge.

What really deserves recognition as being the best in gaming, without a doubt in my mind, is how well written the development is for these characters, and how natural it feels. Alex Garland should definitely be proud of his work here.

The tension and hostility are immediately present, and only gradually diffuses over the course of the game. Trip’s cold and calculated command decision to enslave Monkey slowly transforms into regret over stooping so low, but she needs him regardless, and doesn’t look back. Monkey, on the other hand, resents Trip, but tolerates her enough to work toward their mutual benefit. Eventually there comes a point where they both begin to realize that there is something deeper to their relationship than master and slave, which culminates in Monkey foregoing his chance at freedom and asking Trip to put the headband back on him later in the game.

It’s the kind of growth that doesn’t fit neatly into one or two little paragraphs, and only playing through the game can really do it justice.

Part of what makes this growth so compelling, and by far the biggest mechanism Ninja Theory employs to make that growth happen, is the use of realistic facial expressions. They say a picture speaks a thousand words, and this game lends a lot of credence to that adage.

This game takes a few dozen pages out of the research of Paul Ekman (a reference I never thought I’d make in a video game review). Ninja Theory conveys more with their incredible use of facial animations than Metal Gear Solid 4 said in its several hours worth of cut-scenes.

There are too many moments in the game where this is integral to list off, but there is one glowing example that stands out from the rest. Around 3/4ths of the way in, a sloven, quirky, yet endearing character named Pigsy joins the cast. Before long he’s asking Monkey if he and Trip are an item. Monkey responds indifferently, and trip casts a brief glare of fury thinking that he hasn’t grown as affectionate to her as she has to him. This is the first time I’ve played a game and realized what a powerful and yet sorely under-utilized tool this is in gaming as a whole. It’s something we take for granted in movies or television, but it really sets Enslaved apart.

As brilliant as the faces are, I can’t help but be bothered by how ugly and rigid, almost paper like, the hair is. It may be nitpicky, but that’s my job.

I could talk about the characters all day, and I would love to, but there’s more to Enslaved than Monkey, Trip, and Pigsy. The story itself is thoroughly engaging. More so than any other game in recent memory, it made me ask questions, and it made me crave the answers. “Who are the slavers? Why are they here? How did things get so bad here?” All of my more burning questions were answered by the games spectacular resolution, while others were left to my imagination.

Where Enslaved stumbles is in its core mechanics.  Ninja Theory demonstrates that they’ve learned enough from their previous experience with Heavenly Sword to make the action somewhat fun, but the gameplay doesn’t even hold a candle to the characters and the story.

Each combat encounter is deliberate, and the fights are interwoven between very exciting chase sequences, plentiful amounts of platforming, puzzles, and cut scenes.

That said, the repetitious and dull nature of combat still left a bad taste in my mouth. In fact, I’m surprised my square button isn’t damaged with the amount of mashing I did. It could be worse; it could be flat out broken and completely un-fun. The heart of the problem lies with Monkey’s limited arsenal, and what little incentive you have to use most of it. For the most part, light attacks and blocking win the day, while evade attacks, charged stun attacks, and knockbacks are only situationally more practical than just pounding out light attack leading to a shallow and vapid combat system. This isn’t helped by the lack of enemy variety.

What it lacks in straight up combat, it makes up for with fun boss fights, chase sequences, and some very nifty takedown moments (like God of War with robots). Some bosses, like the Rhino, may not be entirely outside-the-box ideas, but they do make for some thrilling fights that stray far enough from convention to be enjoyable.

The platforming never quite reaches greatness either. Monkey will refuse to go anywhere that will guarantee his death, and the environments you are tasked with traversing only become slightly complex late in the game. Still, Monkey’s grace and fluidity coupled with the scenery make this part of the game work well enough.

Eventually, the platforming becomes integrated with the game’s admittedly easy puzzles. I never felt particularly clever after solving a puzzle, but it was satisfying to figure how best to take advantage of the environment to execute the solution, and I was only really frustrated when Monkey would occasionally be defiant and refuse to grab a hand or foothold unless my positioning and angle were both perfect.

The best puzzles in the game, though, are the ones where you need to work with Trip. For example, there’s a situation where there are a series of levers and bridges which you neither you nor Trip can navigate without some back-and-forth cooperation.

On one hand, no game in the industry matches Enslaved for its character development, and very few can boast writing this stellar. On the other hand, my regard for the way the game plays is only lukewarm.

If only Ninja Theory had spent the time to make the combat deeper, the platforming a bit more involved, and iron out some technical hiccups, this would undoubtedly be my pick for game of the year.

Regrettably, that isn’t the case. It was a pleasure to play and to see unfold, and even the low points registered merely as mediocre. As a whole though, Enslaved was a delightful experience that fills me with hope for Ninja Theory’s next title.

8 / 10

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