Review - Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
On paper, Enslaved: Odyssey To The West is undoubtedly a game of high pedigree. Coming from UK developers Ninja Theory (Heavenly Sword and the forthcoming Devil May Cry reboot), it’s a reworking of the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West. Featuring the voice talents of Any Serkis (Lord of the Rings Trilogy), expertly scored by Nitin Sawhney and penned by novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland, it boasts an impressive collection of talent. But does it live up to expectations?
We are first introduced to Monkey, our muscle-bound protagonist, imprisoned on a slave airship which is rapidly losing its battle with gravity. Taking advantage of the ensuing chaos, he breaks free and crashes back down to earth and into a bleak vision of our future: a world plagued by machines (mechs), where man is an endangered species. Monkey’s return to slavery is immediate, ensnared by an unlikely captor; a young woman by the name of Trip. A co-escapee, she reluctantly enslaves him by means of a mechanical crown which will fry his brain if he fails to obey her every command. Connected at the hip, he must escort Trip safely home to win his freedom. Thus begins an immersive and enthralling adventure, but one that falls short of fulfilling its vast potential.
The bulk of Enslaved revolves around straightforward platforming, interspersed with simplistic combat and a spot of treasure hunting. It’s not a particularly challenging game, even on hard difficulty, and the combat is rather uninspired. Most enemies can be defeated simply by spamming the same combos, and the bosses, though entertaining, are easily vanquished once you decipher their predictable pattern of attack. There is an upgrade system (combat abilities, health, shield etc) which is funded by the red orbs that are scattered throughout the levels. Even so, the combat never really opens up beyond some special moves, counter attacks that require precise timing, and satisfying finishing blows.
As for the platforming, it never quite succeeds in creating the illusion that you are in control of your leaps and bounds. There is rarely more than one way up and you are made very aware of it. It feels far too rigid, merely a case of pressing jump and watching Monkey move with grace from point A to B. However, the clambering does reward the player with great panoramic views from some of the more imposing summits of New York and the wastelands.
The combat and platforming is successfully broken up with turret sections which don’t outstay their welcome, and some excellent break-neck chase scenes. Some of these include Monkey’s Cloud, a hoverboard of sorts which stars in a couple of the boss fights. One constant throughout these, and every other section, is the herky-jerky camera – which isn’t helped by occasional frame rate issues. A number of times you will turn a corner only for the camera to be one step behind, or make a leap that leaves it in the dust. It then tries to correct itself by swinging far too quickly into position, often losing sight of Monkey entirely. This lag is rather nauseating, though it becomes less bothersome the more you play.
Enslaved is perfectly paced, with no one area allowed to outstay its welcome. Each chapter revolves around one setting broken into a number of different areas, some of which require a more tactical approach than others. There are areas that can be tackled alone, with Trip taking a back seat, whereas others demand a co-operative solution. This often amounts to Trip causing a distraction and Monkey flanking the enemy and catching them unaware. This tactical approach is a welcome one, as a constant all out slug-fest would not have played to its strengths.
An average brawler and platformer, Enslaved’s saving grace is its engrossing story and triumvirate of appealing characters. Monkey and Trip are eventually joined by Piggsy, a squat spare-parts trader who knows his way around all manner of machinery (not to be confused with Manhunt’s chainsaw brandishing snuff star of the same name). He has a soft spot for Trip, which leads to an amusing display of one-upmanship between him and Monkey, culminating in an embarrassing proposition that will make you squirm. Piggsy enters the fray at the perfect moment, providing relief from the more serious opening third, and the remainder of the game is better off for his inclusion.
The relationships and interactions between the leads is touching and believable, conveyed through a series of subtle gestures and some outstanding facial animation. Stand-out moments include Trip’s face lighting up when Monkey reclaims his motorbike, and the moment when Piggsy is overcome with grief upon hearing some grave news. Facial animation and body language has rarely been put to work so brilliantly and convincingly in a video game. Enslaved is teeming with poignant and revealing moments that stay with you long after you put it down; including a divisive but thought provoking ending.
Graphically some corners have been cut, with textures lacking polish as well as the aforementioned frame rate issues. However, these hiccups are minor points as you will soon lose yourself in Ninja Theory’s unique take on a future US. The eye-catching pallet of the early, city based levels is a million miles from the standard realisation of a post apocalyptic world, with the standard greys and browns complimented by splashes of resplendent greens, reds and blues. New York is over-run with twisting roots and ivy, with deer prancing between the rusty chassis of antiquated taxis and the debris of a once bustling metropolis accompanied by a beautifully subtle score that never overwhelms the scene.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a charming, imperfect adventure that will frustrate and delight in equal measure. In spite of its faults, Enslaved constantly redeems itself with moments of brilliance – be it a piece of sparkling dialogue or an engrossing turn in the narrative – which ultimately make it a worthwhile experience.