Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

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While almost everyone was busy complaining about Heavenly Sword being “too short,” I was bowing to its developer, Ninja Theory, for creating one of the most cinematically engaging games of its time (it’s still pretty brilliant after three years too). Unfortunately, I can probably see the same thing happening all over again with the studio’s second major production, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, which is out today for PS3 and Xbox 360. Enslaved is longer – I’d say it’s more in the 8-10 hour range opposed to 6-8 like Heavenly Sword – but is still likely to be criticized for not offering enough longevity for $60. I say that’s a bunch of hooey, just as I did with Heavenly Sword. So, while some folks will once again concern themselves far too much with the game’s length, I’ll be enjoying yet another stellar game from one of the most gifted development studios in gaming today.

Inspired by the ancient Chinese novel Journey to the West, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a story about two characters fatefully linked together on a journey to return home in a futuristic USA ruled by robots, slavers, and Mother Nature herself. Trip, the techie heroine, needs to cross the war-torn wasteland that was once New York City, but needs the help of the brutish loner Monkey, who she shackles with a slave headband and forces into protecting her. With the headband on, Monkey is forever tied to Trip – and if she dies, he dies, so he has no choice but to comply.

From there, the two unlikely companions embark on a journey together, and thanks to the storytelling wizardry of Ninja Theory and strong acting and directorial performances by Andy Serkis, it is a journey you won’t soon forget. Co-star and hero, Monkey, is a character I was never drawn to after watching trailers and ultimately did not expect to like — but I did, and the credit for that has to go to Andy Serkis, who once again pours himself into his performance and fully takes on the life of his virtual counterpart, just as he did as King Bohan in Heavenly Sword and, more famously, Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films.

The other characters are also brought to life by fine voice acting performances, and the game’s score is lovely — touching and emotionally evocative at just the right moments, yet also full of energy with raucous combat anthems that get the blood pumping when you’re banging mechs around. Ninja Theory’s art team also deserves to be showered with praise for breaking away from the drab browns, grays and blacks that seem to dominate video game color palettes these days. Enslaved’s post-apocalyptic landscape is one of lush, green vegetation, pristine bodies of water, and bright, blue skies, which is a beautiful contrast to the story’s oppressive and depressing themes.

As Monkey, it is your job to defend Trip from mechs and help her traverse this beautiful, though simultaneously treacherous terrain. Much of the game involves carrying Trip around on your back, lifting her to reach high ledges, tossing her across long gaps, and causing distractions so she can follow along free of the enemies’ sights. Trip isn’t some useless character that you have to baby-sit though either. Through the use of an intuitive command system, you can have Trip activate switches from afar or set up decoys allowing you to sneak closer to turrets unseen, and in a pinch she can even stun swarming mechs with an EMP blast. As the brains of the operation, she scans each area for enemies and traps before you proceed, and she can also use Tech Orbs you’ve collected to build weapon, shield and health upgrades for Monkey.

This AI dynamic, alongside the cinematic nature of the gameplay and storytelling, builds immersion and emotion in much the same way Uncharted 2 does. The way the characters banter and interact with each other makes it feel like you are playing cooperatively with others through a live theatrical experience, even though the game is all single-player all the time.

As an overall gameplay experience, Enslaved is a jack of all trades, featuring elements of cover-based stealth, hoverboarding, acrobatic platforming, melee combat, gunplay and cooperative puzzle solving. However, unlike most games that try to do too many things and wind up doing them all in poor-to-average quality, Enslaved pretty much nails all of its different play styles, and the result is a game that is briskly paced and never dull. For me, the melee combat is the clear standout though. Monkey’s staff doubles as a plasma rifle and a blunt instrument of destruction, and when used for melee purposes you really do feel the brute force and momentum behind Monkey’s every swing and the weight of each blow as they land with booming, metal-on-metal clangs and thuds that ring through the air.

As an adventure-platformer, Enslaved is also fast-paced and exciting with plenty of walls to scale and poles to swing from. However, I do think Ninja Theory went a bit too far with the handholding by using an immersion-breaking blinking effect to blatantly point out the lone pathway through every environmental obstacle. When you see a flashing object, it is basically a neon sign telling you to “jump here” or “climb this,” and it’s very distracting. Seriously, this type of “casual-ization” of games is getting way out of hand, and it needs to stop right now.

Other than the blinking environments, Enslaved’s only flaw of notable significance is, like all too many games these days, one of polish. Sadly, the beauty of the game’s graphics and the elegance of its gameplay are marred somewhat by a smattering of technical faults, from a sporadic frame rate, to dialogue occasionally being way out of sync with the accompanying facial animations, to sound effects suddenly going mute, to a camera that sometimes likes to whip around or zoom in on the action in a jarring manner, to the dreaded Unreal Engine 3 bug that starts off damn near every scene with an ugly load-in of textures. Hell, one time the game somehow deactivated the D-pad on my DualShock and I was unable to swap ammo types (I could pull up the in-game XMB and cycle around with the D-pad there, so it was a game problem, not a controller malfunction), and thus I had exit back to the XMB and restart the game.

All of these technical shortcomings are incredibly disappointing, especially coming from a developer I personally hold to a higher standard after the gorgeous, well-polished Heavenly Sword. But fortunately, they are forgivable flaws that occasionally distract but never cripple your ability to enjoy the greatness of the game’s other components.

Most of all, I have to commend Enslaved (and its developers) for daring to be distinct and individual in an era in which far too many games have become all too familiar and far too many developers have become scared to let their creativity run loose. Play this game and let developers and publishers know that you want more from gaming than dark-and-gritty shooters, me-too copycats, and lazy sequels.

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Pros:
+ Memorable storyline with likable, well-acted characters
+ Brutally satisfying melee combat
+ Interesting AI co-op dynamic
+ Excellent pacing and variety of gameplay
+ Beautiful graphics and music
+ Character upgrades and collectibles carry over, New Game+ style

Cons:
– Unseemly technical warts
– Blinking platforming pathways — do we really need our hands held this much?

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available on Xbox 360
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Ninja Theory
Release Date: 10/5/2010
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!