Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Review
Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is fun. Perhaps if we were allowed to provide the public with one-sentence reviews, I’d just leave it at that, because it’s pretty darn accurate. “Fun” implies worthy interactive entertainment; one looks forward to playing, enjoys playing, and when finished, is happy that he or she played. At the same time, “fun” isn’t as strong as other adjectives like “amazing,” “unbelievable,” or “memorable,” and almost implies that the description omits some shortcomings. All this being the case, Enslaved really fits the “fun” label. It’s not as technically proficient as it should’ve been, one may question the built-in ease of certain aspects of the gameplay (i.e., hand-holding), and there can be camera and frame rate issues. This is what keeps it from being an elite production. At the same time, the characters, story, atmosphere, design, presentation, and acting make it a must-try.
As you may have gathered from the many trailers – and perhaps from the demo if you played it – this game is very bright and colorful. It’s rare to find a post-apocalyptic setting that is this pretty and pleasant but then again, maybe it’s wrong to assume even nature couldn’t survive our own stupidity and inherent self-destructive drive. Character and enemy design is also nice, although not quite as refined as I would’ve hoped, and animations are smooth and numerous. Overall, the coloring and lush vibrancy will likely remind you of Uncharted, even if the graphics fall well shy of such a lofty goal. I did notice that this multiplatform Unreal-powered game isn’t anywhere near as slick and polished as the PS3-exclusive Heavenly Sword from the same studio, but…whatever. No beating dead horses here. Yeah, there’s a bit of screen-tearing but all in all, the vistas in Enslaved are borderline beautiful and even epic.
If it weren’t for the technical hitches – in one scene, the voices totally missed the movement of the mouths – this would be one of the best-sounding games of the generation. The soundtrack is beautiful and apt; it’s never overpowering and it always seems to play just the right role, and the effects are fantastic. Combat effects are just downright stunning, and even simple movement and platforming maneuvers benefit from well-implemented audio and ambient environmental effects. As for voice acting, it’s some of the best we’ve heard, as Monkey (Andy Serkis) and Trip (Lindsay Shaw) are so good together, they provide the backbone for the adventure. The acting is top-notch and although Trip’s comments during gameplay are too often repeated and there are some slight balance issues, the sound category is definitely a big highlight.
Monkey and Trip escape from the slavers and team up to survive. It’s 150 years in the future and the mechs have taken over, although apparently not due to some higher AI’s desire to control humans. As Monkey says, the mechs were built for battle and when the war ended, “nobody told ‘em.” But there’s more going on beneath the surface, as you will discover throughout the course of your quest, and obviously, the twist to this game is Monkey and Trip’s connection to one another. If she dies, you die. Now at first, I was very skeptical about this, because I despise babysitting and escort missions and the like. I don’t like having squad-mates I have to control in shooters, either. I’m just a lone wolf in that way. But thankfully, Trip never feels like a burden and even when she’s screaming for help, I don’t feel frustrated or annoyed. I’ll explain exactly why in just a moment, but first, let's go over the gameplay basics.
For the record, you only control Monkey. He is a nimble, powerful fighter who uses an attack stick of sorts (for some reason, I was reminded of Donatello in TMNT), and is capable of brutal Takedowns. His staff can also fire various pulse blasts, so there’s actually a third-person shooter element to parts of the gameplay. Trip provides support. She can upgrade various aspects of Monkey’s development, including Combat, Health, Shield and Staff; upgrades are gained by spending the orbs you find laying around the landscape. She can also be commanded to “come” (…you guys are going to have fun with that line, aren’t you?) and provide a distraction for Monkey by utilizing her Decoy technique. Then there’s the EMP blast, which is also quite valuable. Communicating with Trip is as easy as pressing and holding the L1 button and selecting from a simple radial menu; L1 also spots Trip in the field and finds objectives.
This interaction between the two works extremely well, with only a few exceptions. Sometimes, Trip gets a little confused when “coming” and doesn’t quite reach you for some silly reason, although I did like the part where I accidentally told her to follow, and she yelled, “there’s no safe place for me to hide!” The good news is she’s not constantly in trouble; she typically stays away from the scene of battle, and there aren’t many instances where you grow frustrated with Trip’s vulnerability. For Monkey’s part, much has been made about his responsiveness, and I want to make something clear: in terms of combat, he couldn’t be more responsive. Everything flows and works well, with the exception of an occasionally wonky camera. And when he starts to run, there is a small delay but as I’ve explained in the past, that’s just momentum physics, in that no human just magically kicks into a full-on run from a dead stop. It’s not fair to explain that delay as a flaw.
But it is fair to claim the control is just a tad loose, as I never felt as if I always had solid, reliable, 100% control over Monkey. It’s a little difficult to explain but you know how controlling Drake just felt completely and entirely stable…? Monkey sorta lacks a bit of that stability in my eyes. The camera can indeed pose a problem depending on the situation and on top of which, the fact that the game won’t let you die when platforming is, at the very least, a questionable design decision. Essentially, you can only move to the next spot; you can’t accidentally fall or jump in the wrong direction because the game won’t let you. This is what’s known as hand-holding. But there are two angles, here- on the one hand, it obviously detracts from the challenge, but on the on other, there are so many quick jumps and leaps, I can see where one would be falling to his death a lot without the assistance.
Let’s just stick with the negatives until they’re exhausted: in addition to the above, the combat can feel a little repetitive. You can probably use the same strike combo throughout the entire game, and there aren’t enough in the way of big boss fights. The staff bursts are mostly for long range and you perform a Takedown (where you can control a turret or rip a mech to shreds) just by pressing the Circle button after applying some heavy abuse. But hey, it’s fun. It’s fun because it works and the production is put together well. The landscape design is great and although some will complain about a lack of exploration, I’m not really seeing that. Not every game needs to be Fallout, and I don’t recall being able to explore much in Uncharted 2 or God of War III or whatever. Besides, you do need to prowl around the environments and look for hidden orbs, and there are also multiple paths through larger areas.
But let’s get back to the production to finish. The pacing is good. You don’t feel as if you’re moving through the same environments over and over, and you almost always want to play the next chapter because you wanna see what’s there. The balance and variety is good. Monkey doesn’t have useless upgrades; just about all of them prove to be very helpful, and this drives you to search for more orbs. The layout of most every level is good. Some mechs have armor, some are turrets, some are active, and some are just sleeping…until you accidentally break their pulsing boundary, which you can see as blue rings on the screen. There are mines to avoid, huge structures to scale, co-op elements that have you carrying and throwing Trip, and lastly, something I think too many reviewers missed: strategic situations. You don’t find such situations that often in straight-up action/adventure games and it's well worth mentioning.
See, you can bash your way through, sure. But you can also opt for Trip’s Decoy and get closer, thereby allowing you to save valuable pulse or stun ammo. You can create a diversion so Trip can reach you safely. You can stun from afar in order to reach a certain location. It’s hardly deep strategy, but it’s there, and after Trip’s handy dragonfly scouts any given area, you’re immediately thinking about the best way to approach it. Yes, there are times when there’s only one way, but actually, it’s not that often. And lastly, there’s the story, characters, presentation, and overall aura, which I find to be fantastic. If you’re more artistic-minded, you will appreciate this game more than others, as you will be more willing to overlook the technical misgivings. There’s no doubt that technically, it’s not top-quality but me, I kept playing for all the aforementioned elements. The story gets better and better, that post-apocalyptic world can be mesmerizing, and the relationship between Monkey and Trip is well-written.
Monkey isn’t a muscle-bound idiot. He may have a bit of a sarcastic nature and hot temper, but you quickly start to feel something more for him as time goes on because he’s not one-dimensionally scripted. And I just found Trip adorable. Earlier, when I said I wasn’t annoyed at protecting her, it’s because of two reasons: 1. she’s actually useful, and 2. I like her. You feel thankful for her technical capability and sympathetic towards her susceptibility so when you hear her cry for help, you actually want to get the hell over there. If Trip wasn’t drawn so well by the developers and writers, I’d more often just be responding with something like, “oh my God; just die already, bitch!” But I would never think that about my traveling partner in this game. We’re in this together and that concept and mechanic works throughout, which is the main reason to play.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West often stumbles on the technical side. In one cut-scene, Monkey wasn’t even there. Another time, as mentioned before, the voices missed the mouths entirely. There are minor frame rate and screen tearing problems. The combat can feel repetitive, control isn’t as stable as he could’ve been, and not all commands work perfectly all the time. But the entire scope of the production vastly outstrips these drawbacks; in other words, this one is greater than the sum of its parts. The character development, superb performances by Serkis and Shaw, nicely written and engaging storyline by Alex Garland, beautiful soundtrack, excellent effects, pretty vistas, and great pacing/balance kept me happily entertained. I suppose the best way to sum up is this-
If you’re one of those people who are very tech-oriented, in that little bugs and hitches and glitches really get to you, and such faults can really hinder your enjoyment, you’re going to be at least slightly frustrated with Enslaved. If you’re more of an artistic person and you value the things you feel more than the things you see, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t like it. I hope this final explanation is helpful.
10/2/2010 Ben Dutka