Enslaved: Odyssey to the West User Review
Two hundred years from now, Earth is all but deserted by humanity. This is not the result of a cosmic jump, but rather a self-destructive war. All we know is that Artificial Intelligence became a reality, and turned on us. Their sole purpose became the eradication of our species. Yet, after two centuries, small pockets of civilisation remain. It is a testament to the human spirit. Gone is the urban rule, replaced by lush jungle in the absence of caretaking. Gone is the ease of traversal. Now, every move is laced with danger, both from the worldwide forest, and from the murderous mechs.
It is in this world that we find the two protagonists of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Monkey is young man, strong and physically capable. Trip is a young woman, more frail, but also more intelligent. I suppose it is at this point, you would be expecting me to say something along the lines of ‘At their first meeting, sparks flew and they both knew that it was true love,’ but thankfully, Enslaved isn’t that type of story. These two are thrown together after they are captured by slavers, for what purpose is left unclear until the very end, but they both have the same goal: continuing their lives in freedom. Expectedly, they escape, although without relying on each other, and Monkey is knocked unconscious during this bid for freedom. When he awakens, he finds himself under Trip’s control as a result of one of the slave headbands. She demands that he take her home, and with no other option, he complies.
The relationship is initially rocky, but it grows to be a true friendship through realistic means. Key to this tale is the believability of the characters, and it is achieved in remarkable fashion. Adding this to what was seen in Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory has proven themselves as one of the best narrative-based developers out the business. It is well-documented that the game is based off the ancient Chinese tale ’Journey to the West’, so many cues are taken from that, and as a result, I noticed some similarities to an old television series called ‘Monkey’ and the newer (and more popular series) ‘Dragonball’, both of which also took cues from the same novel. Outside of this, the pacing is near-perfect, and my only real gripe with the story of the game is that I felt as though the background could have done with more detail.
Graphically, Enslaved is superior to Ninja Theory’s previous effort. Running on the Unreal Engine 3, it manages to retain the sheen a similar sheen to Heavenly Sword, while adding an extra layer of polish. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to go so far as to say that the game is visually on par with Killzone 2. One huge improvement is in the characters. They now look far more realistic. I felt as if the in game animations weren’t really strong enough to back this up. Every action that the characters perform somehow detracts from the brilliant modelling. This problem is a nonexistent when it comes to the cut scenes. These are beautifully directed and rendered, with the player easily able to read the emotions of the characters through both verbal, and nonverbal cues. It makes for a massive leap in storytelling.
A similar level of polish has been applied to the levels. There are two major backgrounds, one being the jungle world of New York, and the other being a wasteland filled with detritus of the centuries. The architecture is well varied, and with a frightful amount of detail put into the backgrounds, it makes the world one of the most believable to ever grace the PlayStation 3. Combined with this is a fantastic lighting system that does a great job with contrasting light with shadow. There is something about this aspect of the game that makes it feel better without it actually being better, and I quite liked that.
Of course, like most productions, the presentation on show is not flawless. The game has a lot of shots that pan over the environment, and while it is a good effect, it shows off the incapability of the Unreal Engine. In many of these instances, you are subject to frequent texture loading, as well as a moderate amount of screen tearing. While running around, you will occasionally run into an invisible wall, and this is annoying, but rare. It simply feels a bit like laziness of the part of the developers.
The sound almost matches the visuals when it comes to immersion, but the biggest drawback to this factor is that it all feels somewhat understated. Firstly, the score. It is magnificent. The talent that was tapped to provide it did a magnificent job in creating something that works as powerfully as the characters to draw you into the events. Without a doubt one of the best soundtracks I have ever heard. A similar level of attention has been paid to the voice acting. Both Monkey and Trip are voiced by Hollywood actors, and so we should expect no less than the best. Thankfully, they don’t disappoint. The voices suit the characters well, both in appearance and personality. Not only this, but there is a level of emotion in the delivery of the lines that is rarely seen in video games. Fear, anger, indecision, gratefulness; every intended emotion is easily identifiable. It further serves to draw you into the experience. Unfortunately, this is where the audio starts to take a downward slide. While the characters are perfectly voiced, there aren’t enough for it to shine as it should.
Yes, in the entirety of the game, there are little more than a half a dozen voices. This is a double edged sword as it allows what is present to be great without feeling overburdened, but still seems barebones. This lapse also follows into the sound effects. What there is, is top-notch, from the sounds of the environment being torn apart by mechs, to the creaking of rusty hinges, it fits. But then, there is little ambience. No birds, no animal cries, and in a jungle world, this should be a given. I also felt that the shots fired from Monkey’s staff didn’t give me the feeling of power I had expected. This also follows into his Cloud. You might expect it to hum as he travels about, but it does not. Finally, there are some balance issues. These pertain mainly to the voices, as they are often drowned out by other noises. In some instances of loud background noise, or high emotion it makes sense, but just as commonly it seems completely random. Also noticeable are several points in which the sound lags behind the action that is occurring on-screen, and this can be very disorienting.
Anyone who has played an action/adventure game recently should be able to easily become acclimatised to the control scheme. As usual, movement is mapped to the left stick while camera control is on the right. The camera itself often shifts between an over-the-shoulder, and a fixed perspective. While the first offers you full 360 degree control, the latter offers a much smaller range. Tapping Square is a light strike, while holding it down imbues Monkey’s staff with a charge attack capable of stunning enemies. Triangle offers a slower, stronger attack. Pushing both Square and X simultaneously results in a wide strike, which does no damage, but breaks open the enemies defences and pushes them back a bit. X is used for both evasion, and jumping, whereas Circle is used mostly for context sensitive prompts. Holding down R2 while not aiming deploys Monkey’s shield. This automatically blocks any incoming fire without use of the button, but only blocks melee attacks with the prompt. L2 brings up the targeting reticule for shooting, and R2 fires. The left and right buttons on the D-Pad switches between ammo types. R1 causes Monkey to call out, resulting in the enemies focussing their fire on him, rather than Trip, while L1 brings up the radial menu for Trip. This is where you are able to tell her what to do, which isn’t as helpful as it might seem. Finally, the Cloud is activated by tapping the R3 button, where it is available.
Most of this is immediately familiar, but I do have some complaints, one of which is that the camera felt as though it moved too quickly, which is a major detriment when it comes to the shooting portions of the game as it makes it difficult to track an enemy. Another is that controlling movement of Monkey always felt slightly off. It seemed far too easy to have him rocket off in the wrong direction at the slightest sideways movement of my thumb on the stick. A third is that the platforming elements are far too simple. It requires you to hold the stick in the general direction of the next handhold and push the button. As a result of this, it is almost impossible to make a mistake. Finally, it often felt as though the there was a slight lag between the buttons I was pressing and what was happening. This is almost standard, and I think something to do with accommodation for human reflexes, but it was noticeable here.
Now, a large part of the game’s appeal lies in the breaking up of the three major gameplay elements, melee fighting, shooting and platforming, and this is done to perfection. At no point do you really feel as if you have been doing one thing for too long, and this is aided by the relatively frequent cut scenes, which give you a real sense of progression. It all works well enough, although the platforming segments are extremely pedestrian as it is, quite literally, impossible to make a mistake. You are never given the option to leap from a handhold unless there is somewhere to jump to. This is understandable in aiding to improve the flow of the game, but still makes it feel very weak. Fortunately, this minor disappointment is improved by the inclusion of some elements which require careful timing, and a scanning of the environment to proceed. A most welcome inclusion, along with the few puzzle-platforming areas, which I truly loved.
A particular trait in this game is that Monkey does not immediately begin running. It uses momentum physics, and this makes the parts that require quick movements much harder. You actually have to prepare a few seconds in advance to move. This helps in adding strategy to the game. Speaking of strategy, there are quite a few places in which it is up to you how to handle the action. You may be able to open fire on enemies from above, or leap down and engage them in hand-to-hand combat. It is the rare occasion in which you are capable of sneaking around enemies without alerting them to your presence and avoiding combat altogether, but it is still there. One final note, is that I found it near impossible to adjust to using the X button for dodging. I suppose that I am more used to flicking the right stick, and as a result, only ended up using the technique about a dozen times throughout the entire adventure.
Accessible from the L1 menu is the Trip Shop, in which you spend tech orbs (collected from enemies and randomly around the environment) to upgrade Monkey’s staff, shield, health and combat skills. It is not at all difficult to have this mostly completed by halfway through the game, but it is still nice to have, and at least it never leaves you feeling over-powered. The gameplay itself is, without a doubt, the weakest part of the production, but the impeccable pacing makes it feel far more engaging than it really is, and I found myself having a great deal of fun just by doing what I was told to do, which I found surprising.
Unfortunately, many of the levels of the game focus on the requirement of reflexes, as opposed to strategy, and this wasn’t quite as fun for me. It is also possible to completely upgrade Monkey’s Combat abilities by halfway through the game, which makes it feel a great deal easier. I also felt, that towards the end, the action really became almost too hectic. It erased much of the charm of the earlier levels in favour of difficulty. Some will enjoy this; I did not.
What I did enjoy was that Enslaved: Odyssey to the West offers a ten hour campaign on Normal difficulty. It is a good length, and you don’t end up feeling shortchanged. This is extended by having the three different difficulty settings, as usual. Also giving reason to come back again is the ability to play over any of the chapters again in order to search for any masks or tech orbs that you may have missed on the first run through (A note though, I hate games developers for giving me a peculiar urge to chase down anything that flashes and floats…). Then there are the trophies, none of which are especially difficult to get. Beyond all of this though, the thing that will make you want to come back and play the game over is the ease and fun of it. I simply cannot stress that enough.
Now, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a fantastic title. But this isn’t the result of the combination of scoreable factors. There is something in this game that is lacking in many. It has a very singular charm, and moreover, is fun. For this reason, I am giving it a score that few would expect. All I can say is that this game will go down as one of my favourite on the PS3. I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you that it is so. If you want my advice, don’t pass on it. At least give it a whirl before passing on it, because like me, you may end up being surprised. I am no longer so worried about Ninja Theory’s next title, Devil may Cry. I have a renewed faith in this studio.
Thankyou for your time and I hope that you found my words to be both informative and helpful. Until next time PSXE, Peace and Law be with you.
This user review does not reflect the views of the PSX Extreme Staff.