Enslaved: Odyssey To The West Review
Developer: Ninja Theory / Publisher: Namco Bandai Games / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Teen [Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence]
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As slave ship 909 en route to Pyramid spirals out of control, the star of this show, Monkey, is locked inside what appears to be a prison pod. Through his port hole he can see a sylph-like girl, scared, and trying to escape as the ship plummets into the heart of what appears to be a destroyed New York City. Monkey escapes and is quickly mired in a leap-and-grab race for survival as the ship’s security controls spark mechs into life, adding a new threat as you get outside the ship on a crazy crash course to apparent safety. But it’s not so simple. The girl, Trip, rigs a headband to your skull that means you die if she does. So starts a journey across a wasteland that wedges in enough intrigue that you’ll keep on trekking, even when the grabathon leapfest (a new genre I just made up) starts to wear thin.
Uncharted 2, Heavenly Sword, and Assassin’s Creed. Not to dismiss Enslaved‘s own unique cinematic style, it’s hard not to see the similarities. Monkey himself is a brute of a dude (Final Fantasy hair and Adam Ant eye-coloring notwithstanding) who can leap great chasms, cling by his massive fingers from slim ledges, and give mechs an almighty beatdown with his Jedi-like laser staff. Puzzles involve flinging Trip’s nubile frame across chasms, holding up barriers for her, and manipulating levers and switches. There’s a co-op feel to the journey without a co-op mode, and Trip plays her part well. Ah, Trip, a niece, perhaps, to Heavenly Sword‘s Nariko; so doe-eyed, so amazing how her boob tube keeps the girls in check (this is T-rated, after all, so no jiggle), with all that running, jumping, and using her decoy to distract mechs, allowing Monkey to move safely to cover..
The third-person perspective allows for a cinematic treatment of each sprawling location across the 14 chapters. Glowing orbs that you collect to pay for upgrades from Trip’s technical bag of jigger-pokery also serve as breadcrumbs directing your path. I was rarely stuck on where to go next, and in fact, from the outset I got the sense that the designers of Enslaved wanted me to succeed. Tools to let me find Trip quickly and access her skills where applicable minimized frustration.
With talent like Alex Garland behind it, we expect a lot. It’s impossible to say much without giving away key plot styles, but let’s say this: the first time that the game really introduces the hint of a backstory is totally stunning. A “what the hell was that” moment. And from that point on, the pull forward to the next piece of the puzzle becomes deeply ingrained. Monkey’s background is vague and his relationship with Trip is compelling as it evolves. It’s worth seeing through, that’s for sure.
While the core third-person controls are solid, the ever-switching camera angle can be a bear in combat. The sweeps and vistas it casts in moments where you’re joyfully leaping from ledge to ledge can be spectacular. But when surrounded by powerful mech enemies, particularly those with shields, you have to take a second to charge the stun attack that breaks the shield. Problem is, in that second, the camera angle could switch, sending your charge away from your target. Also, the Cloud—a wakeboard-like device that Monkey can only use in gameplay-appropriate situations—handles a little crazy, especially when at high speed you need to make jumps across huge bridges.
The visual style of Enslaved makes this future Earth almost alien. It’s like the scenes are over-textured, so crammed with detail that they’re almost too bright, too busy. The cut scenes starring Trip and Monkey are well designed (co-directed by Andy “Gollum” Serkis) with very good voice acting and animations to bring certain emotive scenes to life. The world itself uses much of the same palette even as the locations shift, but what it lacks in true variety it does make up for in detail.
Repetition is the biggest knock against a gameplay formula that works very well in tight chunks, blending combat situations against an army of mechs with spelunking duties around and above obstacles. The puzzles are fresh and solvable, and the combat itself can be mesmerizing and occasionally even thrilling. The story does take a little too long to warm up. But don’t give up. There’s a lot of quality in Enslaved‘s design, style, story, and presentation, giving it a proud and unique space among this year’s action game gliteratti.
8 / 10