Where you stand on Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, will depend on how much things like atmosphere, characterisation, storyline and style matter in the games you play. Look at it one way, and it is merely a competent action/adventure game with stunning graphics, linear gameplay and a handful of neat twists. Look at it another, and it’s one of the most dazzling and immersive gaming experiences of the year. If you’re inclined to obsess over innovative game mechanics and deep combat systems instead of getting caught up in a well-told tale, then this might not be the game for you, but if you’re wired the other way around, then this is the sort of game you’ve been yearning for.
Inspired by Journey to the West, the same Chinese classic that bought us the much-loved 80s BBC2 teatime favourite, Monkey, Enslaved follows a young female hacker, Trip, and her unwilling bodyguard, Monkey, as they journey across an American landscape in some undefined, post-apocalyptic future. Having made an escape from slavers, Trip plans to return to her father in an isolated enclave, but needs our agile warrior hero to get her there in one piece. To ensure cooperation, she has placed a slaver’s headband on his nut. If our grumpy hero doesn’t play ball, he suffers. If she dies, he dies too.
It’s an interesting setup, and one the game runs with through a combination of platforming, cover-based shooting and close combat that takes as much from the Uncharted series as it does from a Devil May Cry or God of War. When you’re not leaping around the scenery, looking for a way to get Trip through the next barrier or up to the next level, you’re battling vicious-looking mechs with an energy staff that doubles as a handy plasma cannon. The game also plays with a few ideas from Sony’s much-loved Ico, with Monkey having to throw Trip up onto ledges or over gaps, then leap over himself to drag her up before she falls. These moments are fewer and farer between than you might wish, but at least the game never feels like one giant, irritating escort mission. In fact, with a last-ditch EMP pulse weapon, a decoy projector and a nice line in platforming herself, Trip actually works as a useful companion.
Enslaved’s biggest weakness is that, while all the elements work perfectly well, neither the platforming nor the combat is what you might call state of the art. As far as the first goes, your way up or across each section is so clearly signified by shining handholds, and the controls are so determined to stop you going wrong, that all you can do is follow the trail from one to the next. In a few cases there’s timing involved, but a lot of the time this is the most undemanding platformer since Ubisoft’s controversial 2008 Prince of Persia reboot. The fighting is a bit more interesting, with a handful of blocks and combos, plus some moves you’ll need to break mech shields - not to mention a basic, RPG style upgrade system - but it’s still not long before you start relying on the same attacks.
Where it’s most interesting is in the strategy department. Before most fights you’ll get a flyby of the situation outlining mechs with weak points or bearing weapons which you might be able to turn against their robot chums. Target these first, and you’ll quickly gain an edge on your metallic foes. The game also scores highly for its intriguing, inventive boss battles, even if most of these go on a good 5 minutes longer than might be strictly necessary.
Still, it must be said that the gameplay could be a little more inspired, and that it doesn’t do enough with the most interesting idea: making Trip and Monkey work together. Normally, we’d chastise the game in question at this point and send it home with a condescending verdict. Enslaved, however, deserves better.
For a start, it’s a beautiful looking game. Think post-apocalyptic and you usually think of something in the mould of Fallout 3 or Borderlands, but Enslaved gives us a much more attractive vision, where the ruins of New York are now covered in lush vegetation, and even wastelands peppered with rusting mechs have brightly coloured wetlands and glowing sunset skies. It’s the kind of sci-fi dystopia that you might actually want to visit. Both the human protagonists and mechanical enemies are richly detailed and brilliantly animated, and while Enslaved can’t match Uncharted’s lifelike facial animation, the close-ups still look pretty believable.
But, more importantly, it’s an exceptionally cinematic game - and we actually mean that in a good way. The script, by The Beach/28 Days Later writer Alex Garland should be a model for other game writers to follow, giving you enough background detail and nuance to make the world and the characters come to life, but not whacking you over the head with endless exposition or over-wrought emotion. The motion-captured performances, directed by Andy Serkis (who also plays Monkey) bring a real sense of humanity to the games’ heroes, and make the game’s deeper moments work.
Finally, Nitin Sawhney’s score - a nice mix of Eastern and Western themes and instrumentation - is pitch-perfect, building up the action when you need it, and creating an atmosphere during the quieter moments of exploration. Most importantly, this is never a game that forgets it’s not a movie. Much of the narrative happens while you’re playing, and the short cutscenes rarely outstay their welcome. Whatever you’re doing, there’s always some new funny line or muttered aside to remind you that you’re not just playing another generic action game, but taking part in a grand adventure.
In the end, it’s not the shortcomings of the gameplay that you’ll remember from Enslaved, but its rich and enthralling narrative, and the wonder of its post-apocalyptic world. It’s not as flawless or advanced an interactive blockbuster as Uncharted 2, but it’s not all that far off, and it’s one of those games where, the more you play, the deeper those narrative hooks sink in. Enslaved might not be the best game you play this year, but don’t be surprised if it becomes one of your favourites.
Want to know more about Enslaved? Check out our chat with Ninja Theory.