Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Review
Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West represents what every developer should aspire to in regards to storytelling in games. Its plot is compelling, its characters genuine, its scope perfect. It has an honest-to-god theme, and it wants to say something about us.
Enslaved is the tale of the muscular, shirtless alpha male Monkey (voiced and mocapped by the incomparable Andy Serkis, who also co-directed the cutscenes) and a young woman named Trip, a pair of captives on a slave airship thrust together by chance and stuck together by Trip’s selfish machinations. The two escape the ship, Trip on the inside of an escape pod and Monkey riding on top because Trip wouldn’t open the door for him. Monkey survives the fall down into the ruins of post-apocalyptic New York City but is knocked unconscious; when he awakens, he discovers that Trip has fitted him with a slave’s headband that will force him to help her escape the city and journey back to her home hundreds of miles away.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (PS3 [Reviewed], XBox360)
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release Date: October 05, 2010
As you might expect, their relationship has quite the rocky beginning. But as the two make their way west, they develop a bond, but not in the way you might expect. Developer Ninja Theory and writer Alex Garland (a guy who actually writes movies and books!) were determined to avoid a romantic subplot; the characters are that much more compelling for it, and it gives the plot actual subtext.
See, Monkey is, before the events of the game, a nomad who roamed the land, a man with no purpose — and who isn’t looking for one — or place in the world, and with Trip he finds that purpose. Trip, on the other hand, was just looking to use someone to help her accomplish a goal that is very important to her, and what she discovers is that she really needed a mentor of sorts in the absence of her family, and in Monkey she finds that. In service to this and other subtext, Serkis’ and TV actress Lindsey Shaw’s vocal performances are perfect and subtle, and their character models’ faces are oh so beautifully expressive that one could be forgiven for thinking they were rendered in a new version of the Source Engine.
It’s incredibly satisfying — no, a joy — to watch the two characters’ dynamic develop over the course of the game, and it becomes analogous to how we, the people in the real world, need is often what we don’t want and how “just rollin’ with it” will sometimes pay off in ways we could never predict.
As I’ve said, the game takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, but it’s set so far after whatever event ruined everything and killed most of the world’s population that our heroes don’t even know how things came to be the way they are. Amusingly, when Trip and monkey reach a high point in the city early in the game, Trip speculates that perhaps thousands of people once lived there, because the concept of more than thousands of people even existing is absolutely foreign to her.
The player can try to piece together what went down; the world is littered with hostile non-intelligent mechs, and there are political signs scattered throughout the city decrying war and the use of mechs, but it is never made explicit what happened, and the ending will likely debunk the theory about it most likely to pop into your head anyway.
But that’s not important. What is important is that the game is generally devoid of human life. In fact, only six characters speak through the entire game, and one of them speaks only through a recording because he died before the events of the game began. This is a future more bleak than even Richard Matheson would envision, and this deepens the urgency that underlies Trip’s quest.
The world’s emptiness also enhances the mood. It’s creepy yet peaceful to wander around a dead, overgrown city that is devoid of everything but plant life and the occasional deer, and it feel quite profound to explore buildings you know no human has seen in many years.
And the game does take place very far in the future. The mechs littering the landscape were all there when everything went to s**t, which means that event in itself is far off from the present day, and the events of the game happen 150 years after that. So Trip and Monkey, naturally, have a number of fun items to play with. Early on, Monkey chases down and captures a robot dragonfly that the he and Trip use as a scout the rest of the way. Monkey’s primary weapon is a lightsaber-type magic staff that also shoots plasma, and he also has a laser hoverboard of sorts that’s pretty great. Trip also has a tool that projects a blue object that will draw the mechs’ attention away from Monkey.
The gameplay itself is a quality mixture of Uncharted’s cinematic quality (I’m referring to the third-person camera here) and climbing mechanics and God of War’s beat-em-up sensibilities. It’s fun, and it’s quite effective, and the climbing and fighting are balanced well; your time in the game will be split quite evenly between the two.
The highlights of the combat are takedown moves, which allow you to, say, rip off a mech’s arm and then explode the mech on other mechs, and the boss battles, which are typically quite ingenious and always end with Monkey doing something ridiculous to these giant robots. These are the places in which Monkey really gets to flex his badass muscles.
Oh yeah, about halfway though the game, a short fat man names Pigsy shows up, and he immediately subverts almost every fat guy story trope that exists. Yeah, he’s comic relief, but he also runs fast, is handy with a rifle and has a grappling hook prosthetic hand that he uses quite deftly.
Is this game perfect? Not at all. while the combat can be quite compelling at times, such as when Monkey and Trip must work together to survive an encounter with the evil robots and during the truly wonderful boss fights, as the game goes on you’ll find yourself facing wave after wave of foes in which you’ll block, stun, weak attack strong attack, and until you get a handle on the rhythm of the combat, you’ll likely find it very finicky. Thankfully, though, the combat is enough of a challenge — a quite fair challenge, I must point out, because you will actually have to think about what you’re doing during battles — that it’s quite engaging despite that.
You’ll also find yourself climbing on stuff constantly, and you’ll occasionally become irritated with the fact that you have to stand in a particular spot for the context-sensitive jump button to let you leap to where you want to leap. On the upside, though, because the game is built this way, you’ll never, and I mean that absolutely, find yourself falling to your death because of an erroneous jump, so it’s a fair trade-off.
My last beef is that, early on, combat is sparse and, when it does occur, typically requires tactical use of Trip to help you get past, say, turrets that you can only destroy by hand, and this is great. But at you go further and further through the game, it becomes just a normal mix of climbing and fighting, and the tactical aspect of the game goes by the wayside.
But I’m going to say those negatives are nitpicks, because they never took away from my immense enjoyment of the game. And when you reach the end of the Odyssey and discover the provocative mindf**k contained in the falling action, you’ll realize the things that will stick with you long after you’ve shut off your console is Monkey and Trip’s emotional journey through a ravaged nation. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is one of the best games of the year.
- Genuine characters
- Well written, well paced
- No romantic subplot!
- Voice acting is legit
- Beautifully rendered everything
- Pigsy is quite funny
- Hoverboard and robot dragonfly, bitch
- Finicky combat
- Touchy climbing mechanics
Final Score: 92/100
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