reviews\ Sep 30, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West review


It is an amusing coincidence that one of the most prolific U.S. game publishers of the Dragon Ball franchise is also the publisher of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Both are loosely based on the 400-year-old Chinese folktale, Journey to the West and bear multiple similarities such as a protagonist who wields a staff and occasionally rides on a floating "cloud". Moreover, Dragon Ball's Goku can turn into a giant monkey, while Enslaved's main character is actually named Monkey. Where Enslaved differs greatly is the lack of cartoon-like presentation and boasts a lot more homages to the source material than Akira Toriyama's adventure series.

As Ninja Theory's follow-up to the Sony-published Heavenly Sword, Enslaved takes many of the positive elements from the 2007 PS3 exclusive and bases it in a bleak, futuristic setting highly reminiscent of the Life After People documentary series.

Upon completing the first chapter of Enslaved, many will recall the high-tension introduction of last year's Uncharted 2. It does not blow the opening of Naughty Dog's sequel out of the water necessarily but it does rank very high as of the exhilarating first chapters of any game this year.

Out of the chaos of this initial chapter, the well-built Monkey finds himself under the command of a fellow ex-slave named Trip. He is forced to comply due to a modded slave headband that Trip attached to Monkey's head. Tampering with it results in death; not to mention if Trip dies, so does Monkey. Having just escaped a slave ship, Trip uses her new compulsory companion to help her get home.

Like Uncharted, Enslaved is loaded with countless climbing sequences, some on decrepit walls, some on more complex structures. When figuring out which parts you can grab a hold of, simply look for bricks, beams, rocks and other objects that shine. Like similar adventure games, sticking to these objects is incredibly easy until you encounter one of the numerous unstable structures which you can only hold on to for a second or two.

A given chapter can feature a number of areas that are meant to be the puzzle elements of the game. At their core, these sequences are simple enough that they do not feel like puzzles in the brain-teasing sense. The number of options in a given section are usually limited enough that choosing the right lever to move or button to press simply comes down to what is available.

Much of the combat involves melee fighting using Monkey's beam staff. Wielded similarly to the Japanese bo staffs, the player has a decent amount of moves depending on how the rapid and strong attacks are combined. Taking a few lessons learned from Heavenly Sword, minimizing damage in Enslaved requires some strategy where well-timed blocks and counterattacks should be learned as soon as possible.

This multipurpose staff also has the capability of shooting projectiles. It uses two different kinds of ammo: a stun round that is essential in disarming enemy shields and plasma blasts to finish off those mechs. There are a number of situations where you can only take on large groups of enemies by using these long range attacks.

As Monkey finds red orbs, he can use them to upgrade a number of his skills and abilities. These include the chance to improve his staff, increase his health, learn new moves and upgrade his defense. It is not an overly complex upgrade tree compared to similar titles but each available improvement in Enslaved is worthwhile.

While Enslaved does not have a God of War quick-time-event mechanic, there will be many opportunities to finish off the game's adversarial mechs both big and small with dramatic flare in the form of a takedown. When prompted, the player only needs to press a button and Monkey will pull off one of many gruesome moves including a trusty neck break and a straight-out spine removal.

The character designs of the mechs can be described as future-rustic where it feels like these robots have been around for decades. One of the more interesting mechs is a reoccurring boss type that seems to be a nod to Dog, the large robotic pet from Half-Life 2. Also named Dog, this mech in Enslaved is a sinister take on Value's design with the visage that resembles a Sharkticon from Transformers.

Integral to the gameplay is a cover system where Monkey automatically hides behind objects when he is close to them. Adding a sense of realism is the fact that many of these cover spots will be destroyed after taking too many enemy shots so do not get too comfortable staying in one spot.

This brings up the distraction component where you can use Trip to get the mechs' attention so Monkey can stealthily sneak his way to a mech, turret or a storyline goal. The only minor challenge is that Trip's decoy device only lasts about 10 seconds and requires additional time to recharge so you cannot use it constantly. There are also many areas that Trip needs to traverse unnoticed so Monkey can distract mechs as well.

The heavy interaction with Trip adds an Ico element to Enslaved and thankfully does not result in high-maintenance escort heroics. Escort missions in the past few years have improved for the most part, and Trip's role in the game is one such example. She can have her helpless moments like when she cowers near menacing mechs, but there will be many opportunities to come to her rescue without feeling like she's a genuine burden. As a character, Trip definitely has her strong assertive moments and can come up with good ideas from time to time.

Enslaved also succeeds in offering minor gameplay deviations without feeling gimmicky. The aforementioned 'cloud' device acts as a hoverboard that is extremely helpful in watery areas and in chasing bosses. There are also many opportunities to take control of a turret's weapon system and use it against other mech.

It especially works in the game's favor that, unlike many adventure games these days, there is no frivolous item collecting. If you are collecting something, it is a healing item, ammo for the fighting stick, upgrade orbs, or plot-enhancing flashbacks. That last item, while optional, offers very brief glimpses on what life was like before everything went to hell. This light degree of item collecting helps maintain the game's fast pace.

This is also thanks in large part to Andy Serkis' cutscene work as well as his superb portrayal of Monkey. Having made a name for himself as Gollum in Lord of the Rings and as Nicolai Tesla's assistant in The Prestige, Andy is certainly not unfamiliar to digital mediums also having done similar cinematic work on Heavenly Sword. He has taken it up several notches in Enslaved and allows him to pull off his most musclebound role in his career. More importantly, there is a noticeable attention to detail how the cutscenes play out. You can tell that Serkis and Ninja Theory really took the time to storyboard camera angles that resemble movies even more so than your average cutscene-laden video game.

Speaking of visuals, the aforementioned urban desolation is impressively detailed and will surely win some awards in art direction. Other games would not be able to get away with multiple stages covered in vegetation without the player getting bored of the backgrounds, but the dystopian context of Enslaved makes these grassy levels worth admiring.

Co-writer Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) more than does his share in polishing a script that excels by exploring different moods, whether it is a tense planning scene between Monkey and Trip or some light-hearted comic relief. It would be pretty hard to go wrong with Garland since he is a gamer himself who themed a chapter in The Beach on Street Fighter II and penned the shelved Halo movie.

This level of ambition and talent is not without its minor issues in Enslaved. In the PlayStation 3 version, there was some noticeable clipping and screen-tearing as well as brief framerate issues during boss battles. Still, greater games have had similar bugs overlooked and they certainly do not detract from the overall experience in Enslaved.

It might be too simple to call Enslaved: Odyssey to the West a melee-centric Uncharted, but it is not that far off and it is certainly not a bad thing. Clocking in at about 10 hours on Normal mode, the game packs a focused narrative, tons of platforming and a satisfying series of combat situations. It is a great start to what is sure to be a competitive holiday season and will generate much optimism for Ninja Theory's next project, the Devil May Cry reboot.


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