Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Every now and then, along comes a game which genuinely justifies videogames as a viable medium for storytelling. Perhaps we should expect this from Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, with The Beach and 28 Days Later author Alex Garland credited as co-writer and Heavenly Sword creators Ninja Theory on development duty. Even so, the wonderful artwork, emotive characters and gloriously colourful gameworld produce an adventure that’s involving and stunning, if perhaps at times a little disassociating and automated when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the actual gameplay.
It begins with a chance meeting. Hundreds of years in the future mankind has been ravaged by a great war leaving cities abandoned and patrolled by hostile robots – or ‘mechs’ – whilst pockets of human survivors are disparate and leaderless. Aboard a slave ship heading for the mysterious ‘Pyramid’, heroes Monkey and Trip happen upon one another and escape together as the damaged ship crashes to the ground, and when the unconscious Monkey later comes to, he finds Trip has enslaved him as she needs his help travelling home. What begins as a somewhat tense and cold partnership soon grows to a mutual friendship, with master and slave soon developing genuine affection and warmth for one another.
The plausibility of the plot and the characters is helped exponentially by the quality of the character visuals and performances. Of particular note are the faces, which are incredibly expressive and really convey emotions convincingly, even aside from the script. Likewise, this visually stunning interpretation of a colourful and vegetative post-apocalyptic world feels unique and certainly makes Enslaved stand out from the gamut of brown and sombre post-war worlds that inhabit the sub-genre. The cutscenes are lavish, with motion-captured performances by the main cast, and while the yarn it spins may not quite be an odyssey, it’s certainly an interesting journey across its fourteen levels, with a strong finale and an interesting twist at the end.
The gameplay inhabits a world somewhere between Uncharted and Batman: Arkham Asylum, with platforming and Monkey clambering around like his simian namesake, mixed with combat against groups of increasingly resilient enemies. Monkey wields a staff and initially can only perform a small handful of basic combos and strikes, although this can soon be built up as Monkey ‘buys’ more combat options from Trip, including extra health, a stronger blocking shield and new offensive moves. Nonetheless, even when Monkey is fully upgraded, there aren’t too many attacks or combos, and the fights never seem to flow as smoothly or satisfyingly as those in comparative action-adventures.
If the combat lacks depth, then it’s probably fair to say that the platforming is basically perfunctory – bordering on being fully automated, only certain ledges can be climbed up, handholds shimmer so they can’t be missed and it’s actually impossible for Monkey to fall to his death, or jump from ledges unless programmed so. That’s not to say that swinging around poles or smoothly running up a drainpipe isn’t great to watch and fairly exhilarating, but the fact all challenge has been removed leaves it feeling akin to going through the motions rather than having any real sense of tangible input – if you point Monkey in broadly the correct direction and press X, he’ll get to where he needs to be.
The camera takes a traditional third-person stance, mapped to the right analogue stick, which generally works well and allows the player to carefully scan the environment. The camera tends to be well behaved, although it does sometimes back off to a fixed viewpoint which isn’t always particularly helpful. It generally feels a bit too close to Monkey though, and this can cause issues during combat where you’ll often be attacked by an enemy off-screen against whom you had almost no chance of evading or defending. It also gets trapped and jerky around scenery during interior sections which is problematic during the final sections of the game where there are a lot of indoor battles.
There are also some sections where Monkey has to use his ‘Cloud’ hover board to get through an impassable section and find a way for Trip to proceed. This usually involves whizzing around the environment to destroy an obstacle or forge a path forward, and they make a nice change of pace, even if the Cloud itself is a little contrived as you can only use it in specific areas. It’s also used in a couple of chase sequences where Monkey has to pursue and bring down enemies, and these again provide a welcome change of pace as well as being some of the most exciting set-pieces in the game. Monkey’s staff can also be used to shoot stun and plasma projectiles, and often he has to stick to cover whilst shooting across distances at mechs, which while hardly Gears of War is satisfying and helps keep the gameplay varied.
Enslaved is built using the Unreal Engine 3, even if its proliferation of colour wouldn’t make you think that. The visuals are sumptuously detailed and the vistas broad and imaginative, although as a result there are some performance issues – such as screen tearing when you move the camera around, slow-loading textures during cutscenes and occasional frame rate drops. However, there’s very little which actually affects the gameplay itself, no matter how disconcerting it is when objects take two seconds for detail to pop in mid-cutscene. The characters are extremely detailed and well animated on the whole and the level of imagination and artwork that has gone into the design of this wasteland is far more imaginative than most products of the same premise. This is without question one of the game’s crowning achievements.
Enslaved is more than the sum of its parts, because despite its flaws and issues it’s still a fun game to play, and presents a fantastic big-budget adventure in a wonderfully unique gameworld inhabited by superbly realised characters. The whole production feels like it could do with a little more depth – outside of the narrative, it feels like there’s nothing going on below the surface – but this is still a fun, awe-inspiring and lavish eight hours of game that delivers plenty of its own style and flavour and is a fine addition to a busy genre.