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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Escort missions are the worst. A lot of games have them, and the majority are poorly designed, overly long or frustratingly difficult. Often you’ll be expected to babysit some terribly slow, malnourished NPC with the thin promise that nothing wrong will happen as you accompany them through rough neighbourhoods and run-down areas that are ripe for ambush. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is not an escort mission, but an escort ‘game’ – surely a recipe for disaster? Developers Ninja Theory have done the impossible then – they have made the act of escort fun, with a fantastic couple of characters that you’ll care for in a game that genuinely feels new and different.

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Based on an ancient Chinese Novel titled ‘Journey to the West’, the story starts in New York City and involves Monkey and Trip, two uniquely different characters with separate motives. Monkey is an agile fighter who loves swinging and jumping on everything, and is bound to protect Trip in order to save himself, while Trip is a beautiful, calculated hacker type, who needs Monkey’s protection in order to return to her homeland. While the duo’s oppositeness borders on cliché, you won’t care for a second, as their relationship blossoms perfectly as the story progresses.

Now post-apocalyptic wastelands are far from being new videogame territory, but in Enslaved, instead of grey vistas and stormy skies, you have beautiful vegetation, blue waters, sunny weather. Most videogame developers seem to think a post-apocalypse means the end of colour and light. Thankfully Ninja Theory are not ‘most videogame developers’. The natural wonders of new NYC are more breathtaking than ever. Colours pop out from every corner as you begin your journey, and it never lets up. Character animation is astounding, too, with this game as good an advertisement as any for mo-cap technology.

It’s certainly an interesting journey, and one you’ll rarely tire of, as the pacing is fantastic. From the amount of cutscenes to the combat sequences – the game never bombards you with one or the other, and shakes things up without feeling forced. If you come across a puzzle, it doesn’t feel like a checklist on a designer’s spreadsheet, but something wholly necessary, in order to develop the story and characters. Timed platforming segments even make complete sense, and unlike many modern videogames, the various locales you visit feel believable and connected.

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Monkey’s relationship with Trip is a joy to watch and is developed with every step you take – even the funny jibes and small talk exchanges serve a part in making them more comfortable around each other. When a cutscene starts to play you’ll become interested and want to be more involved in their story. You’ll wish they were longer – instead of skipping them, you’ll encourage their presence, and there can be no greater compliment than that.

The story and dialogue works so well because of the writing, which never feels overblown or needlessly complex, and it doesn’t try to be more serious or intelligent than it is. Like the best novels are easy to read yet powerful, the writing of Enslaved is immediately understandable but also elegant. All things considered, the game is not a text heavy or even dialogue heavy one, but that is part of its power, and testament to its great storytelling.

With great dialogue and an interesting, well told story, it’s vital that the gameplay holds up well, too, and thankfully it does, for the most part. With Monkey and Trip on a large journey, the adventure never has you back tracking, and is a linear, but focused adventure. As you play as a duo, levels are littered with puzzles and scenarios that require the use of both characters. You control Monkey, but can order Trip around each area, and utilise her unique abilities, such as a holographic decoy which distracts enemy attention. The idea that the two characters must rely on each other to survive is enforced from beginning to end, and to great effect, almost like pinball – Trip sees useful tool; Monkey climbs to get it; Trip activates tool which shows mines on your radar; Monkey carries Trip across minefield. You become so used to their inseparable nature that for the brief times where they get split up, you genuinely feel lost, and hoping for a quick reunion.

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One thing Trip does not involve herself with is combat. Combat is a large part of the game, and can be immensely satisfying. Monkey’s staff sure packs a punch, with the wholesome sound of clunking metal a feast for the ears. There is a definite learning curve, and by the end of the game you’ll be downing foes without problem, learning to adapt to the various mech types you encounter, and the refreshingly inventive boss battles.

While the combo system can feel fairly shallow, only being able to mix light and heavy attacks, there is scope to improve Monkey’s move-set with the game’s upgrade system, such as improving shield strength, or giving the staff the ability to fire projectiles. Upgrades are bought via tech orbs – glowing collectibles that are dotted around each level, and the reward for destroying enemies. Monkey’s staff can also double up as a hoverboard, to help go across waterscapes, which handles perfectly and without frustration, giving a welcome break from normal gameplay.

Apart from the mix of combat and puzzles, Monkey does a lot of climbing, swinging and jumping, which is unfortunately less exciting than it sounds, even if it looks fantastic. Described as an action adventure game, Enslaved is definitely not a platformer. Jumping between poles and platforms is very automatic, with there often being no actual way to fail, unless you are battling against falling objects. Climbable elements are highlighted to ease confusion and frustration, but this almost shatters any kind of realism the game evokes.

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The game is quite short, and because the experience is so enjoyable you’ll wish for more than the ten chapters offered. Unfortunately the ending is a little disappointing and anti-climatic – with the outcome hardly as affecting or relevant as the rest of the game, especially Monkey and Trip’s relationship.

And that is what makes Enslaved a title worth playing, as for every Tom, Dick and Harry you come across in a game, it’s rare you’ll stumble upon a Monkey and a Trip – two extremely likeable characters that truly enrich the whole gaming experience. The gameplay may not be completely new, then, but this kind of chemistry certainly is. There’s no denying it – Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is the best escort ‘game’ ever made; a spritely little cracker with a lot of heart.

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @_Frey.

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