Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is one of those nice surprises you didn’t see coming. It appeared at the top of my review pile in a shiny case that I knew nothing about. Going in with a blank slate, the opening cinematic confused me. I had no idea what was going on, only to become more confused when the shirtless protagonist began jumping around a plummeting airship. At that point it seemed appropriate to consult Google, where I learnt that Enslaved is loosely based on “Journey to the West” – a Chinese novel dating back to 1590. However, it’s not all ancient history, rather a modern revival of a story most players won’t even realise exists. Even with such rich history, it would be easy to overlook Enslavedas it’s drowned out in a sea of readymade franchises and cash-in sequels, but then you would miss one of the highlights of 2010.
Enslaved is set in a future where humanity has all but doomed itself. Once prosperous and great lands have been relegated to ruins as mankind fights for survival against a race of all conquering robots. The aforementioned opening cinematic doesn’t do much in the way of explaining the tumultuous situation and leaves you to put the pieces together after making it obvious that humans haven’t fared well in combat against the mechs. You play as a protagonist too cool for both a shirt and a real name – but if he must be called something, he prefers Monkey, presumably in reference to his freakish climbing skills and independent upbringing in the wild. After escaping the clutches of a slave ship, Monkey finds himself bound to a special headband that leaves him captive to a girl named Trip. She attached the device to intertwine their fates and demands that Monkey help her get home. As long as Monkey is wearing the headband, Trip is his master to the extreme that if she dies, so does he.
Enslaved achieves what most games can only dream of. It delivers a compelling narrative, driven by characters you actually care about. It tappers off somewhere in the middle, but recovers nicely and delivers a gob-smacking ending. At first Trip is in prime position to become the annoying damsel in distress that needs babysitting from start to finish. That’s a common path in video games and leads to the development of characters you hate with a passion. Those type of characters give you little motivation to protect them through thick and thin, besides the knowledge that you will be forced to repeat the level if you betray them. Trip becomes so much more than that. She’s useful and full of surprises that compliment Monkey’s raw prowess. It’s hard to imagine caring for a character that took the protagonist captive in the first 15 minutes under selfish motivations (women, amirite?), but she becomes central to the enjoyment of the the overall story which was co-written by Alex Garland of 28 Days Later, The Beach and Sunshine fame.
Interacting with Trip becomes critical to the success of the gameplay. Using her tech-savvy skills to distract enemy mechs allows Monkey to sneak past and position himself better to eliminate them. Likewise, Monkey can distract mechs when Trip is in their line of fire. At anytime the player can order her to move, stay or operate nearby machinery – used in puzzles – but with the exception of the latter, she normally makes the right decision on her own. Intense escape situations she requires Monkey to carry her, making use of his more athletic build. His muscular frame is put to good use throwing Trip across or up to ledges that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to reach.
Platforming is where Enslaved really moves in the right direction, as Monkey is constantly tasked with finding alternate routes around inconvenient obstructions. His twists and turns showcase impressive climbing skills and it’s not too hard to see where Ninja Theory picked up his nickname. The platforming mechanics are very simple and only require you to jump in the right direction. It is stylish acrobatics at its most simple. There is almost no risk of mistake as Monkey will automatically only jump to an appropriate position. It’s great fun to play through, but platforming enthusiasts might not sit well with the lack of danger.
Similarly the puzzle elements are kept fairly basic. Most require Monkey and Trip in two different places to operate a piece of machinery. Controlling Monkey and yelling commands to Trip, the onus is on the player to make the right decisions for both characters, but most are kept straightforward. Like any good platformer puzzle, they require your attention at first, but once you grasp an understanding for the individual mechanics, it’s just a matter of going through the motions. That’s hardly a negative, though, as Enslaved was never meant to be a brain-teaser, so there is no need for elaborate puzzles that have you trolling the Internet for answers.
Combat appears basic at first, but as you upgrade Monkey’s skills you learn the ins and outs of his abilities and the best methods to employ against different types of enemies; although, that’s ultimately a result of repetition. Using an energy charged staff in combat between platforming, Enslaved reminds me of Star Fox Adventures, at least at a basic level. They both have very similar combat, with light and heavy attacks between blocking and evading enemy movements. At range, the staff transforms into a firearm and is able to launch either a lethal or stun blast. These are both far more powerful than direct close combat, but Monkey only has a limited supply and must use his firepower wisely. Power-ups become more devastating towards the latter half of the game, making Monkey not only enslaved, but empowered with his somewhat magical staff.
The biggest gripe with Enslaved comes at the hands of its dodgy controls. It is hardly noticeably during platforming, but as soon as Monkey hits the ground he loses reflexes. He takes longer to react and sometimes movement, on the whole, feels very disorientated shifting from automated platforming to running around. To an extent this is alleviated when the player gets their bearings on the ground, but the controls just aren’t as tight as they should have been.
The aging Unreal Engine still looks good with the great artistic direction of Enslaved, some minor background textural issues aside. The character models are distinctive and the post-apocalyptic world is surprisingly vibrant and colorful. Unfortunately, there are some ugly framerate issues. They are fairly infrequent, but they are there nonetheless.
The sound effects are good, but it is the voice acting where the audio shines. Every word is fantastic, due to the quality of the actors and the dialogue which come together in a neat package. The story of Enslaved goes beyond its cut-scenes into the conversations between Monkey and Trip in general gameplay. Most developers fill in the time with useless banter, but Enslaved keeps you listening attentively even when you are focused on completing a task. The awesome soundtrack rounds out the audio package with a memorable score.
The Final Verdict
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was a pleasant surprise for me, and one that I fear will slip under the radar for many. Its core gameplay, both platforming and combat, is kept fairly simple, but coupled with a fantastic narrative and character development, it’s one of the most engaging games this year. It is not without its problems, but Enslaved is a fun unique single player adventure in this time of cash-in sequels and online dominance.