Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Ninja Theory
ESRB rating: Teen
Release date: Available now
The best games, like the best movies or books, take you on a memorable journey with likeable characters to places you’ve never visited. Too often, however, developers spend more time and effort on the journey and not enough on the characters. Heavenly Sword creator Ninja Theory reverses that trend with Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a game that gives you not just an exciting trip, but also two compelling traveling companions.
Enslaved is based upon a 16th-century Chinese novel about a holy man on a search for enlightenment, and the imprisoned god he rescues to do his bidding. In the game, two prisoners on board a giant flying ship filled with slaves escape from the vessel just before it crashes into the remnants of New York City, 200 years after a devastating war has wiped out most of the world’s biological life. One of the prisoners, a teenage girl named Tripitaka (Trip), has expansive technology skills. The other, a muscular tribesman called Monkey, wakes up after the crash to find Trip cowering in fear near him and a strange headband on his head. Trip tells Monkey that she wants to travel to her family’s mountain retreat to the west of the city, and that she’s placed the slave headband on him to force him to take her there. If he tries to remove it, if he strays too far from her side, or if she dies, the headband fries his brain. Together they battle robots left behind after the war as they move toward their destination.
You control Monkey from the third-person perspective. Combat is almost exclusively melee for the first half of the game, with Monkey wielding a collapsible quarterstaff that also fires stun and plasma bolts, which can be found scattered throughout the landscape in the grand shooter tradition. Your task is to keep Trip safe as you move through the city and beyond. But this is not just an escort mission; Trip has tech abilities that you can use to make progress easier. She can distract enemies enough for you to gain a strategic advantage; she can operate switches and consoles that move platforms and open doors; and she can upgrade your weapons, shields and health attributes, provided you have the tech orbs to trade for them. The orbs are floating balls of red light found everywhere in the game; Monkey also claims orbs left behind by defeated enemies. And, as seems to be the gameplay mechanic du jour, there’s plenty of Uncharted-style platforming to be done; handholds show a white shimmer for easy identification.
One of Enslaved‘s strongest features is its characters. While most games give you objectives without any real regard for the avatars you play, writer Alex Garland (author of the screenplays for 28 Weeks Later and Sunshine) has created real people with depth, people in whom you can easily become emotionally invested. As the game progresses, you can see the evolution of the relationship between Monkey and Trip, and you watch Trip change from a whiny, scared little girl into a determined woman seeking her family. This depth of characterization is enhanced by the detailed facial expressions shown by Monkey and Trip, and the cinematic style in the game’s direction. Graphics are solid, especially considering that almost all of the story takes place outdoors, and composer Nitin Sawhney’s score is atmospheric without being intrusive. And the performance by Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films), both vocally and in the motion-capture studio, is impressive.
How much you enjoy the gameplay in Enslaved depends on whether or not you mind being taken by the hand and guided from place to place. The game is so linear that it might as well be on rails. It’s almost impossible for you to fall from ledges or cliffs unless there’s someplace safe to land. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it decreases the number of reloads that you have to endure (unlike most PS3 games, Enslaved isn’t automatically installed on the hard drive, so load times are significant). The story leaves you in the dark for a long time about a number of important things; you don’t learn the characters’ names until about an hour into the story, and you’re not told of the significance of the tech orbs until well into the game, so if you haven’t been collecting the orbs from the start, you won’t be able to purchase many of the upgrades when they become available. And there are serious sound problems in several parts of the game; dialogue is frequently not synched with lip animations, and sound effects such as crashes and explosions are missing in various situations.
I’m a creature of habit; I go to the movies every Sunday. My definition of a great game is one that has me so invested in it that I forget to go to the cinema. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is almost one of those games. The storytelling is superior to every game I’ve played since Uncharted 2, the characters are memorable, and the game has the look and feel of a Hollywood adventure film. It’s only the technical glitches and gameplay handholding that keep Enslaved from reaching true greatness. But even with these flaws, it’s a journey that should not be missed.