Enslaved: Odyssey to the West hands-on

We're frankly reeling in astonishment from our recent hands-on with Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. We saw the game a while back in a hands-off preview and we weren't sure what to think of this unusual game. It struck us as somewhat original in its portrayal of a post-apocalyptic New York as a lush, overgrown ghost town rather than the standard brown, dusty wasteland seen in almost all after-the-end-of-the-world games. Yet its gameplay and storytelling left us mostly with a question mark – the combat seemed standard fare, and all the claims of professional writing by 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland were only talk with no real walk, thanks to unfinished voice-overs unable to convey anything other than weird, buggy computer-delivered dialogue.

Clearly that preview was not a case of Enslaved putting its best foot forward. And understand this: that preview was pretty good. What we've just finished playing has gotten us excited in a way we never saw coming. We're really hoping the final product doesn't make us look like we're overhyping things, because right now we think we've just tasted a true original, a game that takes videogame storytelling to a new level. It's possible some players won't see in Enslaved what we've seen, because the most exciting aspects of the game are in tiny details.

Take, for instance, the first time you see the kill-cam as your hero, Monkey, splits a mech in two with his staff. Words can't describe what it is that makes it special – it's like one of those tiny gem shots in a movie that completely makes a scene but you can't say why. Or how about the way that Trip, the vulnerable girl who has enslaved Monkey out of necessity rather than malice, has the most soulful eyes we've ever seen in a videogame character. Or maybe the fleeting glimpse of a deer bounding away out of Grand Central Station in Manhattan – the only evidence that anything bigger than a bird still lives in this far-off future.

This is truly a case of where playing a game, rather than watching it, makes all the difference. The moment we took control of Monkey, it hit us: this game is constructed with care and an energetic urge to push every aspect creatively. When you move the stick, Monkey darts, sprints, and shifts directions with agility and crispness that you can't see, but only feel. It's the same with his cloud – it's a holographic disc he can only deploy in certain places and he rides it like a hoverboard. It doesn't look particularly special, but when you control it, there's a cushiony, floaty sensation to it that really conveys the idea of riding a cloud.

The overall flow of gameplay is not combat-heavy; much of the game involves climbing and navigating obstacles, exploring ruins, and helping Trip get from place to place since she doesn't have the athleticism that Monkey has. Enemies are never just randomly sprinkled around the environment – every encounter feels designed and presents a unique challenge. The combat itself isn't God of War – the combos are simple – we haven't seen any air juggles or ten-hit flurries. You do get to earn upgrades to your abilities, but we didn't encounter tons of moves to unlock. Instead, combat encounters tend to be tactical: you command Trip to distract enemies with her holograms while you dart between cover and flank entrenched mechs. Monkey's staff also has limited ammo for ranged attacks, including the important stun shots which you'll need to overcome certain mechs' shields.

The bosses we've fought are Zelda-like in their puzzle-centric nature, although the puzzles are more about timing than figuring out some obscure way to vanquish the boss. An exciting one involves a massive arena for you to race around in on your cloud to gain distance from a thundering mech before pulling out your staff to fire a shot. It's like trying to shoot a charging elephant – you only have a few seconds and watching the galloping beast get closer and closer is a bit terrifying.

In fact, fear comes to the forefront of Enslaved in a way that most non-horror action games never bother with. Monkey is brave, but he never has that invincible swagger so many heroes thrust in our faces. More importantly, it's Trip and her eyes that let you know how big, empty and scary Enslaved's world is. The relationship between Trip and Monkey is layered and complex, and conveys how humanity, or what's left of it, is clinging desperately to survival. And then there is the mystery that hangs over everything – what were people fighting over before the apocalypse? Did the war cause it? Who are the slavers, and where do they take their slaves? Who is Monkey really? All of these questions push the desire to play forward – we really want to know the answers.

Enslaved has popped on our radar unexpectedly and with a quiet confidence that's reassuring – we'll be quite surprised if the complete, final product doesn't live up to the quality it has established in the early part of the game. It's possible the secrets, once revealed, will be disappointing, but unless the gameplay somehow falls apart as well, we're not too worried. What does worry us is that Enslaved could turn out to be the sleeper game of the season amongst critics, and yet get ignored by players. Will its target audience even be aware of it? Will they give it a chance after a surface glance that doesn't reveal the important details? Story-wise, it's now the most promising game of the next few months.

Sep 7, 2010

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  • EricBratcher - September 15, 2010 5:52 p.m.

    @ThePrivateer - totally. Namco has never been shy about admitting it. But I have to say, this is as complete a makeover as you're likely to see, given that ancient China and India have been swapped with post-apocalyptic, robot-infested New York and all. I'm eager to see if some of the other characters from the novel show up in the game as well, like Pig or the Dragon King, and in what forms.
  • Josephnero - September 12, 2010 11:37 a.m.

    i hope its nothing like sacred the fallen angel which was crap
  • Valntyne - September 8, 2010 11:24 p.m.

    Cool, been interested in the game since I read about in Game informer, glad to know it's shaping up into something good.
  • Evil_AppleJuice - September 8, 2010 7:05 p.m.

    like oufour, i stand by my belief that this looks like a mix between Jak and Daxter, and the more recent Prince of Persia. This is of course a great thing, as i loved both games. will be looking forward to it :)
  • NuQLER - September 8, 2010 4:28 p.m.

    video preview @ Gamespot that fleshes it out even a bit further:;img;4 looking really good.
  • speno93 - September 8, 2010 10:32 a.m.

    sounds great, love games with good aesthetics and this sounds a real treat
  • ultimatepunchrod - September 8, 2010 4:25 a.m.

    i cant wait for this game. looks amazing thanks for the preview.
  • garnsr - September 8, 2010 4:10 a.m.

    I liked Heavenly sword, so this has been one of the few games coming out this fall I'm excited about. This makes me want it more.
  • mentalityljs - September 8, 2010 3:10 a.m.

    Like AwesomeA1010, I just ignored the ads. They make the game look like another MMO or some shit. Good thing I took the time to read this article. It's got my attention now!
  • shyfonzie - September 8, 2010 2:47 a.m.

    I'm hecka interested in this game. Everything I see about it makes it seem like it could end up being something amazing, especially the idea of a green apocalypse. I hope the 28 Days Later fella can create some satisfying and interesting answers to these question about what happened.
  • ThePrivateer - September 8, 2010 2:27 a.m.

    Anyone realize this an adaption of Journey to the West?
  • EnragedTortoise1 - September 8, 2010 2:10 a.m.

    Waaaw. I wanna play this SO bad. Will look forward to a demo.
  • AwesomeA1010 - September 8, 2010 1:53 a.m.

    I had only seen cursory browser adds for this and thought nothing of it. I'll keep watching this now, good article
  • n00b - September 8, 2010 1:04 a.m.

    this and vanquish are the games Im looking out for i think they come out on the same day too.
  • sTiNatey - September 8, 2010 1:01 a.m.

    I've been watching this game for a while now and have been trying to get my friends interested as well. I hope Ninja Theory delivers on what looks to be a very promising game.
  • oufour - September 8, 2010 1:01 a.m.

    i said it once, i'll say it again. this has the potential to be the next jak and daxter.
  • lewis42025 - September 8, 2010 12:57 a.m.

    i absolutely can't wait
  • alexcook - September 8, 2010 12:54 a.m.

    I've had this game preordered for months. There always seemed to be something about this game that stood out to me, so this article has me even more excited. With the videos and coverage lately, this game has been moving more and more towards the top of my list for most anticipated of 2010. I've probably purchased over 50 games this year, so it's a fairly extensive list. Although, a lot of those games were older games in the Steam summer sale packs (like the TellTale pack, score!).
  • eudaimo - September 8, 2010 12:27 a.m.

    Thanks. This one has been on my radar for quite a while, and my anticipation is building. One note: "has the most soulful eyes we've ever scene [sic] in a videogame character"
  • StrayGator - September 8, 2010 12:02 a.m.

    Did my last sentence make any sense? Pardon my grammer, it's 3AM here.