Someone at developer Ninja Theory has a thing for redheads. Looking back at the studio’s previous effort, Heavenly Sword, the similarities between that outing’s heroine Nariko and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West’s Trip are unmistakable: both have scarlet hair that hangs over their faces in tendrils, both have beautiful, expressive faces, and both kick ass – wait a minute, no, that’s not right. Trip’s a downright wuss. Actually, that’s what we like about her. She’s an interesting take on the damsel in distress: instead of getting into trouble and calling for help, she plans ahead by knowing she’ll get into dangerous situations and so forces the nearest muscle-bound meathead into protecting her.
Above: For a meathead, he's actually a big sweetie
This scenario, and the game in general, is inspired by the old Chinese myth Journey to the West. In that story, the character that inspired Trip is actually a male monk who commands the mystical Monkey King with a magic headband. In Enslaved, all magic is replaced with technology because the setting is post-apocalypse. The Monkey in the story is named just that – Monkey. He claims he doesn’t have a name, but that the people he trades with call him Monkey, and once the player takes control of him, the reason for his name becomes obvious: he climbs like a monkey, he hunches over in primate fashion, he’s always barefoot, and the sash hanging from his belt looks like a tail once he gets moving.
A studio carving out a niche
After playing through Enslaved we went back to look at Heavenly Sword, and other than the aforementioned affinity for redheads, another thing becomes evident: Ninja Theory wants to be the storytelling game studio. Or possibly, the ambitions are higher: to push storytelling in all videogames forward. Whether that is the developer’s ambition or not, they have achieved it. Heavenly Sword accomplished a new standard in cutscenes by putting the acting, motion capture (especially facial expressions), and dialogue of other games to shame. The characters in the cutscenes felt like real actors in a real movie, displaying quirks and personality in a way that possibly no other game has.
Above: This ain't no dusty, irradiated wasteland
That is, until Enslaved came along. Comparing the story elements of Heavenly Sword and Enslaved on their surface might make Enslaved appear as a step backward, since the dialogue is more understated and the characters less flamboyant. Yet what Enslaved represents is a more mature approach to storytelling, and by being more subtle (and even ambiguous in many of its character’s reactions to each other) it develops quite an emotional payoff. Need a game to justify the gaming medium as legitimate for storytelling? Look no further.
The difficult part is talking about how the story is strong without ruining it, so we won’t give away any plot points or big reveals. Besides, the game shows right off the bat it means business in a spectacular first level. Something about Monkey is immediately likeable – he has the expectedly gruff voice (done brilliantly by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis), but it doesn’t sound like he’s gargling pebbles in a phony attempt to sound manly. There’s a tinge of softness to him, a slight vulnerability in his eyes, even when he’s pissed off. As he escapes the slave ship a series of harrowing close calls occur and we see that not only will the characters be engaging, but the action will break expectations.
Combat isn’t the star here
We enjoyed Enslaved’s combat quite a bit, but it’s not a complex affair and people hoping for God of War (or Castlevania: Lords of Shadow) levels of combos and special moves might be disappointed. Enslaved aims for tactical combat, so it’s a bit more methodical. Monkey uses his fists and expanding lightsaber-ish staff to beat the piss out of various mechs, and he does it with panache, but the combos are simple – mash either the light or heavy attacks, but there aren’t air-juggles or tons of combos to unlock. Still, Monkey can dodge-roll, block and counterattack, perform wide group-clearing attacks and charge up stun moves. It’s enough to keep the combat fun and tense, but this isn’t a hack-and-slasher. Combat is just one part of gameplay – the others being climging and exploration, along with a bit of sneaking around especially dangerous enemies (but it’s no shoehorned attempt at stealth gameplay – there are no instant lose scenarios if you’re caught).
Monkey’s staff also acts as a beam weapon – once the Plasma Blast and Stun Blasts are unlocked, you’ll have access to limited ranged attacks. Ammo is scarce and the staff has a slow rate of fire, so it’s not Devil May Cry levels of shooting-mixed-with-melee combat. There are, however, some shooter-ish sections of the game where Monkey takes over a turret for a bit of on-rails machinegunning, but these aren’t extensive and simply serve to break up the pacing a bit.
Above: The staff's Stun Blast not only immobilizes mechs, but breaks their energy shields (only certain mechs have them)
We won’t go into specifics of boss encounters because they’re special affairs – being a story-oriented game, Enslaved doesn’t serve up a boss at the end of every level. The bosses aren’t super epic endeavors like say Castlevania: Lords of Shadow’s are, but they have a certain intimidation factor – for instance, one boss pursues Monkey and Trip through two entire levels, seemingly an unstoppable mechanical monstrosity until Monkey realizes he’s going to have to fight it. It, like the other bosses, isn’t particularly difficult. It’s more the character’s realistic emotions and the way the story makes the mechs seem cold and unforgiving that makes the bosses really scary.
The real star of Enslaved is the world, and a big part of the game is exploring it in a fashion befitting Monkey. Climbing seems to be the in thing with videogames these days and Enslaved has a lot of it. We like climbing things in games – in fact, we never get tired of it. It fulfills some ancient caveman need – the desire to escape danger on the ground and to conquer something by literally putting yourself on top of it. Still, not everyone gets a kick out of gaming’s climbing craze, so particularly for those wanting deep combat over climbing, Enslaved might not appeal so much. For us, it has a perfect dose of climbing, and it does the mechanic with tactile satisfaction.
Above: Natural and man-made obstacles form Enslaved's vast jungle-gym
Monkey moves with quick-footed agility on the ground, but he really rips through the environment while scrabbling up pipes and launching toward handholds. The game makes it nearly always obvious where Monkey needs to go with shining grab points and blatant camera angles, which could have been toned down a bit, but the focus is on timing jumps and enjoying Monkey’s acrobatics. One particular aspect we reveled in was swinging successively from one horizontal bar to the next. Normally, jumping to one of these bars has Monkey swing up and then perch on top of it before making the next move. With proper timing, however, he can fling himself along without slowing down, providing a kinetic traversal that’s just downright addictive.
It helps that the world is both gorgeous and pregnant with danger. This apocalypse happened quite a while ago, so nature has crept back in and taken over. Bright green vines and ferns cover everything that was once concrete and glass, and hints of past civilization are everywhere. The world is also ready to crumble all the time, so climbing over everything has a sense of tension to it.
One continuous escort mission?
From a story standpoint, the idea of a girl left with no choice but to enslave a man and force him to protect her on her journey home through a deadly wilderness is clearly ripe with possibilities. From a game standpoint... wait a minute, aren’t escort missions one of the most annoying things in games? Stupid AI partners who always have pathfinding issues, constantly whine for help, and generally make us want to kill them rather than protect them? It almost provokes the response, “An escort game? What were they thinking?”
Well it turns out they were thinking a lot of things, because taking care of Trip isn’t a pain for two reasons: she’s supremely loveable, and the entire game is designed around her situation. The devs knew the minefield they’d set out for themselves, so decided to build their own minefield instead of figuring out how to make AI be able to negotiate it. Enslaved isn’t a game where a glitchy NPC nips at your heels while monsters swarm in and aggravate you with their attacks on your defenseless tagalong. Indeed, Trip rarely spends time next to Monkey – instead, she hides in a safe location while Monkey deals with the dangerous stuff. There are only a handful of times when Trip is in actual danger that Monkey must fend off, so it rarely feels like an escort mission at all.
Above: See? Clearly he cares about her. She's just so darn adorable
There were only two times in the entire game where Trip even got killed while we played, so the frustration factor is practically nonexistent. In a clever failsafe, the devs even give you a get out of jail card – if for some reason a mech does get a hold of Trip, she’ll activate an EMP, stunning every mech nearby and actually making combat easier for you. It doesn’t make her invulnerable, as the EMP has to recharge, but that should only happen rarely.
So not only is Trip not much of a pain, she’s also a critical tool. Aside from her EMP, she also can create a holographic decoy to draw the fire of ranged enemies, allowing Monkey to sneak around and flank entrenched positions. She can also carry medical devices to help heal Monkey, and she hacks through all kinds of doors and obstacles. For the most part, she just feels really out of the way, so we never wanted to kill her.
Above: Here's Trip's hologram decoy. It lasts for a brief time, so the dash to cover while it drains out can get nail-nibbling
Tons of potential, with some caveats
We love the character designs in Enslaved. Monkey’s look, with his hair swept back like a candle flame in the wind and his weird red face paint make him strangely loveable and so very different from the buzz-cut generic dudes choking action games these days. Trip probably conveys the best expressions of fear we’ve ever seen in a videogame character. The world is immensely imaginative with its destroyed, overgrown, cobbled-together architecture and slightly goofy-looking mechs. From an art standpoint, it’s flat-out original and astonishing.
Above: Pigsy, whom you'll meet later on, is pretty cool, too. Note the lip-shaped belt buckle
Unfortunately, the presentation looks like it was taken out of the oven before baking completely. It’s too bad that the wonderful art is hampered by some seriously muddy textures, weird graphical glitches, and a less than smooth framerate. These elements didn’t bother us too much, but it makes us wonder what could have been if the game had gotten more polish time. From a pure crispness standpoint, it doesn’t look nearly as good as Heavenly Sword, although that game had its framerate problems as well.
We also encountered some glaring bugs that luckily didn’t happen every time we played a particular part. One time we somehow got the camera stuck completely outside the room we were in, forcing us to restart from a checkpoint. Another time, we were supposed to throw Trip up to a ledge and we couldn’t pick her up. Again, we had to reload the save and then it worked fine. In the PS3 version, we noticed some shadows that looked more jagged, but nothing prominent with one exception – the first time we played the PS3 version, two early cutscenes had no Monkey in them – he was completely invisible and it actually destroyed the story moment because the cutscene made no sense without him. Strangely, though, when we started over to see if it happened again, it didn’t. So there are some infrequent hiccups that could bewilder players, while others may not see anything major at all in their playthroughs.
Above: Wait, don't forget about Monkey's cloud - a holographic hover disc that's a joy to zoom around on
Despite needing some more polish to be a truly spectacular game, Enslaved brings so much to its vine-adorned table that we still love it. The combat is simple but satisfying. The climbing and exploration always leave us wanting more. The world and its characters defy videogame conventions and show us that yes, games can have human qualities that make us care. The story has harrowing, beautiful, and yeah, we’re actually writing this – touching moments. The whole last sequence of the game injects pure awe and makes the journey worth it (although the journey itself is also worth it, even without the last level).
We’re rooting for Enslaved because it tries and succeeds to do more with games. It makes the stories and characters of its contemporaries look like the embarrassing and juvenile clichés that they are. Often times we tell ourselves we can love a game despite its horrible story (and we have to do that with most games). It’s a relief to not have to make excuses for the story. But it’s not just a flimsy game held up by great writing – the gameplay is pretty damn nifty too. We wish we could talk more about the story to show why it’s so great, but then that would take away from that greatness. That we even have to care about such a thing is a rare aspect to worry about in a review, which says a lot about what makes Enslaved: Odyssey to the West special.
Is it better than…?
Heavenly Sword? Yes. While the voice acting and character expressions are impressive in both games, Enslaved has that extra emotional touch to the writing, and the relationship between Monkey and Trip has no comparison in Heavenly Sword. Also, Enslaved doesn’t have obnoxious quick time events. And even though the combat in Enslaved is technically less complex and certainly less flashy, it feels more like you’re performing methodical attacks instead of pressing buttons and watching Nariko fly through the air. The other advantage, of course, is that Enslaved isn’t quite as short as Heavenly Sword. It’s not super-long either, but it doesn’t leave you saying, “Is that it?”
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow? No. Castlevania is a safer bet for the gamer’s gamer. Its gameplay is rock-solid and polished until you can see yourself in it. It’s massive, giving you far more game for your buck. At the same time, it isn’t original – Enslaved has that beat by a foliage-strangled country mile. Castlevania’s story is also the usual videogame tripe, although the voice acting is still top-notch. For those wanting to see where videogames could be heading, Enslaved is the guiding light. For those wanting to see the culmination of where games have come, Castlevania lumps it all together into a rich, briny soup and lets you drink deep.
ICO? This is going to garner some hate, but in this reviewer’s eyes, yes. ICO should have been the perfect game for us, seeing as we love some good old lonely climbing of crumbly castles, but when we played ICO long after the hype train had built it up, we were massively disappointed. We’re not saying it’s not a good game, but we had a hard time enjoying it – fighting shadows off Yorda over and over got real tired real quick, and many of the puzzles felt unfair in their obscurity. And we have to go with Monkey and Trip’s relationship over two non-speaking non-characters any day. We’re sure plenty of gamers will play both of these games and call us crazy, but we call it like we see it.
Just for you, Metacritic!
Enslaved is a bit scrappy in its presentation and would have benefitted from more polishing time, but its heart is in a place few games even try for. Its world is original, fascinating, beautiful, and daunting. Its characters are alive and full of real emotion and they're truly loveable. Its simple combat is spare but elegant, and its climbing sequences get the blood pumping. It tells a story unlike any other, and it tells it with maturity and confidence.
Sep 30, 2010