Someone at developer Ninja Theory has a thing for redheads. Looking back at the studio%26rsquo;s previous effort, Heavenly Sword, the similarities between that outing%26rsquo;s heroine Nariko and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West%26rsquo;s Trip are unmistakable: both have scarlet hair that hangs over their faces in tendrils, both have beautiful, expressive faces, and both kick ass %26ndash; wait a minute, no, that%26rsquo;s not right. Trip%26rsquo;s a downright wuss. Actually, that%26rsquo;s what we like about her. She%26rsquo;s an interesting take on the damsel in distress: instead of getting into trouble and calling for help, she plans ahead by knowing she%26rsquo;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 %26ndash; Monkey. He claims he doesn%26rsquo;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%26rsquo;s always barefoot, and the sash hanging from his belt looks like a tail once he gets moving.
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%26rsquo;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%26rsquo;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%26rsquo;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 %26ndash; he has the expectedly gruff voice (done brilliantly by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis), but it doesn%26rsquo;t sound like he%26rsquo;s gargling pebbles in a phony attempt to sound manly. There%26rsquo;s a tinge of softness to him, a slight vulnerability in his eyes, even when he%26rsquo;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.
We enjoyed Enslaved%26rsquo;s combat quite a bit, but it%26rsquo;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%26rsquo;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 %26ndash; mash either the light or heavy attacks, but there aren%26rsquo;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%26rsquo;s enough to keep the combat fun and tense, but this isn%26rsquo;t a hack-and-slasher. Combat is just one part of gameplay %26ndash; the others being climging and exploration, along with a bit of sneaking around especially dangerous enemies (but it%26rsquo;s no shoehorned attempt at stealth gameplay %26ndash; there are no instant lose scenarios if you%26rsquo;re caught).