Enslaved: Odyssey to the West super review

Storytelling, characters, and a world like no other

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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 bestexpressions 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 rareaspect to worry about in a review, which says a lot about what makes Enslaved: Odyssey to the West special.

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 stilltop-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.

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

More info

DescriptionA tactical action-adventure game, Enslaved centers on the relationship between the two main characters and challenges players to employ a mix of combat, strategy and environment traversal. The presentation is a bit rocky, looking somewhat unfinished, but the world with its lush overgrown apocalypse is unique and the writing, acting, and story development are nop-notch.
Platform"Xbox 360","PS3"
US censor rating"Teen","Teen"
UK censor rating"16+","16+"
Release date1 January 1970 (US), 1 January 1970 (UK)
Matthew Keast
My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.