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First look at Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

If you’re unfamiliar with the classic Chinese myth known asJourney to the West, you might want to consider dipping into one of its many book and movie versions, because there’s a reason it’s been a beloved story for hundreds of years. It’s a fantasy adventure that touches on many broad themes, and of course stars the Monkey King, who reaches just about maximum awesome for a hero. Even if you are familiar with the Monkey King’s adventures, you still might not see how any of this relates to Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (despite the title’s familiar ring).

Above: This is Monkey, doing what he does best

A number of videogames have been inspired by Journey to the West, but none have gone in quite such an unexpected direction. Enslaved seeks to explore a very loose retelling of the ancient myth by replacing the magical elements with technology. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic future (wait, wait – don’t yawn just yet). Unlike every other brown, dead futurescape that crops up in sci-fi games year after year, Enslaved’s world is one where nature has reclaimed what man built and then destroyed. So you still get ruined, crumbling skyscrapers, but they’re all draped with lush, clinging foliage.

In fact, the game begins in New York City, but one that’s empty, green, and littered with haywire war-mechs. In this future, the war that ended civilization was waged with robots, and those robots don’t know that the war is over. Enter Monkey and Trip, two humans from different backgrounds just trying to make their way in the world. At the game’s beginning they don’t know each other yet, but both get captured and taken aboard a mysterious slave ship destined to take them west.

Above: Not exactly post-apocalypse cliche

No one knows what’s out west, but no one ever returns from the journey. This mystery forms the core of many mysteries – Enslaved wants to draw you along with its unfolding story. The developers are taking the story so seriously that they’ve hired Alex Garland, scribe of novel The Beach and screenplays of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, to craft a story that will be integral to the player’s experience.

The story leads naturally into the gameplay: after Trip causes the slave ship to crash, she needs a way to get home safely, but is essentially helpless when it comes to fighting. So she hacks into a slave headband and locks it onto Monkey’s head, enslaving him as her personal bodyguard. The player controls Monkey, following Trip’s tasks and making sure she stays safe, because if she dies, Monkey’s head goes a-blammo.

Above: Trip just wants to get home. And what she wants, you are forced to want

As a platforming-action game, Enslaved has you sneaking, climbing, and leaping about the overgrown ruins of civilization, avoiding or fighting war mechs. You’ll have to get Trip from A to B any way you can – throwing her across gaps, hoisting her to ledges, and even carrying her piggyback. Often times the route that she can take isn’t the one you can traverse, so there are dual-puzzle obstacles that you have to figure out two different ways around.

Trip may be helpless, but she’s not useless. You can ask her to project holograms to distract mechs for flanking opportunities, and she has a handy “dragonfly” that’s a small robot spy-camera (which in a cute touch, Trip wears in her hair like a clip). She’s also your “shop” for purchasing upgrades to your staff. In the original Monkey King’s story, he carried a magic staff; in Enslaved, Monkey has a hi-tech telescoping rod that can deliver stunning shock attacks and fire bolts of energy. In another amusing touch, Monkey has a sash hanging from his waist that when in motion suspiciously resembles a tail.

Above: The war mechs are just following their last given orders. You'll have to smash them to pieces in many, many different ways

Expression through motion is one of Enslaved’s storytelling tools: a lot can be learned by watching Trip and Monkey’s body language and facial expressions. It helps that Andy Serkis, of Gollum and King Kong motion-capture fame, plays Monkey. The developers are also showing off some impressive tech similar to James Cameron’s Avatar, providing nuanced facial movements to bring the characters to life.

Enslaved’s future world is refreshingly bright and colorful, even while it has an empty, melancholic tone to it. The gameplay is a hybrid of puzzling and fighting, and with the whole “protect your partner” mechanic, hopefully interesting ground will be trod, and not the familiar frustration of dealing with an AI tagalong. Luckily, with the ability to pick up Trip and carry her on your back, it looks like AI-stupidity woes have a chance at being avoided. Look toward late 2010 for the release of this character/story driven adventure to tell its tale.

Mar 29, 2010

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.