There’s no denying Enslaved looks gorgeous but is it an odyssey worth experiencing?
Platform: Xbox 360/PS3
Developer: Ninja Theory Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Genre: Action/Adventure Platform Played: Xbox 360
A science fiction re-imagining of the ancient Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, Enslaved is set in a post apocalyptic future, once devastated by worldwide conflict. Humanity survives in concealed pockets around the globe, constantly under threat by robotic killing machines known as Mechs. Left over from the cataclysmic war they still adhere to their core programming, to eradicate threats wherever they perceive them – in this case all of mankind.
The story follows protagonist Monkey, a gruff solitary survivor who finds himself trapped aboard a slave vessel going through critical engine failure. He escapes the plummeting airship by hitching a ride on an escape pod containing another captive, a tech-savvy young woman named Trip.
After a bumpy landing he regains consciousness to find that ironically the resourceful escapee slave has outfitted him with a mind-controlling headband and is now his master. If he disobeys her orders or her heart stops beating the deadly diadem will end his existence within moments. Furious he is forced to assist her in making her way back to her mountain village in exchange for his freedom; fighting to keep her safe, for his own sake as much as hers.
Undoubtedly the best thing about Odyssey to the West is its outstanding, individual art style. Everything from its myriad of stunning environments to its detailed, idiosyncratic character models are an utter joy to behold. The use of vivid colour is especially awe-inspiring, resulting in vibrant kaleidoscopic visuals that are a far cry from the profusion of dull, barren wastelands we’ve seen in other post apocalyptic titles.
The engaging character-driven plot is also a highlight, featuring exceptional performances from the game’s two main actors, (Andy Serkis and Linsey Shaw). I wasn’t quite as enamored with the portrayal of Pigsy, (a side character played by Richard Ridings), mainly due to his faux transatlantic American accent being somewhat inconsistent. However it didn’t overly affect my enjoyment of the story.
Both the motion capture and facial animations in cut-scenes are top notch and definitely contribute to the authenticity and believability of the unusual characters, which is essential given the fantastical setting.
Unfortunately gameplay is where nearly all of Enslaved’s shortcomings lie and in a lot of ways it feels decidedly last-gen.
One of the first things gamers will likely notice is that Monkey handles quite sluggishly. The controls feel clunky and there is a discernable delay between hitting a button on the controller and performing an in-game action. Also if he isn’t standing in exactly the right place an attempted maneuver won’t kick in until his position has been adjusted slightly, which can easily become frustrating over time. A lot of character animations appear a bit jerky, stiff and unnatural, which can be jarring and there’s a general lack of polish throughout.
When walking close to edges you’ll notice that Monkey can’t actually step off them, as if there are invisible walls blocking the way. This ultra-forgiving style of platforming makes it almost impossible to plunge to your doom, even if you want to and honestly feels somewhat antiquated at this point.
Despite these fundamental problems, surprisingly gameplay is actually a lot of fun. Climbing is fast paced and acrobatic and despite any real sense of danger, navigating around the vivid, excellently crafted levels is hypnotic and enjoyable. Sometimes to proceed from one area to the next you will be required to solve simple puzzles. Although not particularly perplexing, these conundrums break up traversal and enemy encounters brilliantly and are often quite refreshing.
Speaking of enemy encounters, throughout the game you battle against several different classes of Mechs, each with their own attributes and skill sets. Although combat is fairly simplistic, the visceral action is animalistic and satisfying and can be deepened with the use of a robust skill system. By collecting Tech Orbs you can upgrade your attacks, health, shield and staff, which is your primary weapon in the game. It can be used to fire electrical bolts at your assailants and to open up new pathways by destroying barriers.
Occasionally some epic set piece experiences are thrown into the mix such as hectic chase scenes, escapes from collapsing structures and free-roam areas where you can ride your high-speed “Cloud” like a hover-board. These add much needed variety to the proceedings, making sure you don’t feel like you’re sloshing through wave after wave of enemies and traversal puzzles.
Due to the game’s cinematic nature there are some camera issues. These are most notable in combat, where the view tends to pan in slightly too close, making it difficult to discern the position of your foes. There are also some minor pop-in and frame rate issues, however neither of these are too troublesome and shouldn’t cause much irritation.
Truthfully I’m really quite torn over this game…
Although undeniably flawed in some respects, there is still so much that Enslaved has to offer. It provides a wonderful narrative (despite a lacklustre ending) with engaging characters and a fascinating setting. Its visuals are unique, stylish and variegated, accompanied by an ethereal eastern-influenced musical score that complements them elegantly. Its gameplay, although simplistic and inarguably clumsy is still a lot of fun and is varied enough to support the duration of the exciting, well-paced adventure.
If you’re someone that can appreciate that an overall gaming experience can amount to more than just the sum of its parts then Enslaved could well be for you. Bold and imaginative, it’s certainly a refreshing change of pace to many of today’s modern blockbusters. It’s just a shame that its less-than-stellar gameplay and few other missteps hold it back from being the work of art it could so easily have been.
+ Stunning & unique art style
+ Wonderful, well-paced story with engaging characters
+ Excellent Voice Acting
+ Brilliant Level Design
– Clunky, unresponsive gameplay
– Simplistic Combat
– Camera Issues
Rob Gisbey is a musician, songwriter, Tv fan and avid gamer from Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. To listen to his acoustic demo check out his BandPage. To read his other articles and listen to the VxM Videogames Podcast head to MyIGN.