It's an interesting jump off point for the Cambridge based developer Ninja Theory; formed in 2000 they are the creators of the lesser known Kung Fu Chaos and the somewhat more successful PlayStation exclusive Heavenly Sword. They appear to have come equipped for the task though with several big names lending their talents to the project. Andy "Gollum" Serkis returns after his role as King Boham in Heavenly Sword and is not only the game's Dramatic Director but also gives both his voice and likeness to play the main character Monkey. The story is written by screenwriter Alex Garland who you may know as the pen behind such movies as The Beach, Sunshine and 28 Weeks Later and closing out the Hollywood trio is Nitin Sawhney another alumni from the Heavenly Sword team and a composer whose work gains much critical acclaim from his classical peers but amongst the average UK gamer he is possibly more recognisable as "the guy who co-created Goodness Gracious Me"
One of the four classic novels in Chinese literature; Journey to the West has been adapted multiple times for TV, film and stage. Ninja Theory's interpretation catapults the story 150 years into the future; in a world which has been ravaged by nuclear war, mankind is being hunted and enslaved by machines. Whilst attempting to escape one of their slave ships Monkey meets Trip, a resourceful young girl who is trying to make her way home and forcibly enlists Monkey to get her there.
Once the opening level finishes running you through the controls in a confined space they open up the environment with an excellent intro sequence which sets the tone and introduces the world nicely. Post apocalyptic settings are possibly reaching thier saturation point this generation with endless wastlelands coated in grey and brown becoming as common as they are uninspired. It's nice to know someone has a more colourful view on the end of our civilisation. Apart from the hoards of mechanical monsters roaming the land and giving out nifty headbands which fry your brain if you leave the toilet seat up, Enslaved's vision of a post nuclear landscape is in many ways quite appealing.
Rather than just a desert with the occasional structure hinting at its past, this version of New York remains largely populated with buildings which were partially destroyed by man and recently reclaimed by the Earth. Vines and trees infest the city creating an urban jungle complete with the occasional animal bounding past, alluding to the life that once thrived instead of merely just surviving. With Monkey's climbing skills you are given great opportunities to see some breathtaking views which are only slightly marred by that trademark Unreal engine pop in.
I'm not quite sure how Andy Serkis and his motion capture wizards did it but just as Gollum was a step forward for performance captured CGI, Enslaved is equally as ground breaking for gaming. The level of emotion conveyed in the facial animations is in places remarkable, it breathes life into the characters and allows them to create more realistic personalities by incorporating human traits. Games have a habit of forming their characters mainly through their speech, leading to them exaggerating or simply out right stating their feelings making them seem less geniune. Enslaved enables the characters to get thier message across in a much more subtle manner, eyes dart with life, brows lift and mouths contort, combined with some great full body motion capture it gives a much greater degree of believability.
Alex Garland provides some decent dialogue, which is capabaly delivered by Serkis and his co star Lindsay Shaw. Although the game has few characters the dynamic between the two is an interesting one and is well portrayed. The music flows nicely with the action escalating appropriately when the situation dictates, i can't say any of it was particularly memorable but it certainly fits the tone well.
The entire game revolves around the premise of Monkey being Enslaved by Trip, in order to motivate him to keep her safe on her Journey home she has fitted him with a modified slave headband which responds to her voice commands and rather sadistically monitors her heart beat; if it stops then the headband will fry Monkey's brain or as she succinctly puts it "If I die, you die". You might think this is a recipe for disaster as it essentially turns the entire game into one long escort mission, but it actually provides a good dynamic for their relationship and gives a much more plausible reason for Monkey's actions.
Monkey deals mainly in hack 'n' slash attacks with his trusty staff, using the usual light and heavy attacks he can perform twirling combos to rip his enemies apart. There is also a charge attack which breaks through enemy shielding, whilst his own shield activates while blocking to absorb potential damage. He also gains some ranged abilites allowing him to fire plasma to destroy enemies from a distance or a stun blast which incapacitates them for a short period. All of these aspects can be upgraded and improved by collecting the handy orbs waiting within enemies or strewn around the environment.
The biggest hurdle in these games is the camera, with such fast action and several enemies frequently surrounding you a responsive camera is essential to keep the combat from becoming frustrating. Enslaved offers no new solution to this inherent problem; it's saved from being truly irritating by having a very generous block and a handy dodge ability, if you get trapped looking at a wall just hold block and withstand several attacks before responding with a counter attack of you own.
Problems with control often make these games harder than they should be, however Enslaved ensures this isn't the case by providing you with many assists, the most obvious being Trip herself. To counterbalance Monkey being used as the brawn, Trip provides the brains of the operation. Although she is useless in a fire-fight she has some abilities which can help in many cases, the most basic one is being able to create a distraction to draw enemy fire whilst Monkey moves closer for the kill, this gameplay is well shown in the demo and past the opening sections of the game i didn't find myself needing or wanting to use it very often. Infinitely more useful is Trip's ability to scout the battlefield ahead and provide you with intel including enemy positions, numbers and type.
Trip will typically stay somewhere safe in cover until all the enemies are clear, on the odd scripted occasion when she does get attacked she has the ability to deploy an EMP which immobilises enemies giving Monkey the time to find and save her. You can also give her orders depending on the situation. The are lots of co-op actions such as giving her a piggyback through a mine field or throwing her to ledges she can't reach. Occasionally these will expand out into full blown puzzles where you must use her to turn levers and press buttons in order to help you solve a puzzle.
The upgrade system allows you to upgrade your health, shields and attack damage making you incredibly powerful. I poured all my credits at the beginning of the game into health and shields and it was so effective i simply stopped worrying about upgrading, by the end of the game i had a huge stockpile of credits waiting to be used and lots of abilities locked and i can safely say I didn't need them.
Combat is all about patterns and awareness; as long as you spot the attack you can block the oncoming hits and counter straight away. You learn the enemy types and which ones to counter, which ones to charge and which ones to dodge. If you're that bad at it one of the first upgrades you get is a colour code system which gives the enemy a colour hue depending on what state they are in (Red for attack, Blue for block and Yellow for Open), i would have liked the option to turn this off as once i had the combat figured out i found it distracting and wished I hadn't enabled it. Bosses are often more impressive to look at than to fight, with the same strategy used; find the weaknesses (if Trip doesn't tell you first) and exploit them until the health bar runs out, you are rewarded with some impressive slow motion kill hits though which are fun to watch.
It's clear the developers took some inspiration from games like Uncharted and Assassin's Creed by allowing you a parkour type ability to navigate the environment, unfortunately in Enslaved it feels too much like you are on rails to derive any satisfaction from. Again, the animation is beautiful as Monkey gracefully navigates through many of the precarious situations but as far as i could tell it is impossible to make an incorrect jump and die; if there isn't a valid hand-hold Monkey simply wont move, if you're struggling to find a hand-hold then take a look around for the nearest glinting object within reach. These two aspects combined take away any challenge to the movement; the only time it gets interesting is when they incorporate a chase sequence or force you to only use hand-holds for a short period before they crumble and you fall to your death, but even then it doesn't really approach a challenge.
When they aren't breaking up the combat with the cut-scenes or traversal, there are sequences where Monkey uses his "Cloud" (read hover-board) during boss fights, puzzles and chases - it's a nice palette cleanser and keeps the game from getting too boring.
On normal difficulty the game took me around 8-9 hours to complete. At first i was quite confident it would be a game i could pick up again on a harder difficulty however single player games need to have deep and engaging gameplay to keep you coming back which I didn't find here, it was certainly enjoyable but it clearly played second fiddle to the story and characters. Both of which are clearly the game's strong point up until the end, the character development they successfully build up is essentially squandered with the briefest of resolutions and without spoiling the ending I must point out i found the final scenes and twist completely unnecessary and rather forced, rather than have the revelatory effect they were going for it just dragged the story down into the swamp of mediocrity the gameplay was already bathing in.
Free at last!
- Fresh take on a tired premise
- Performance motion capture
25 to life
- Mundane hack and slash gameplay
- Excessive player assists
- Underwhelming conclusion
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Xbox 360 Review
Enslaved is a completely necessary game for this generation, the performance captured cut-scenes are brilliant and together with the dialogue and interesting premise it provides a level of believability that is frankly long over due. If there were aspects of a game I could force other developers to adopt this would be one of them. Unfortunately with all the Hollywood talent it feels like it should have had a bigger impact than it managed. The focus here is on making it a cinematic experience with an emphasis on story. With that in mind it's clear the developers wanted to ensure everyone saw it through to the end, this means gameplay is satisfying but offers so many assists it relegates itself to becoming mundane by its conclusion. As much as the art design, animation and acting give to the experience it can't hide the fact the gameplay design lacks the same level of commitment and innovation.
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