Let’s Look at: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Games have this fascination with wanting to be like movies. Cinematic experiences are still things that are lauded and sought out. And while gaming has qualities that are exclusive to the medium, there’s nothing wrong with seeking inspiration from an outside source. Learning how to pace a tale or develop a character are things movies have learned to do very well over their years in existence. And the experience can be beautiful. With that being said, I’m glad we’ve got to a point where we can just throw Andy Serkis in a mocap suit and make him do a funny voice whenever we want. Oh, hi Enslaved.

It’s Like the Chinese Story

It’s just the end of the world.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is an action-adventure title. But that term is so nebulous at this point that it means almost nothing. Look, in this game, you travel through locations of various amounts of beauty and tragedy, climbing things, hitting things, and learning to love things. The game is similar in a lot of aspects to Uncharted, where you climb through a bunch of pretty-looking places. And like Uncharted, the character interactions in this game are phenomenal.

The story places you in the shoes of Monkey, who is mo-capped and voiced by Andy Serkis. You start off being held in a slave airship before a girl escapes captivity and causes the ship to fall out of the sky. After barely escaping, you wake up to find out that the girl, named Trip, has fastened a slave headband to your head. You have to help her and accompany her back to her home or else you die. There’s your motivation. You’d be surprised how quickly you come around on that girl who forced on you a life-threatening headband that can control your body and give you visual hallucinations.

And they Called it Puppy Love…

I mean, not like this. But not not like this, you know?

Monkey and Trip are an amazing duo. If there is one thing that developer Ninja Theory are masters of, it’s character emotion and interaction. The way the two react to each other and gradually learn to trust one another doesn’t feel forced. This isn’t like a kid crafting some convoluted plot to get his Storm action figure and his Tahu Bionicle to fall in love because they never could make it, their dynamics are too different, think of what consequences that could have for everyone who cares about them, you’re such an idiot, Sean. Monkey and Trip have incredibly different personalities but through their cooperation and their trust, they end up complimenting each other more than hindering one another.

The gameplay in Enslaved is fairly simple. Monkey is incredibly agile, disturbingly so considering his size and build. You’ll be doing lots of climbing from designated point to designated point. But whereas in the Uncharted games, climbable areas are usually color-coded yellow for easy recognition, this game is a little less graceful. In Enslaved, climbable objects will blink with a white sheen over the object. This doesn’t look very nice and it actually creates situations where you can stay in an area for a while, not looking for spots that would make sense to climb, but for the spots that end up flashing.

There’s No Move to Throw Poo

Camera angles can help guide you towards climbable objects but you’d be surprised how many times it can just end up showing you something you explicitly cannot jump across.

Aside from climbing, there’s also combat. The combat is pretty standard, with no depth beyond button-mashing and using a stun move occasionally. Monkey also has a staff that he can use to shoot out blasts from a third-person shooter perspective. There’s not a lot to digest when it comes to combat and you’ll pretty quickly find a dominant strategy. There are also brief sections where Monkey can use his “cloud” hoverboard to glide in open areas. The cloud controls well and these sections are a nice change of pace when they turn up. Oh, and you can also issue commands to Trip to do stuff like move from place to place or use a decoy when you’re trying to stealth around some mech enemies.

Now, simple gameplay isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But what’s worse is trying to cover up simple gameplay with the illusion of more content. In this game, there is an upgrade tree. Why it’s here, I have no idea. There is no point to most of the upgrades and the “currency” used to purchase upgrades are scattered absolutely everywhere, so why bother? Picking up clumps of these red lums just to go into a menu to get an upgrade isn’t engaging if the lums aren’t hard to get. A better solution would have been to place upgrades, like health ups and weapon capacity upgrades, into the world itself. That way, you could find them organically as you play. The game does this with some collectibles, so I wonder if it was on the table at one point.

It’s Because he’s a Monkey, Get It?

I’m not sure where the ammo goes. Or the recoil, for that matter. I dunno, this is a game of mysteries.

Although the gameplay is sort of standard, that’s not the reason you’re here. Oh no, the absolute crowning achievement of this game is with its characters and its world. The game is beautiful, doing the sprawling nature-filled post-apocalyptic setting many years before The Last of Us. You end up spending much of your time in cities and the environments look surreal with how different they look yet haunting with how familiar. There are even many examples of environmental story-telling, like finding a picture frame of a family next to an empty crib. It makes you think about where they all went, what happened. That’s how you do it, other straw-man game I just made up that does this one specific thing badly.

The characters, on account of being portrayed by actual actors and having incredible detail put into facial animations, come alive. I lied to you before about the amount of characters in this game. There is actually a third character who joins the gang at about the halfway point and he is the absolute best. The dynamic of the group changes drastically with him introduced and he fucking rules. When I said before that games want to be like movies, that only half applies to this game. While it is true that this game seeks those cinematic highs and set-pieces, there are some movies who can only dream of having character interactions like Enslaved.

A Bit Lacking in the Dating Simulation Genre

What a man.

Before Enslaved, Ninja Theory had only developed Heavenly Sword for the PS3. So it’s clear that there were some growing pains for the studio. There is an interesting story and meta-story here. There are collectible masks you can find that open up a glimpse into Andy Serkis’s life. Having a game character find trinkets about the guy who is portraying that character can raise some interesting discussions. What really are games to us? Are they just an escape? Andy Serkis is the real person, so who is this character in the game that we’ve grown attached to? Who is more valuable to us, the players?

All pretty heady, coffee-house stuff. But alongside all of that, there are some aspects of the game that just feel a little tonally off. Having some slapstick moment where Monkey accidentally grabs a mannequin’s crotch or having the tried-and-true “oh shiiiii-” as you go drive off a cliff seem like they’re just some spare ideas the studio was tossing around. And taking a light dig at 3D TV’s, calling them a “redundant technology” and showing them discarded in bulk, seems like a strange move for a studio so progressive with their technology. And also, this game was playable in 3D. But maybe it’s satire. It’s probably satire. It’s like game-meta satire that digs at itself to say something about the society we live in. Forget what I said, you’ve still got it Ninja Theory.

But Where’s Cappy?

So that’s Enslaved. Despite all my criticisms, I still hold this title very close to my heart. It manages to tell a story in an engaging enough way that I’m willing to look past its short-comings. The set pieces and the locales are dynamic enough to keep me engaged through its simplistic combat. And Pigsy fucking rules.

If it turns out that you want to give it a try, then give it a try here: Enslaved: Odyssey To The West – PlayStation 3. Or grab it for Xbox 360 or PC.