Video games are designed to be played and enjoyed while its looks are, arguably, secondary. This distinct feature of interactivity separates it from other, more passive, forms of entertainment. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, the newest release from Ninja Theory, doesn’t understand the “game” part of video game as much as it should, but it is still an enjoyable experience.
Stop me if the story sounds familiar to you. This is due the fact that it is a modern day interpretation of the old Chinese story Journey to the West, a story that has even spread to shows like Dragon Ball Z. The player controls as Monkey, an aptly named monkey-like human who is a little gruff due to his probably rough life. Monkey is being captured by robots and is trapped on a big ship. Monkey breaks out, due to his brute strength and from the help of Trip, a female technical whiz who is also trapped aboard the doomed plane. Events go sideways in an amazing first level and eventually lead to Trip enslaving Monkey (get it?) via a stylish, gold headband. This isn’t a headband for hair issues, but rather a headband to deal out a fatal shock if orders from Trip aren’t taken. Trip has her, maybe twisted, reasons for this and must see her through to her goal or Monkey sleeps with the fishes.
While the story is loosely lifted from another medium, I found it pretty entertaining. I wouldn’t necessarily contribute it to the content of the narrative, but rather the enjoyable banter between Trip and Monkey. They communicate in such a realistic way with performances that are believable and full of emotion. Every time either of them spoke, which is pretty frequent, I was engaged and cared what they had to say. Their chemistry even extends out of the cutscenes and into gameplay. Trip, since she isn’t mass of meat like Monkey, needs help in sticky situations when robots are involved. They will both communicate in real time with panicked orders to just simple planning or just plain, random conversation. When characters talk while the player is playing, it adds more believability that these are actual (digital) people, rather than just puppets who only turn on for a short cinematic. When you have mostly two characters for the entirety of the game, it is a godsend that their conversations are interesting to listen to.
Story-wise, I only had a problem with the ending. I’ll definitely give credit to it being insane, and that it definitely is, but it’s almost too stupid, leaving a bad taste in my mouth to finish out the game. I don’t know how I would have ended it (and apparently they didn’t either) but it seems that the creative team over at Ninja Theory just circled the most ridiculous thing on the white board and made it the ending.
Enslaved has combat and platforming, so what’s not to love? Well, both actually. Neither are bad necessarily, but they are both as simple as they can be. Combat is insultingly shallow, as you only have less than a half dozen moves, and they don’t chain together. Just the same simple combos repeating ad nauseam on the same robots from the beginning to the end of the game. Giving that their last title, Heavenly Sword, had decent combat makes this problem twice as puzzling.
Traversal and platforming work a bit better, but not near enough to become a rush of endorphins. Monkey flips and grips with the precision of a gymnast but never lands face-first into a balance beam or spike pit. Maybe it is because he can’t. The game will literally not let you jump the wrong way, losing all sense of risk and, in conjunction, reward of platforming. If you try to jump and die, Monkey just won’t go. Games like Uncharted 2 have creatively mashed the grabbable ledges into level design making them apparent, but not too obvious. It felt natural. Ninja Theory must have not known how to pull this subtle, but effective, technique off, so they just made everything that is interactive have a shiny glow. Since you are led by the nose to each painfully obvious handhold and because you have a fail-safe on platforming, it makes going through each level a slightly boring, if pretty, breeze.
When I picture an apocalypse, I think a desert backdrop like the ones found in Fallout 3 or Borderlands. Enslaved bucks this predisposed notion of a boring, brown end of the world in favor of a beautiful, lush green Armageddon. The art team over at Ninja Theory all should get gold stars and high fives because every environment is just stunning to look at. Greens, orange, and just about every vibrant color in the color palette permeate throughout the inventive levels and all of it has a pretty, decayed look to it that is both unique and damn impressive. Few games add incentive from level to level to actually see what the next place will look like and Enslaved is a shining example of this.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West could have been a painting, a CG movie, or even a pretty crayon drawing. It nails the gorgeous setting and characters, something those forms of media encapsulate well, but it fails to morph into something fun to play. This may be a problem when you pick up the controller and start hitting buttons but once you realize that watching Enslaved is pretty good, you may be willing to forgive more than you should. Since this a video game, I’m not even sure if that is a compliment or not.
+Environments are gorgeous and creative
+Characters give convincing, well done performances
+Strong art design
-Platforming is too automatic
-Ending comes off as weird
Final Score: 7.5/10