I have often been told that the mark of a good storyteller is brightest when the audience is left wanting more. Whether it was the characters who swooned us into caring for them, the world that sprouted to life in our minds eye, or the conclusion that forced us to leave our imaginary escape and come back to reality, there is a delicate balance required to craft a tale that not just impresses us, but makes us believe in its existence. These stories—and those who tell them—are seldom given the praise they rightly deserve because they never quite seem to find enough ears willing to listen. But for those few who do, oh how they are rewarded. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West marries unique and imaginative storytelling with brilliant dialogue spoken by original characters to suck us into a postapocalyptic world that is as beautiful and vibrant as it is sorrowful and morose for those who live in it.
Enslaved is Ninja Theory’s sophomore effort in the video game industry, following their premiere title Heavenly Sword back in 2007. While brief in length and lacking in impact, Ninja Theory implemented motion capture technology to help bring the characters and cut scenes to more life. The result was, in some peoples’ minds, the first time a game has presented characters capable of physically showing complicated human emotions. Instead of relative sadness, anger, and fear, we see rage, terror, regret, desperation, and even love. Acclaimed actor Andy Serkis was hired to direct the cut scenes, and the quality of acting came through as impressive as if on the silver screen. For Enslaved, Ninja Theory smartly chose to keep this process sacred and changed very little. Serkis reprised his role and did motion capture for one of the game’s protagonists, Monkey. They also hired screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, The Beach) to develop the game script with the intention of crafting dialogue that was both believable and imaginative without trying to sound forced, artificial or too florid. Garland uses his gift of writing by infusing personalities to each character that are both starkly different from one another and yet relatable enough for them to form an emotional bond together. The environment and level design also impress by finding a harmonic balance between lush nature and crumbling urban sprawl. Unfortunately, rough patches of buggy design, frame rate issues, and slow combat mechanics prevent Enslaved from becoming a game of amazing quality and serve as noticeable distractions that take you out of the entire experience.
Set 150 years in the future, humanity hangs on the edge of extinction after a great war with a race of robots. Their origin remains a mystery much like the rest of history before the war, as those who survived simply try to move on and stay alive. Monkey and Trip meet aboard a slaver ship that malfunctions and crash lands outside the ruins of New York city. Trip, knowing her odds of survival are slim on her own, uses her affinity for technology by reprogramming a circlet used by the slavers to keep slaves from rebelling and places it on Monkey while unconscious. Trading one form of slaver for another, Monkey’s life will end if he gets too far away from Trip or if she loses her own life. This forced companionship, however unwanted, inevitably leads to a path of discovery for both characters as they new strength within themselves and each other.
The companionship also serves as the primary combat mechanic for the rest of the game as the two must depend upon each other’s talents to overcome various “mechs” they come across. Hiding behind cover, Trip provides distractions for mechs to fire upon while you maneuver Monkey in closer for the real damage. Monkey’s staff is his only weapon in his arsenal, but it also carries the capacity to fire bolts of energy at oncoming enemies, something that plays a more important role as the game progresses. Combat remains relatively the same throughout the game, but it also means the flaws never improve. There is a noticeable lag time between inputting a command and Monkey performing the action, which throws off the dodge and counter attack facets of combat. This really starts to become frustrating in the second half of the game when enemies come in larger groups and require precise timing between attacking and dodging. Moreover, the camera tends to be a few feet too close to Monkey most of the time, narrowing the player’s view of the combat field which makes it very difficult to keep track of multiple enemies. Fairly often I would actually have to run around in a circle or two during combat just to find the next mech to destroy. The frame rate also stood out as on oddity as it was rock steady the entire game, yet felt as though is was always a tad too slow. There was never a point when too many things were occurring on screen at any one time, and considering Ninja Theory’s past experience with the PS3 hardware, I found it peculiar that they were not looking to test the graphical boundaries. It may have been an artistic choice slow the frame rate in terms of presenting a grittier feel to the game, or it may simply be laziness on the designers’ part.
As repetitive as the combat becomes, it is broken up by nicely varied set pieces thriving with action and unexpected intensity. From chasing after Trip to save her life (and your own) to climbing a rapidly deteriorating sky scraper, Ninja Theory serves up a healthy dose of adrenaline neatly packaged in various styles and methods. I was especially impressed when a certain set piece was able to deliberately slow down the pacing of the chapter but increase the brutality of the whole event. The culminating boss fight ends in a glorious shower of metal and oil that would make the God of War developers blush. Finally, the ending provides an extra science fiction twist on an already science fiction tale, but unsurprisingly leaves the world open for a sequel. The over arching story is certainly completed, but with the amount of care taken in breathing real life into these characters and their dilapidated existence, I hope the ending is also an indication of things to come. The companionship between Trip and Monkey evolved both naturally and believable, a feat rarely seen in modern gaming, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it grow in future installments.
It is difficult to say how Enslaved: Odyssey to the West should be approached in order to be fully enjoyed. As an action title, it serves enough to keep the buttons being pressed and the analog sticks moving, but lacks any real depth or customization that other titles have. As an adventure game, it spans several locations across a region, but the grander picture of the entire world is still left to be discovered. Rather, Enslaved rests in a nebulous middle ground that dabbles in both genres without subscribing to either. Part action and part adventure, Enslaved can best be enjoyed if you are willing to be a part of it’s world. Perhaps its greatest strength—one that sets it apart from its brethren—is its heart. What it lacked in physical power or mental capacity, it more than makes up in boldness of storytelling and emotional development, and those will always last much longer than a well choreographed explosion.
See you in the next level,