Based off the old Chinese tale “Journey to the West”, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West follows a man known as Monkey and woman named Trip on their journey home to freedom. Taking place 150 years into the future, Earth has been all but decimated by global warfare with plant-life flourishing over once magnificent buildings and robots(or “mechs”) killing any surviving humans not already captured into slavery by “Pyramid”. Breaking free from one of the slave ships deployed by Pyramid, Monkey finds himself under the control of fellow escapee Tripitaka (more commonly referred to as Trip) after she hacks one of the slave headbands used by Pyramid to respond to her commands and become lethal if her heart stops beating. Angry at first, Monkey realizes he has no choice but to aid the young woman back to her home and that he really has nowhere better to go anyways. Upon finding out what has happened to her home, Trip refuses to let Monkey go as she had promised until he helps her take on Pyramid head-on, an endeavor that requires the help of a sleazy scrap merchant and friend of the family named Pigsy. With Pigsy’s help, Trip and Monkey have the best chance anyone has ever had against the slavers and take the fight right to the source where they learn of the true intentions and origins of Pyramid.
Ninja Theory aren’t strangers to creating personality in their characters and the work they did here is especially satisfying to watch when you realize that these things on the screen aren’t real people. Each character (of which really there are only three) has a very specific swagger to their movement that articulates their individuality and personalities sublimely, giving an especially dynamic feel from the very deliberate and static movements of their robotic opposing counterparts. The voice acting is some of the best I’ve heard in awhile and by the end I think it would be hard to separate the characters from their voice actors. Monkey with a strong, almost Brooklyn-like accent hits every note with good intention whether the scene calls for anger, sarcasm or humor and when paired up opposite Pigsy, with the voice and mannerisms of a sleazy used-car salesman, there is a real nice exchange of dialogue and dynamic range that aids to bring both characters to an eerily life-like quality. At first glance, the differences between Trip and Nariko(from Ninja Theory’s last game Heavenly Sword) seem few to none but really come to the surface as soon as we hear her fragile yet tough tone and learn more about her. It would be fair to assume that what I noticed out of Trip would pale in comparison to that of a female audience as it is hard for me to really relate to a lot of the little undertones in the same way I did with the other two characters, but this is in no way to say that her performance should not be heralded as an exemplary example of building a strong, sexy and charismatic female character without the need to simply over-sexualize her. Sure, it is abundantly clear at some points that Trip was still a product of a video game created by men for men but overall the writing and strong characterization of her personality was enough to take control and save her from being another stereotypical flesh-bag included as simply something to stare at for a few hours. What is interesting is that although only three characters are featured in the entirety of the game, I feel the addition of any others would have been detrimental to the perfect feeling of loneliness and how strong a bond is created both between and for the characters.
Seeing early screenshots is what really got me hyped up for this game. In a bitter haze of grey and brown tinted images of what many other developers have decided would be the look of the post-apocalypse world, Enslaved was like a light in the darkness with the vision that the world after humanity would be beautiful. Once trounced by people of the world and outright destroyed, Mother Nature reclaims what was once hers by covering the rubbles of an old memory destroyed in the great war, adding color and vitality to an otherwise barren and depressing scene. While admittedly not an extraordinary trek around the world in terms of diverse location, there is something awe-inspiring about seeing things like a destroyed theater with vegetation creeping in every corner or riding on a disc (known as a “Cloud”) across lakes of motor-oil and chemicals in the graveyard of a mech factory. I’ve always thought that the mark of a good environment is being non-intrusive to the overall game play experience mixed with an ambient quality to enhance the mood presented by story and in this respect Enslaved is a masterpiece as not only is it non-intrusive but is game enhancing and more than ambient paints a world and future that is almost tangible.
First glance would lead one to believe that Ninja Theory are one-trick ponies when it comes to game play experience and that Enslaved would be very similar to Heavenly Sword. Thankfully this is not the case as Enslaved takes a more tactical approach to the action-adventure genre where deceit is more valuable than strength and speed in a fight and traversing a world is more important than simply platforming. The game play mechanics focus on splitting Monkey and Trip into two separate entities with different skill-sets to successfully help each other reach their goals. Monkey is strong with combat experience and can climb pretty much anything with a ledge while Trip focuses on technological achievements to stun and confuse enemies, providing distractions Monkey is able to capitalize on. With this formula in mind, much of the game can be broken down into Trip using her dragonfly to scout an area, Monkey crossing the area eliminating any immediate threats and Monkey reaching the end of the area to activate something to help Trip follow along. There is some deviation from this however, specifically in the late third, and some exciting set-pieces sprinkled in here and there to keep the player on their toes. For how little emphasis there really is on combat there are some really smooth and responsive controls. Basic conventions of hack-‘N-slash game style makes it easy to pick up with unlocked combos and moves that are challenging to master but provide a great sense of accomplishment and flow to combat.
Enslaved has had an impressive pedigree behind in; with Ninja Theory working on game development, Andy Serkis(“Gollum” from The Lord of the Rings) directing the cinematics and providing motion capture for Monkey and Alex Garland (writer of The Beach and Sunshine) writing the story there was little chance that this game would be anything short of good. If there is any negative to say about Enslaved, it would be that it suffers from a lack of replay value (for me at least) which is a common problem for story based single-player games and while I don’t have any suggestions to fix it, the initial journey makes up for any real need to see it again with just how well-crafted it is. Ninja Theory is fast becoming one of the best development studios for their games and I feel completely renewed in my faith that they will be around for a long time, making some amazing products in the future.
Enslaved: Odyessey to the West is a journey that everyone should take and stands out as one of the year’s best for anyone interested in good writing and character/level design. A lack of re-playability makes it the
perfect weekend rental but a purchase is far from wasted as well. A Must Play!