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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Score: 92%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: NAMCO BANDAI Games America
Developer: Ninja Theory
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Adventure/ Platformer (3D)

Graphics & Sound:

English development studio Ninja Theory is fast becoming associated with projects boasting sterling visuals, A-list voice talent, and powerful storytelling. Their latest game, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, is easily their best to date. It's got some problem areas in the gameplay department, but its top-notch production values and gripping narrative more than make up for its foibles. Put simply, if you enjoy cinematic action adventures, Enslaved is a game that you shouldn't miss.

Post-apocalypse is not synonymous with "bombed out." Ninja Theory gets this, and as a result, Enslaved features one of the most unique and beautiful versions of post-apocalyptia in recent memory. New York City hasn't been reduced to a lifeless wasteland; instead, the world is simply taking itself back. The term "urban jungle" is given new meaning in Enslaved; foliage creeps over landmarks like Grand Central Station and the Brooklyn Bridge, and every now and then, you'll catch a glimpse of an animal you'd never expect to find in the country's largest metropolis. Once you leave New York, the environments will continue to surprise you. The designs of each and every animate object are wonderfully creative. Chinese mythology doesn't only serve as narrative inspiration for the game. For starters, the main character, Monkey, carries himself and clambers about like his namesake, and his cloth belt resembles a tail when he runs. Yes, Pigsy is morbidly obese, but the apparatuses that adorn his left ear and nose suggest that he embraces his name. And Trip, well, let's just say that it's abundantly clear that Ninja Theory has a thing for pretty redheads. The Chinese influences are far-reaching, going so far as to affect the enemy design. Outside of the humanoid mechs, there are models in the forms of dogs, rhinos, and scorpions. It doesn't end there; I just don't want to spoil the brutal beauty of these otherwise terrifying machines. The camera is pulled in a little too close for comfort, but outside of combat, it usually does a perfect job of showing you what you need to be shown. When a major "oh my God!" moment happens, the camera's job is to help instill a sense of awe, and it always succeeds in those situations. This game makes smart use of live-action; to explain any further would risk spoilers. Textures tend to pop in at the beginning of scenes, and some framerate problems rear their ugly heads when the action gets too heated, but none of it will threaten your sense of immersion. To top it off, the facial animations and motion capture work are, simply put, among the best in all of gaming.

From Nitin Sawhney's beautiful Orient-inspired soundtrack to the contributions of BAFTA award-winning actor Andy Serkis, Enslaved's audio design ably keeps up with its phenomenal technical and artistic strengths. Serkis' English accent occasionally bleeds through Monkey's Queens-ish accent, but his performance hits all the right notes -- and in the case of a character like Monkey, there are a ton of of notes to hit. I'm not making an example of Serkis to belittle the other performers, because the comparatively small cast of characters is voiced (and acted) to near-perfection.


Gameplay:

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a loose adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. It takes place in the United States roughly a century and a half into the future. A catastrophic global war (the specifics of which are wisely withheld) has resulted in the near-extinction of mankind, and life for survivors is neither fair nor easy. Combat mechs roam the lands, looking for humans to kill. A mysterious organization/place/entity known as Pyramid scours the country, looking for humans to capture and enslave. For what purpose? Nobody really knows; every captured human is transported to the headquarters in the far West. The game begins with two polar opposites escaping a slave ship en route to Pyramid; one a citizen of a progressive windfarming community, the other a lone wolf survivalist. You play as the latter, a man who doesn't have a name, but is occasionally called "Monkey" by the ones he does business with. The other escapee is a technologically savvy young woman named Tripitaka. Though she's technologically adept, she doesn't stand a chance in the mech-infested wilds. So, after their escape pod's crash renders Monkey unconscious, she hacks a slave headband and fits it onto Monkey's forehead faster than you can say "Bodhisattva." When he awakens, he finds out that he must obey her or be subjected to excruciating physical pain. If Trip's heart stops beating, the headband will kill him. Even from the start, Trip doesn't seem at ease with her conscience over her decision to enslave a fellow human being, but if she is to survive, she needs a reliable escort back to her home. Enslaved's story is by far its strongest selling point; the script by Alex Garland and Tameem Antoniades is just about perfect. It hits all the right emotional cues without making each tender moment feel contrived. From the vertigo-inducing opening act to the chilling, awe-inspiring epilogue, Enslaved's story is one of the most compelling yarns of this current console generation.

Despite what you may be thinking at this point, there is a game buried underneath all of this. Enslaved is an action/adventure hybrid that makes use of stealth, platforming, and shooting mechanics. At first glance, it looks like a knock off of other superb action franchises such as Uncharted and God of War. Several of those comparisons don't lean in Enslaved's favor; in fact, the gameplay often feels like a means to an end. Maybe that's because the quality of the presentation and storytelling is so high. However, the boss fights and scripted moments are engaging and intense enough to make you forget about the ways in which the gameplay suffers.


Difficulty:

On its default difficulty setting, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is an easy game. Monkey's life is in peril only when he is in combat or when Trip is under attack. It is almost impossible to die as the result of a platforming error, because Monkey simply will not jump if it's not guaranteed that he'll latch on to something. This takes the bite out of many of the game's intense death-defying moments, which is hugely disappointing. Still, if it's easy platforming you want, you got it.

Combat in Enslaved is an entirely different matter. Early mech confrontations should always end with Monkey as the last one standing; if you know how to button mash, you will easily survive the first half of the game. As things start getting serious towards the end, the game starts throwing more than just a few mechs at you, and then it gets a bit more challenging. You'll have to make good use of Monkey's ever-expanding repertoire of attacks, even the ones that only knock enemies back without causing damage. Luckily, the checkpoint system is usually forgiving enough to where you won't find yourself repeating the same easy parts over and over.


Game Mechanics:

On the surface, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is your garden-variety action adventure platformer. In the beginning, you run, you jump, you climb, and you attack. And that's it. Monkey has access to a battle staff that acts as both a melee weapon and an energy gun. He also has his Cloud, a ring of iridescent light that features the benefits of a hoverboard with all the limitations of a present-day cellular phone. By that, I mean he can only use the Cloud in certain locations -- or as I like to call them, hotspots.

From the beginning of the second chapter onwards, things change. Remember, Enslaved is the story of an escort mission. Before you start groaning, make sure you don't confuse Trip for Ico's Princess Yorda. She may be a damsel in distress, but she's neither stupid nor useless. Sure, she's enslaved Monkey for his survival and mech-killing expertise, but she's not content to simply let him do all the work. When he's not carrying Trip on his back, Monkey can give orders to her via the slave headband. By opening a radial wheel and selecting an option, Monkey can instruct Trip to advance to a new position, activate holographic decoys, and interact with parts of the environment. Collecting enough Tech Orbs allows her to upgrade Monkey's gear. Trip's Dragonfly scouts nearly every area you come across, highlighting points of interest, potential kill zones, and nearby combat mechs. It even goes so far as to diagnose flaws in faulty mechs; some are rigged to explode, and if Monkey performs a takedown on one, he can repurpose it like a proximity bomb. There are several scenarios that make clever use of the game's mechanics, though on their own, the gameplay mechanics aren't all that unique or impressive.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is certainly not without its flaws, but when a game is put together with such an amount of loving care, it's hard to stay focused on its failures for too long. The story works overtime to ensure that your disbelief remains in a constant state of suspension, and it succeeds to the point where you willingly throw yourself headlong into the world that the developers have created and share in the wonder of its vision.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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