More Fun than a...I can't do it...
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is the latest effort from Ninja Theory, developers of Heavenly Sword. The concept is loosely based on the legend of Sun Wukong, the protagonist in a classical Chinese work entitled Journey to the West. Though not having read the original, I suspect it contained far fewer giant mechanical dogs. It’s also not the first game to take advantage of this established mythos, and it likely won’t be the last. Still, Ninja Theory does an excellent job of making it their own with the help of some great performances by Andy Serkis, Lindsey Shaw and Richard Ridings.
Let me start by saying that I really wanted to give Enslaved five stars. There’s a lot going on here that sets it apart from your average game in some very positive ways. Characters emote beautifully and often so subtly that you don’t really notice. By that I mean it doesn’t necessarily register that I’m watching a bunch of polygons distort according to a series of 1s and 0s. You just see sadness, frustration, anger, concern...Ninja Theory isn’t messing around with this performance capture business, though having Andy Serkis and screenwriter Alex Garland on the credits should have been evidence enough for that. It may sound weird to say it because we don’t generally think of performers in video games the same way we do actors in a movie, but Serkis puts in a very good performance in this title. Enslaved really makes me hopeful that a new paradigm might develop where highly talented performers like Serkis find their way into more games, greatly increasing the overall quality of one of gaming’s traditionally weaker aspects.
Enslaved also has a fantastic visual style about it. In an era where browns and grays are still the norm, Ninja Theory’s latest project takes a page from the Uncharted book and throws huge, brightly colored environments at the player. Like Uncharted 2 I occasionally found myself pausing just to look around at the ruins of New York City, thick with the vegetation covered husks of skyscrapers. This carries over to the character models as well. Monkey looks like he’s been through a lot, with scars and strange unexplained markings all over his body. His animations also drive home his ties to his namesake, as there’s something simian about the way he performs a lot of his climbing in particular. The supporting cast members—both of them—are generally equally well crafted. The mechs too have a distinct style and very much seem to fit in this post apocalyptic world where one imagines they must have been pieced together from whatever parts could be found once no more factories or steel foundries were left to make new ones.
Unfortunately, Enslaved also suffers from a noticeable, though not game-breaking, lack of polish. NPCs occasionally float just a foot or so off the ground when navigating rougher terrain. Monkey’s animations don’t always string together as smoothly as I would’ve liked. The act of climbing itself is also not entirely smooth when compared to something like Assassin’s Creed. Breaking up those climbing sections is some relatively simple combat. In fact, a lot about this game, both good and bad, reminded me of Beyond Good & Evil, and I mean that as a real complement. Though the combat here is significantly more complex than BG&E’s (which isn’t exactly saying much), it still felt like it existed more as a means of breaking up the action and driving home the constant threat of Mech attack, which becomes a central theme in the narrative. Also like BG&E, there are believable emotional connections to be felt between characters in this game, but this is occasionally hampered by certain scenes not getting quite as much time as they should. There was one scene in particular where a heartfelt moment, accompanied by the game’s generally wonderful soundtrack, is cut off by a loading screen. The only thing I could think was, “What the hell? They didn’t even let the violins finish!” This and a few other scenes I felt could’ve used just a few more seconds here and there to give them the appropriate gravitas.
There are a few other very minor gripes to be made about Enslaved (texture pop-in for one), but when taken as a whole package, I found it hard to come up with another game that I felt handled narrative this well beyond your obvious answers. The gameplay may not be groundbreaking in any particular way, but the world and the characters in it, few though they may be, make it absolutely worth experiencing. It should be interesting to see how future projects from Ninja Theory pan out. Since so much of what was great about this game relied on its performers as much or maybe even more than its programmers, I’ll be interested to see how they develop as a studio over the years.