mesoian's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Xbox 360) review

An Interesting Romp Through Neo-Fantasy

My initial feelings towards Enslaved: Odyssey to the West were luke warm. Rumblings of this game from the makers of Heavenly Sword, a game I haven't played, always seemed to be on the periphery; within earshot but never loud enough to make me flinch. It wasn't until I started seeing footage coming out of various trade shows that I began to become interested, though even said interest was rather tepid. Up until the day delivered the game to my door, I never thought I had seen enough to truly justify the 60 dollar purchase and even as I used my keys to tear off the shrink-wrap encapsulating, I felt uneasy, even a bit worried. 
But that unsure nature is what made this game a little more fun for me. 
Now, I'll start off by saying that this game does very little new. The combat, the traversal system, the environments, the nature of the plot and the way the story unfolds, they've all been done before; some aspects doing it better. But there's nothing in the game that is terrible. It can, at times, feel very standard, playing to a lot of current, or even older gaming conventions you would see in any other 3rd person action game, though it's never middling, it never feels rote. Even when the edges of the old tapestry this beautiful game is painted on start to show in the end, it still feels solid enough to keep you going until the end. 
I remember reading an interview saying that the original premise for the game was for it to take place on some alien planet, allowing the setting to be a huge unknown to the player and the characters involved. Having played through the game now, I think that would have been a terrible shame. Half the fun of this game is found within its environments, and Ninja Theory has gone to great lengths to make familiar land marks like Grand Central Station, The Hover Dam, The Mountains of Appalachia feel totally savage or completely alien. Bounding across overgrown collosi of modern industry feels great here. The environment truly is the 4th character. 
Which brings us to another huge point about Enslaved. It is, without a doubt, a completely minimalistic game. The overall plotline is loosely based off the only "voyage to the west" fable, which originates in 14th century China, the main enemies are robots, the only other people you ever see are either corpses or panicking slavers about to die, even the natural flora and fauna has taken on a otherworldly or techno-evolutionary path. Throughout the entire game, there are really only 3 characters, so the social dynamic is essential. It is here that Enslaved shines brighter than any other game I can think of in recent memory. The voice acting, the performance capture, the tiny details that the characters exude make them feel alive. Eyes darting in nervousness as Trip speaks to Monkey for the first time after colaring him, the audiable-but-soft piercing fear you can hear in her voice when he attacks, the helplessness in her whimpers when the idea of inevitable death comes across her, It all feels genuine, genuine and outstanding. Even if characters start to work on your nerves, it feels more than a plot device or a reflection of the writer. By the end of the first level, even though you don't know their names, you feel like you have a good understanding of who Monkey and Trip are, and that is excellent. Though, perhaps that should be expected, the script was written by Alex Garland, screenwrite for 28 days later and Never Let Me Go and the Soundtrack is conducted and orchestrated by the acclaimed Nitin Sawhney (If you don't know who these two are, you owe it to yourselves to find out).
The game mechanics however are okay. Just okay. The downfall of this game is its unwillingness to be a game. The narrative is so strong here, so dominating that when it comes to making gameplay mechanics that can accompany it, they often fall short. Traversal is simple, easy, never threatening....ever. Every hand or foothold in the game glistens brightly so you can always tell where you need to go, and the progression from one to the next is handled by pushing the left stick in a certain direction and pressing a. Every time. Its not bad that it's simple, in fact for telling the story they are trying to tell, it's ideal. There's very little need to backtrack or explore, unless you're looking to squeeze achievements out of the game (which we will get to later). But if you're looking for challenge, a Tomb Raider-esque sort of endeavour, it's not to be found here. When games have traversal systems that are this simple, they need to have another function. Uncharted 2 allows you to quickly and easily scale structures in order to flank your enemy at any time. Since ranged combat is restricted to one weapon here and the levels are very linear, flanking is almost never necessary. 
And the combat is the same way. It's not bad, it's just simply easy, crude. There are a string of light attacks and heavy attacks, certain number of button presses will combo one into the other. But this isn't bayonetta, isn't devil may cry (which is why people may want to be worried about the next DMC), there are only 2 combos you'll need for all situations. There are wide sweeping area attacks and counters, but they are far from necessary to complete the game. It never feels terrible, it just feels, simple. Easy. Which, again for the story they are trying to tell, for the narrative they are trying to get across, is great. But as a game, there is no challenge. 
And then there are the things that the game doesn't do well. The camera starts off well, but as the game progresses, as levels become narrower and as enemy counts grow higher, it becomes clear it doesn't know what to do. It will become quite an often experience for you to fight one mech, turn around and have the camera be lodged against a wayward pipe. And because the performance capture is so prevalent here there will be times during the more hectic cinematic moments where you cannot trigger Monkey to jump to a handhold (I found this to be a particularly bad problem during the final boss when the camera seems to actively fight against you). The achievements are also rather terrible, with 44 of them being incredibly easy, and the 45th being one of those terrible collect-o-thons that heralds back to the banjo kazooie days. 
And really, the biggest mark against the game is that the longer it goes on, the more the cracks in the painting start to show. Each environment becomes less breathtaking and become more traditional, the dialogue slows in being witty or sharp and serves to only force the plot to its end, the simple mechanics start feeling dated and become less fun to use during some of the trials that directly involve special moves...All in all, the game outpaces itself and fatigues. It does end at a good time though, even if the story a bit less satisfying considering the voyage you end up "completing". 
So Its good, its just easy, there's not a lot of challenge. But it tells a great story, a story that doesn't get bogged down with overactive morals or too many characters, a story that is refreshing in it's simplicity. I'm looking forward to my second playthrough, as the revelations of the ending give the story a much different tone than it does when you first start out. It has it's problems, but they are problems almost purposely placed in order to bolster the story telling. Everything in this game, right down to the issues and glitches feels very deliberate. 
I thought it great. It's one of those of those works of fiction that would feel nice to brush off during a slow sunday and play through. We need more games like that. 
4 out of 5.

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