A Game in Which Story Comes First
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a game based around the idea that a game's story is equally or even more important than the overall gameplay. This holds true throughout the game as the well-written and well-acted cut-scenes and the exciting set-pieces prove to be the main things keeping you going through the game. The game's combat and platforming sequences are never bad or frustrating, but they aren't anything especially original or engaging either.
The story focuses on Monkey, a survivor who's been captured and put on a slaver ship transporting him to God-knows-where. He breaks out of the ship in the game's exhilarating intro, and becomes acquainted with a young girl named Trip. While Monkey's sleeping, Trip fixes a slaver headband onto him, forcing him to do whatever she says, and also making it so if she dies he will too. The reasoning behind this is that she needs Monkey's brawn and survival instincts to help her make it through the wasteland to her family's village. The back-and-forth between these two characters is a major part of the game, as they both are forced to rely on each other in different ways. It's a very character-based story, with not much emphasis on the back story of the world you'r exploring, which is why it's so important that the writing is superb, and the voice-actors do a fantastic job of making the characters feel believable.
Their journey takes them across a post-apocalyptic version of New York City, but instead of the usual worn-out gray and brown wastelands we're used to, this game's world is full of vibrant colours and beautiful juxtapositions of nature and remnants of civilization. There are a lot of robotic vehicles in this game, and they all look like they've been patched together with random scraps found in the Wastes, which is a cool look. The mechs are a lot shinier, and are very animistic in design, showing the disparity of control and power between the survivors and the mechs. The style of the world really adds to the game's amazing set-pieces, where you'll often be barely escaping from giant mechs while climbing abandoned skyscrapers and machinery.
These acrobatic moments are great to look at, but not very involving at all. The jumps are all scripted, meaning once you press the jump button the game knows exactly what animation it's going to do to grab onto the next object. There's practically no room for player error, except when you get nearer to the end, and even then it's not very demanding. This doesn't detract from the game too much though, as it allows the game to use dynamic camera angles to show off the environment without getting in the way of your platforming. The game actually does a lot of cool things with the camera, especially indoors when it zooms out (or in) to show you more detail of the room you're in.
As well as running away, you will also have to fight mechs throughout your adventure. The combat plays like a simple light/heavy-attack brawler; it's not especially bad, but it isn't exactly revolutionary either. If you've played a third-person hero action game before, you'll find yourself very comfortable with Enslaved's melee combat. These up-close combat sequences are intertwined with parts that play very similar to a cover-based third-person-shooter where your hitting staff turns into a plasma-shooting staff. These parts change from being stealthy, cover-oriented affairs into full-on shootouts with many enemies as you progress through the game. The shooting isn't especially accurate or well-done, which is why the earlier moments are probably more fun. Also, in the later parts with more enemies, the frame rate can take a massive hit. The shooting controls also adversely affect the rare turret sequences in the game, where the low sensitivity really lets it down. Along with all this, there are also parts of the game where you can use a flying energy cloud to ride around like a skateboard. This sounds cool, but these are arguably the worst parts of the entire game.
You can unlock new moves, or upgrade your health and shooting abilities by collecting orbs. A whole ton of orbs. The upgrade system feels very arbitrary, just distracting you from getting farther in the game to collect very obvious orbs that are not challenging to obtain. It just felt forced, and the things you get from upgrading are not very special. As you can tell, this game has a lot of different concepts going on in the gameplay. As opposed to hurting the game by spreading itself too thin, I actually think this helps to have many things going on, as they are all so shallow that not one of them could have carried itself on it's own. If this game had focused on one mechanic, it would have risked being very repetitive. The gameplay serves as a competent way to get from set-piece to story revelation to another set-piece, without ever getting boring.
Enslaved is a perfect example of a brilliant story turning an okay game into a great game. While the moment-to-moment gameplay isn't anything to write home about, the fantastic moments and great story far outweigh the game's technical flaws. This is a game perfectly set-up to be overshadowed by other, bigger games, but it's definitely worth a play to anyone who appreciates a great story in their games.