A Game That's Better Than The Sum of its Parts
Ninja Theory's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West has been a largely overlooked title, which is a shame really. It's by no means perfect, but it does so many things right, most importantly in its astounding character development, that it manages to be something special and unique, despite aspects of it being somewhat derivative.
The main story of Enslaved takes place in a post apocalyptic future filled with killer robots referred to as "Mechs" and revolves around two human characters: the tech-savvy female companion, Trip, and the player controlled brain-meets-brawn warrior, Monkey (who happens to be voiced by none other than the "as made famous by his role as Golem in The Lord of the Rings", Andy Serkis, and he does a fantastic job). In a rather spectacular opening sequence, both characters are brought together by the slave headband, a form of mind control device used by slavers which Trip has re-purposed in order to control Monkey against his will. It is made very clear early on that because of this link, if Trip dies, so does Monkey, and if he does not obey commands, Trip will inflict pain upon him. This sets the stage for some truly incredible character development as their relationship of initial reluctance and downright loathing evolves throughout the course of the game into something much more complicated.
The gameplay also revolves around this idea of companionship, with the player taking the reigns of the agile Monkey as Trip follows and handles the support aspects of gameplay. She can provide important recon data and holographic distractions, as well as open otherwise inaccessible paths for Monkey in order to progress. While it is often required to aid Trip in reaching objectives, and to protect her from mechs, it thankfully doesn't turn the game into a giant escort mission. Having Trip present provides a multitude of benefits, and her A.I. is always smart enough to stay out of the way while the player, as Monkey, takes care of business.
Climbing ledges, swinging on poles, and fighting enemies in melee combat makes up the bulk of the action, with the odd hover-board-esque "Cloud" or shooting gallery turret sequence every once in a while to change things up. All of Monkey's movement is smooth and mostly seamless, but his controls feel very floaty and animation driven. Performing new actions does depend on the previous action's animation being finished, and while this is awkward at first, once gotten used to it does work quite well. What makes it work is that all of the jumping and climbing is somewhat automated, in that Monkey will not perform any given action until he is in a position from which it is guaranteed to succeed. This can sometimes make it feel like the game is nearly playing itself, but at the same time it provides a steady pace and peace of mind in knowing there won't be any frustrating deaths at the hands of poor controls.
Combat with Monkey's extendable staff is the standard light and heavy attack setup, with new moves and abilities being unlocked using the game's "Tech Orb" collectible currency. Different types of mech enemies require slightly different approaches, such as shielded enemies that require a charged stun attack before they can be damaged normally. It's kind of basic, but the combat does have a weight to it that makes each hit feel like it's really making an impact. The staff also has the ability to be wielded like a gun of sorts, with stun and plasma shots capable of being fired at long rang for enemies at a distance. Ammunition for these shots is limited, however, and is thus typically not a factor in most combat situations.
The Heads Up Display is typical for the genre, with shield and health meters, as well as ammo counters and command options for Trip. What's clever about the HUD is that while it's pretty much no different from any other game, its existence is actually justified by the story, in that Monkey can only see it because of his slave headband. It doesn't make its function any different, but it's nice to see a developer put some thought into the logic behind a stereotypical game concept that is otherwise largely taken for granted.
Enslaved runs on Epic's Unreal Engine, and it is put to good use. The game has an environmental art direction that takes advantage of Unreal's ability to render beautiful vistas and detailed destroyed environments. There's an excellent blend of both overgrown outdoor environments as well as rusty, dingy, steam-punk style industrial settings. One environment in particular, a junk yard of sorts, showcases monumental heaps of mechanical remains towering above the ground in stylized spires, and it's quite a sight to behold. As with other Unreal games, however, many of the textures are a very low resolution when examined closely, and there is frequent texture pop-in. Also, while it by no means ruins the experience, there are multiple instances where the framerate will drop noticeably.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West can be tricky to classify, the visuals, while mostly well done, are a mixed bag, the gameplay is both floaty and imprecise, yet snappy and smooth, and while the story itself isn't particularly incredible, the characters and voice acting are. The thing about Enslaved is that for nearly every good point, there's something less than optimal to counterpoint it, but overall it is a game that's better than the sum of its parts, and is definitely worth the attention of anyone seeking a unique, fun, and sometimes touching adventure.
Also, the ending is effed up.