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

Enslaved: 2010 Best game no one played

Enslaved is a 3rd person action adventure game similar in many ways to the Uncharted games. With its fantastically realized world, great characters, fun gameplay and some of the best acting you'll find in a game it really deserves more attention. Unfortunately despite its high production values and big name Hollywood talent it did very poor sales and now retails for $20 less than half a year after its release.

 Shrinkable giant pole. Check.

Enslaved is very loosely based on the Chinese Monkey King story "Journey to the West" which has countless adaptations, some of the most famous are the live action series Monkey and Dragon Ball. The parts taken from that story are largely cosmetic so don't go expecting a true adaptation of the classic story. For one thing there's a large glaring omission of the Sha Wujing character who lives underwater and fights with a rake-like weapon. The story starts off with Monkey, a man with vaguely ape-like features such as his enormous hands, huge upper body, very skinny waist and what looks like a long pouch hanging from his pants that looks like an off center tail.  

Monkey finds himself imprisoned on a massive airship transporting slaves.  The ship crashes in the remains of New York City and when Monkey comes to he finds a young teenage girl Tripitaka (or Trip for short) who has fit a mechanical slave headband to his head which at her will can cause him pain or even kill him. Monkey is understandably hostile towards her, but she has no choice because she knows that without him she'll never make it back home.

 Nothing like the threat of pain and death to keep motivated.

The overgrown ruins of modern day society are populated by large violent mechs whom have no apparent master, and without Monkey's help, Trip has no way of getting home. While it may sound like a game that is a huge escort mission you're rarely concerned that Trip will get killed and reset you to the last checkpoint. The only thing I found truly frustrating were occasional scenes where running into land mines caused instant death, but there are only about three instances of this. In Enslaved, Ninja Theory along with actor Andy Serkis uses performance capture for their cutscenes just like in their first game Heavenly Sword.  

 The results are always dramatically better than the usual technique of motion capturing and voice recording separately with different actors. Enslaved goes one step further because the facial expressions were also mapped from the actors to their digital counterparts and the subtle facial expressions which really add nuance to the game. The result is a much stronger and more believable performance. If anything bad can be said about the cutscenes is that I could've done with more of them.

In the game you only control Monkey but have a pop up window which you can use to give Trip commands. It's usually for situations where you need her to distract gun turrets while you make your way to an area with cover, but occasionally it's used to aid in puzzle solving elements. Some traversal puzzles also involve throwing Trip to places she can't access or her crawling to places Monkey can't get to. Trip also has the ability to survey an area so you know your waypoint and location of all the robots. This is a conceit that allows the game to show you exactly what you need to do and where you need to go. It works in the context, but eventually it starts feeling repetitive.

Monkey even appears to break the necks of things which have no neck. Like gun turrets.

Being a Monkey King character, Monkey has a large shrinkable pole which he uses to tear robots apart. It can also be used to fire plasma bolts and stun charges to disable robots. The move set is limited to a small number of combos based on light and heavy attacks. Later on you upgrade Monkey's abilities to include some more abilities but it's certainly not combat like something from a Devil May Cry or even God of War. That said, I found the combat fun and satisfying especially during the moments it switches to choreographed finishing moves or slow motion close up flourishes of Monkey completely destroying robots.

There are defense, health, plasma bolt and combat upgrades you can purchase from Trip after you've collected enough orbs from killing robots or finding them in the environment. The other collectible are masks which tie into the store but until the end of the game aren't something you fully understand. There are achievements for collecting all of these things, and after you've beat the game you can go back and replay chapters where you you didn't get 100% of the collectibles (the game conveniently tells you your completion percentage per chapter).

Traversal is similar to Prince of Persia or Uncharted, and it's a lot of fun watching Monkey's animations because he's extremely spry as he jumps, swings, flips and runs through these sections. Occasionally it's difficult to figure out which direction you're going despite all the handholds glimmering in the light. Also like Uncharted, there are several sequences where your platforms will be crumbling away from under your feet which means you really have to haul ass. It's not something you see too often in games because I'm guessing it's difficult to do technically, but those moments are the most exciting and cinematic. Other than these gameplay elements there's a bit of turret shooting and also sequences using Monkey's "Cloud" which is basically a very high speed hoverboard.

 Dammit, I knew I should've taken the Manhattan bridge.

Other than the acting the most impressive part of Enslaved is its visuals. A lot of games have a very monochromatic color palette but Enslaved is one of the most saturated games I've ever played. There're very bright greens, orange, blues, purples, reds and anything you can think of. Calling a game saturated could create images of something that would cause severe eye fatigue but the style totally works and the result is gorgeous. I add this game to my list of "stop and smell the roses" sort of games where so much work was put into the environments that it makes you cry to think so much work was spent on something most players will just hurry past as fast as they can.

The other place the game excels is in its animation. The acting is a lot of actor performance and motion capture with I'm sure plenty of key frame animation too, but the action animation and fighting is top notch. Monkey's traversal animation is very fluid and the fighting animation makes it that much more fun. The choreographed finishing moves are brutal and exhilarating. Monkey's character design has some very odd features, namely his incredibly skinny waist despite his otherwise bulked out build. Other than Monkey, the other characters look very good and extremely detailed. The eyes deserve special mention because in a lot of games the eyes look very disconnected like just some CG geometry sitting in sockets, but here the eyes work in their stylized way and really help sell the acting.

 In terms of acting, believable eyes will do half the work for you.

What keeps Enslaved from being a totally hands down amazing package are some technical flaws that I wish could've been smoothed out. Looking at the game I get the feeling that their ambitions got too big for the hardware or they didn't have enough time to optimize everything to run smoothly. Especially during combat the game can't always maintain its 30 fps framerate. I feel like had this been designed from the ground up on the PS3 it could've been a great package technically and artistically. These technicalities don't hold the gameplay back in anyway, it's just a shame that something that everything about it is so good artistically but a technical aspect holds it back from truly shining.

 Another technical issue the game has is its sound mix. I understand that there are times when a game is quiet and other times it's rocking your speakers. There's no problem with this unless you're self conscious about bothering your neighbors, but there are several parts of the game where something is just way too loud or dialogue is near inaudible. At the very worst there are moments that look like outright mistakes. Some environmental things feel like they could've received more attention, but where the sound is good it's really good. The combat wouldn't be the same without the excellent metal crashing and grinding sound effects.

The other part of the game that falls short is its ending which even without visiting forums I know will be very polarizing. It's kind of abrupt, you don't see it coming and in my opinion falls kind of flat. Some intriguing ideas, but it's very much shoved in at the end even though parts are slightly hinted at during the course of the game. The ending doesn't outright scream for a sequel, but there's certainly room for one, but with lackluster sales it doesn't seem likely.

Those caveats aside, Enslaved is a game that definitely deserves more attention and at a price of $20 or lower it's not much of a commitment to buy it. I'm sure it'll be available for download sometime soon for Xbox's games on demand service. On paper it seems like Enslaved should've been a homerun, the graphics, characters, animation, combat and platforming are all there. Gamers love post apocalyptic settings and science fiction, right? If you like action adventure games then by all means go and get this game! It'll tide you over a bit while waiting for Uncharted 3.

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