Review: Enslaved: Odyssey To The West
The ancient Chinese fable, Journey to the West, has been adapted into many forms of media, with the most notable being the Japanese manga/cartoon, Dragon Ball. UK developer Ninja Theory takes this famous Chinese story and uses it as the basis of the plot in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. While the core tenets of the tale are present (Monkey themed protagonist, staff, cloud), the game is set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic New York that serves as a really interesting premise. In addition, the gameplay feels so visceral and the visuals are so sharp that anyone looking for an immersive, story focused single player experience will have a grand time with Enslaved.
Enslaved takes place in an unspecified time in the future, where almost all remnants of civilizations are gone, and insidious robot overlords have taken the reigns of society. You play as Monkey, a ridiculously muscular dude that is initially trapped in some sort of prison on a slave ship. You eventually break out of your shackles and fight your way through hordes of mechs to escape. As you’re abandoning this slave ship, you stumble across a red-headed girl named Trip who only has a singular goal: to travel back to her home located in the west. To accomplish this, she obviously is going to need some assistance, so she places a mind control headband on you while you’re knocked unconscious. With this headband, her life and Monkey’s life become one in the same. If she dies, the headband will mortally shock Monkey. This story aspect allows the gameplay to have its most defining feature: the connection between Monkey and Trip.
But don’t confuse this with one long escort mission; how Monkey and Trip interact with each other is essential to the gameplay, and is one of its main conceits. Trip is very capable and smart, as there wasn’t a single time in my game where she got caught out and died to one of the mechs. If an enemy does manage to attack her, she releases an EMP shockwave that disorients those around her, giving you ample time to rush in and demolish those tin scraps. In the rare event that her pathing manages to get her stuck on a wall, she will automatically teleport right next to you once you move far enough. Trip will be accompanying you throughout the entire game, so Ninja Theory made sure that this cooperative experience did not frustrate the player on the account of faulty AI.
The interactions between Monkey and Trip are what really propelled me through the game, and I have no hesitation in saying that their relationship was by far the most gripping component of Enslaved. The way the gameplay revolves around the two is unique, but the thing I cared about more was their cooperation in this arduous journey and how it evolves throughout the course of the story. With there really only being two main characters in the game, Enslaved is able to fully flesh out these two, and how they transform is something that kept me enraptured throughout. The rapport between the two always kept me attentive and intrigued, and with the introduction of a third character later in the game, some of the dialogue gets downright funny. The excellent voice acting and the motion captured cutscenes are major factors in why the characterization works so well. Every cinematic looks incredibly natural and fluid, and the facial animations the characters exhibit are stunning.
Monkey’s primary weapon is his staff, and it is an extremely versatile weapon. Not only can it be used to pound adversaries into heaps of metal junk, but the staff can also act as a plasma cannon. You’ll eventually be able to shoot stun shots, which will help in dealing with robots that are guarded with shields. The physical act of smacking enemies with your staff feels great. Every attack is stressed with a quick vibration and a hard crunch that makes each hit feel impactful and painful. As I was nearing the end of the game however, the melee combat did start to feel just a tad repetitive. With only two ways of hitting with your staff, a quick and strong attack, you just end up repeatedly pounding these two buttons more often than not. Because there isn’t a combo system in place, you have no incentive to mix up your moves or to try something flashy. The game starts throwing more varied enemy types, such as robots with shields or stun guns that temporarily immobilize you, but all of these foes can be easily countered with either a charged attack or a quick evade.
There is a robust upgrade system in place as well. In addition to leveling up your health and shields, you will be able to gain access to new moves that will help spice up the combat, such as a powerful focus attack that you can unleash once you’ve hit with your staff enough times in a row, or a counter attack that will help you against enemies that like to excessively block. These combat upgrades will alleviate some of the monotony that the gameplay will begin to show later on, and I believe purchasing these specific upgrades early is beneficial, as it will make the combat much more engaging. There are also staff improvements which will bolster the effectiveness of your plasma and stun shots.
The standard action gameplay is broken up with platforming sections, of which there are plenty. These aren’t difficult or challenging in the slightest, as everything you can jump onto is highlighted with a white glow. There’s also isn’t a way for you to intentionally fall off and die, so these platforming portions usually just had me mashing the jump button towards the next shining piece of scaffolding. The boss fights, on the other hand, are exhilarating. These encounters are all unique and offer an action packed set piece. Whether it’s hurriedly fleeing from a vicious mechanical dog trying to maliciously devour you, or using the combined power of your companions to bring down a formidable foe, these clashes are all exciting and a blast to play.
Both technically and artistically, the visuals are amazing. You’ll see overgrown vegetation seeping through each dilapidated New York building, and just the colors that are imbued within each environment look gorgeous. This is a lengthy and grueling journey, so you’ll discover some exotic locales on the way, and each area has a particular aesthetic to them. Enslaved runs on Unreal Engine, so expect to witness some severe texture pop-in. Oftentimes it would go a good 2-3 seconds before all the textures showed themselves. This is minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, as when the graphics do finally all become realized, the visuals were nothing short of phenomenal.
Enslaved will make you genuinely care about its characters throughout the course if its 12-15 hour campaign. While the gameplay isn’t terribly difficult and can get stale as you progress through the game, Enslaved’s post-apocalyptic New York setting and multi-faceted characters won my heart over. It seems to me that Ninja Theory crafted exactly the game they wanted to make, and it’s refreshing to see a completely original game hit so many high marks. For anyone looking for a deep, character-driven game, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West should not be missed.