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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Review

4
  • X360
  • PS3

Deeply engaging characters and mostly solid action combine in Ninja Theory's latest effort.


 Kill robots in exotic locations!
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a simple story told with subtlety and heart, about two intertwined survivors making their way across a wasteland America in the wake of some catastrophic future war. A fair amount of Hollywood talent got involved in this game--the story is by Sunshine and The Beach writer Alex Garland, and Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings' Gollum) directed the dramatic sequences and voiced the main character--and they earn their places in the credits as you see nuanced, believable relationships building between Enslaved's tiny cast of speaking characters over the course of their grueling journey. The game's mix of melee combat and acrobatic platforming satisfies more often than not, but even when the gameplay gets awkward, the plight of the survivors is engaging and touching enough to drive you onward to the story's conclusion.  
 
Monkey is a capable, muscled nomad making his solitary way through the wastes. Trip is a technically adept but fragile young girl stranded hundreds of miles from her secluded farming community. She needs to safely cover those miles and elude roving bands of killer robots, the remnants of the war that destroyed civilization. She needs Monkey. So she secretly fits him with a mind-control device that forces him to obey her commands and will administer a killing shock to him, if she dies. Naturally this fierce loner isn't too thrilled about obeying orders from an excitable teenager, but what choice does he have? It quickly becomes apparent that while Trip is technically in control of the situation, Monkey's the one with both the brawn and the survival know-how, and that creates some good tension and an almost playful back-and-forth dynamic between the two, as they scrape through frequent close encounters with the mechs, and learn more about each other in the process.

 The game hits you with cinematic action sequences on a regular basis.
The game's dramatic scenes are among the most convincing in the business, utilizing Serkis' obvious flair for the dramatic, and the "performance capture" process made famous by Avatar, to fill Monkey, Trip, and the game's one other meaningful speaking character with more lifelike personality and pathos than a dozen text-heavy role-playing games. Technically that's because there are actual people behind not just the voiceover (which is superb) but also the body language, facial tics, and zillion other subtle elements that make these characters seem quite real. Performance capture must still be a pretty expensive or unwieldy process, otherwise every developer would use it in their cutscenes all the time. The results speak for themselves. Even outside the cinematics, the game does a great job of developing its characters, owing to the snappy and genuinely funny banter between them, and I realized I honestly cared about what was going to happen to them only an hour or two into the game.

Actually playing Enslaved is largely like bouncing between Prince of Persia and God of War. From a crumbling, heavily jungled New York City to a mechanized facility run by the slavers who are trying to subjugate what's left of society, there's a lot of stuff to climb on. The game subscribes to the hold-your-hand school of acrobatic traversal, since it marks only certain background elements--loose bricks, conveniently placed poles and ledges--as climbable, and all you need to do is push the stick toward the next handhold and press the jump button. In general I have no problem with letting a game take the lead with this sort of mechanic; the weird angles and irregular spacing of the jumps you have to make would probably be a nightmare to accomplish with looser, manual gamepad controls. Though, if you're looking for a constant challenge, this isn't it; the platforming rarely demands expert timing from you, and only a few of these sequences near the end of the game really put you under any sort of time pressure. It's easy to do, but at least it looks really cool while you're doing it.

 Mech-ridden wasteland America is a pretty ugly place.
The melee combat involving Monkey and his weird electro-retractable futuristic staff weapon is more challenging and consequently more satisfying. You've got a healthy assortment of light and heavy attacks, dodges, counters, and blocks, and the game does a good job of smoothly introducing stronger and trickier foes throughout the game that come at you in different ways and force you to actually use your entire arsenal of moves to defeat them. Monkey's staff also doubles as a sort of rifle that can fire both stunning and killing energy blasts from a third-person view, and there are enemies that make you mix in these ranged attacks as well. Monkey even has a hoverboard of sorts that comes into play in a few action sequences and boss fights.  
 
Lastly, there's an AI-only co-op mechanic that lets Trip pitch in and help you out when you ask for it. She can project a hologram to draw the mechs' fire away from you for a short time so you can run from one cover point to the next, and you can also pop up from behind cover and yell at them to draw their ire back your way, so you can tell her to move up to your position. Per action genre standards, there are multiple upgrade paths that let you enhance your fighting prowess, ranged attacks, health, and so on. I found the game did a good job of varying up the sorts of combat and action scenarios I was getting into so I never got bored with what was happening at the moment.

 Step two in the "Body By Monkey" workout program.
Enslaved has the appearance of being entirely original, but it's actually based on the classical Chinese narrative Journey to the West and places some specific narrative threads from that work into its distinctive setting to create its own identity. And though the post-apocalyptic thing has been done to death in video games recently, this game has a unique take on that theme. It brings together a lot of elements, the visual design and tone of the characters chief among them, to create a vision of a shattered future that doesn't feel exactly like every other wasteland you've seen before. I really enjoyed the dirty, clockwork look of all the technology left over from the war; it's got a sort of retro-futuristic vibe to it, and the mech designs are all fearsome in an animalistic sort of way. In basic terms of color palette and art style, it's a rich and beautiful-looking game, though a few frame rate drops and the Unreal Engine's characteristic texture pop-in don't do it any favors. The game has a penchant for larger-than-life cinematic action sequences, such as an escape from a crashing airship or a battle on top of a skyscraper-sized mech, that really showcase not just the graphical fidelity but also the designs of the technology and architecture that sprung up in this game's world, centuries after the gears of modern society and industry ground to a halt.

Enslaved comes right at the start of the busy fourth-quarter release schedule, and given the game's modest promotional campaign up to now, this review might be the first you've heard of it. But it's a well-produced effort that makes itself easy to get invested in and is worth considering for anyone who enjoys a solid dozen-hour-long, story-driven action game. It doesn't do everything right all the time, but some grander and higher-profile games could stand to learn a lesson or two from this one.     Brad Shoemaker on Google+
86 Comments
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Edited by Krisgebis

Think this is the definition of a great rental. Or maybe just wait till the price droppes. But lets hope for a sequel, to continues the great story (and finally get some closure).
 
#edit: Finally #1, but still no quest pop?! That is cruel :-(

Posted by msavo

Good. I knew this game wasn't going to be the best this year but I was hoping it wasn't going to be broken either. I'll be asking for it as my Christmas present :) lol

Posted by dvorak

This game is incredible. I finished it in two sittings only because I was to tired to stay up and finish it. 
 
Also, the visuals are damn impressive for X360.

Posted by Tordah

Sounds pretty awesome!

Posted by JJOR64

I have high hopes for DmC now.

Posted by A_Dog

Want to rent this. I really enjoyed the demo.

Posted by Landon

Very cool demo. I want to play this now.

Posted by JohngPR

Nice review.  I'm hoping to get my copy from GameFly sometime soon.

Posted by Navyseils

I've managed to go without hearing anything about this game up until now, but I'll definitely be checking it out. Looks pretty interesting.

Posted by Daveyo520

I'm glad it's not bad.

Posted by KingTut91

Fair review Brad, just bumped it up to a purchase for me.

Posted by tairygreene

review castlevania dammit

Posted by Sil3n7

Just rented this :)

Posted by FunExplosions

But I have no money... Gonna pick this up along with Heavenly Sword when it's 20 bucks. 

Posted by Vonocourt

Hey Brad, this is Ninja Theory's third game.

Posted by Vorbis

Nice review, hope it won't be overlooked by everyone, more character and story driven games are always welcome.

Posted by SethPhotopoulos

Now I have to fight myself to either get this or Castlevania. 
I'm leaning more towards Castlevania though.

Posted by Vinchenzo

The quick look was shitty, but then I actually played the demo. I was surprised at how much of a personality I noticed within these characters just in the demo. I still haven't come to terms with how ugly the characters look (stylistically, not graphically), but they actually have a life of their own which isn't found in many video games. I'll try to borrow it from someone, but I don't see myself buying it.

Posted by Catolf

great review, Glad to see you enjoyed the game, I'll be getting it soon to enjoy myself.

Posted by DeF

my copy should arrive tomorrow, I'm really excited for this game!

Posted by eldiax

I'm really relieved Brad liked it, can't wait to try it for myself.

Posted by Legend

This game is pretty awesome!

Posted by MarkWahlberg

I'm so glad this is good.

Posted by Hamz

I'm really excited to get my hands on this. A lot of yang has been spoken about Ninja Theory but reading your review Brad has given me hope that the naysayers will finally be lost for words.  
 
Great read! :)

Posted by PhatSeeJay

I have to say that the Quick Look was probably the first time it discouraged me from buying a game. Though when I played the demo and read some review I have to say I misjudged the game completely. It seems really interesting and the fact that the animations are so fluid and combat feel strong and heavy it's just fun to play. Shame I can't afford it. :(

Posted by S0ndor

Always nice to see games with a narrative focus turn out well. Nicely written review as well. 
 
Shame I don't have anything that can play this game :(

Online
Posted by garnsr

I played the first couple of chapters last night, and a couple of times I was instantly killed without any warning because I apparently went farther away from Trip than she wanted me to.  That kind of limits my desire to find everything, when  I have to go pick up everything over again because I was jusy trying to get the orbs before it wouldn't let me go back.  Otherwise I'm enjoying the game.

Posted by GetEveryone

Fucking called it. Everything I've seen/heard so far has pointed to greatness and the demo was a great taster.  
 
Can't wait to get my hands on the finished product.

Posted by Fribain
@Vonocourt said:
" Hey Brad, this is Ninja Theory's third game. "
It's their second under the name 'Ninja Theory', though.
Posted by Jost1

Trip is so cute

Posted by tumes

Damn, two timely ass reviews in one day, you guys are absolutely killing it for us! Thanks! The game is waiting on my coffee table, can't wait to dig in.

Posted by Kentlad

Damm this is going to be an expensive month! 

Posted by benjaebe

Great review Brad. Glad to hear the game is being received well - I got it on launch and have really been enjoying it myself.

Posted by angryemu

I hope this game sells well. I really want more companies to make single-player focused story-driven games like this.

Posted by Espada12

I'll get it cheaper. While I appreciate the devs efforts, the gameplay and platforming didn't really do anything for me, and I'm hearing it has low replay value to top it all off, so yea.. see ya at the bargin bin!

Posted by BrechtianDinnerTheater

I was shocked at how much I liked the demo for this, seeing as I really dislike the character action genre as a whole. If the whole game is up to the level of quality established there, this is a definite purchase for me.

Posted by drag

Games really need to learn from this in terms of character models, writing and voice-work. I'm really against style over substance kinds of games, and the demo for this felt like I wouldn't really be very enthralled by the gameplay itself, but I just wanted to hear more from the characters and see where the story was going based solely on the excellent performances in the cutscene at the end of it. Real emotion visible in her eyes, you don't get that very often. 

Edited by Seppli

Will fish this out of a bargain bin one day.
 
It's just a carp, but hell, not every day's a yellowfin tuna day.

Posted by issun187

I'll probably end up buying Enslaved in a month or two. Well written review, Bradley! :)
Edited by bybeach

I've been foolowing this title more and more since I started hearing of it. This review does not suprise me. It sucks, this is not my kind of game! 
 
And I do believe I'll be getting it at some point. damn.... 
 
 Some games are almost becoming darn near movies you would rather watch. But games they are...and even good ones.

Posted by JJWeatherman

Has anyone else experienced a complete and utter turn-around in opinion on this game? When I first saw the thumbnail for this come up as a new QL, I was like "Uh, alright. Looks dumb.". Then I watched the quick look. At that point I was saying "huh. OK.". Then I played the demo and said "Damn. Yeah!". Now after all these good reviews such as Bradley's here, I actually want to spend $60 on this. Not that I have $60 to spend, but if I had it, I probably would. 
 
Crazy.

Posted by Undeadpool
@JJWeatherman said:
" Has anyone else experienced a complete and utter turn-around in opinion on this game? When I first saw the thumbnail for this come up as a new QL, I was like "Uh, alright. Looks dumb.". Then I watched the quick look. At that point I was saying "huh. OK.". Then I played the demo and said "Damn. Yeah!". Now after all these good reviews such as Bradley's here, I actually want to spend $60 on this. Not that I have $60 to spend, but if I had it, I probably would.  Crazy. "
Right here, that was my exact arc with it. I'm about to install it on my hard drive and play it, so the demo has done it's job. 
 
It's a pity so many fanboys will hate it reflexedly because it's the company that changed their "precious" Dante...
Posted by ZmillA

I'd like to remember to get this when it drops in price

Posted by Addfwyn

Big fan of the source material (Journey to the West) so was pretty intrigued by the game when I first saw the QL, but it had largely managed to slip under my radar until then.  Having actually greatly enjoyed Heavenly Sword (not an amazing game, but it was good for a near-launch PS3 title) I had pretty good hopes in Ninja Theory, and it looks like this doesn't disappoint.  Looking forward to it.

Posted by CollyWolly

Good review and very fair.  This game is a lot of fun.  Picked it up yesterday and am two chapters in.  Can't wait to play more!

Posted by gla55jAw

Game looks awesome. Never even heard of it before this review.

Posted by zoozilla

Not sure if I'll get this right away, but it could definitely be a purchase down the line. 
 
I always like a game with a good story.

Posted by LtKetch

I really enjoyed Heavenly Sword, this review seals it, I will pick it up tomorrow.

Posted by Nettacki
@Undeadpool said:
" @JJWeatherman said:
" Has anyone else experienced a complete and utter turn-around in opinion on this game? When I first saw the thumbnail for this come up as a new QL, I was like "Uh, alright. Looks dumb.". Then I watched the quick look. At that point I was saying "huh. OK.". Then I played the demo and said "Damn. Yeah!". Now after all these good reviews such as Bradley's here, I actually want to spend $60 on this. Not that I have $60 to spend, but if I had it, I probably would.  Crazy. "
Right here, that was my exact arc with it. I'm about to install it on my hard drive and play it, so the demo has done it's job.  It's a pity so many fanboys will hate it reflexedly because it's the company that changed their "precious" Dante... "
two good games that have an (admittedly) different style compared to Devil May Cry won't go over well with the fans in any case. It can't be helped.
Posted by Teclo

My copy was sent out by GAME today. Really looking forward to it, seems like a game you can get really adsorbed into.

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