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'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.
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.
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.