The Serkis side-show
So I’ve never read Journey to the West, the ye ‘olde Chinese storyline that Enslaved is claiming to be inspired by. Though I can extrapolate my experiences from the Dante’s Inferno game and pick out the parts of Enslaved that were altered for the American video game-playing public. I don’t think Journey to the West has, for example, a post-apocalyptic setting, or a hero so chiseled that he can regenerate health by flexing his traps. (Though the game’s one single homage to Asian fiction may be that the dude has spiky Dragonball Z hair.) And I loosely recall hearing that Journey to the West is about a Buddhist monk and not a shapely female whose tube top is eager to explode and reveal its contents. And I doubt China had gun-toting mechs or an electrical hoverboard back then, but I have no proper evidence.
And I don’t think there was any of Andy Serkis’ motion capture back then, but who knows. The events of Middle Earth could easily predate any of the four great Chinese novels. This is the labour of love of Gollum’s native studio in Ninja Theory, the people that brought us the great looking, not-great-playing Heavenly Sword. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is teaching me the lesson that people climbing the corporate ladder already know; that you can overcome a whole lot of weaknesses if you are very attractive and flaunt it. The environments are both technically stunning and aesthetically built to tell a story. Even without an official explanation, we know that some apocalyptic war happened in the game, and that it happened so long ago that humanity doesn’t quite know what any of this wreckage means. The motion-capture of the characters is done convincingly enough that emotions are conveyed and you can look them in the eyes to see a soul not buried beneath the uncanny valley. Enslaved is a very easy game to find yourself emotionally linked to.
So you do most of your fighting with Monkey’s funky staff. Combat is less preoccupied with improbable air combos than it is watching your back and breaking the enemy mechs’ defenses. So there’s a slight sense of strategy in trying to fight your foes. You’ll have to forgive the camera though, for it finds Monkey’s hair to be so entrancing that it takes every chance to zoom in and pay no mind to the enemies that are about to ambush you. The good news is that, except for maybe one or two segments near the end of the game, the combat sequences are spread out far enough that you never feel a sense of mech-fatigue.
The other literary-inspired game that I kept finding myself comparing Enslaved to is Beyond Good and Evil. (A game that has damn near nothing to do with Fredrich Nietzsche’s piece.) This is more of a positive comparison; Beyond Good and Evil didn’t do any one gameplay element great, but was smart at mixing them up in a larger, cohesive adventure. Enslaved has about four different gameplay modes that are wisely intertwined together with dialogue of Monkey and Trip bonding. If you’re not evading gun turrets or smashing up robots, maybe you’ll be riding your hoverboard across aquatic terrain and through the minefields.
Or perhaps you’ll undergo the most dominant of the gameplay mechanics, the traversal. Monkey can earn his name and leap around on ledges and cliffs as good as any Persian royalty can. The thing about this game’s parkour is that all of the ledges and pipes that you can navigate are glowing so that you can actually see them amidst all of the game’s Unreal-engine textures. And the game dictates that Monkey can only jump and climb to designated locations. You cannot, for example, jump off a cliff to your death, or make a blind jump into a wall. Thus the game leads to two different scenarios; either you will feel like the king of swing as you Serkis-jump from one nudge to another with relative ease, or get annoyed as you flip around the analog stick mashing the A button looking for the next ledge to climb.
Though again, you may not mind. Just like you may not mind the simplicity of the puzzles, which are almost all entirely about flipping switches and telling Trip to flip switches. (And Trip can lag for many seconds are you ask her kindly to pull that lever.) Part of it goes back to the game’s great sense of variety, but part of this is also the investment I found myself having with the main characters. The game is very good at developing the relationship between Monkey and Trip, two entities that gradually begin to trust each other in spite of their forced bond. More than most games, Enslaved seems to have a bit of a spirit.
But I found myself losing a lot of the goodwill I amassed by the game’s ending. A disclaimer; I am the kind of person who’s entire experience can be soured by a poor ending. Thank you very much, entire Assassin’s Creed franchise. The bulk of the game gives no identity to the villains, other than that they have murderous robot minions and like to take slaves. The ending makes a spontaneous attempt to paint the evil force as sympathetic in an illogical, very Serkis-like manner. The epilogue (which I guessed correctly about halfway through the game) clashes entirely against the gameplay experience you’ve been having thus far and kind of taints the rest of the game. I was decidedly pissed off, and it wasn’t until I started writing this review that I started remembering the better parts of Enslaved.
Not to give business advice to highly-paid corporate executives at Namco-Bandai, but do you think you could’ve waited a few months to release Enslaved? Besides giving Ninja Theory some time to smooth out the rougher parts of the game, it would also had a good deal less competition in the market, and thus garnered more attention. I wasn’t going to give Enslaved the time of day until recently anyways, and I was willing to pay full price. In its current form, Enslaved isn’t a mandatory playing experience, but one worth examining if you have a week or two that needs filling between your soulless first person shooter of the month.
3 ½ stars