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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Xbox 360) artwork

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Xbox 360) review

"Just add more homicidal robots - not the fix-all solution you've been led to believe. "

There are gaps between my three attempts to beat Enslaved. Long ones. Weíre not talking about a couple of days or weeks while I poke at another game for a bit. Weíre talking years. Multiple years. Theyíre the kind of gaps that are usually a death sentence for any hopes of completion, but I do eventually come crawling back to try again. Thereís something about Enslaved that makes me want to see it through. Just as much as thereís something about Enslaved that makes me want to forget it exists for a couple of years or so. Thereís so much it does right that often gets devoured by a culmination of the things it does wrong, arriving at a perfect apex of awful at exactly the wrong time.

I canít tell you what spelt the end of my initial attempt; my memory isnít that long, so letís talk about the sudden end to my second. It was after a threat-free section where the two lead characters solve a number of progression puzzles by raising and lowering bridges. They were heading towards a human stronghold and the idea behind the bridges was that it took human intellect to figure out the logic behind them, trapping the roving feral mechs that inhabited the world outside their borders. This continued for most of the stage, but Enslaved isnít content in just being clever; it has a combat system it needs to advance. So, at some point, thereís mechs you need to beat up.

Combat is not Enslavedís high point. It makes attempts at elegance with a block system as well as some functional evade and counter attack options, but it all feels clumsily mashed together. Still, the bridge chapter is around the halfway mark, so itís an issue Iíd overcome throughout. I know why this stage was different. Itís the camera, you see, thatís squeezed so tight to your protagonist that it feels like itís constantly peeking over his shoulder. This creates a weird sense of paranoia during battles; you feel like thereís frequently something metallic and angry lurking just behind you where you canít quite see it, and you often feel this way because there bloody well is. The camera needs to back up and get out of your personal space Ė and we know it can. It zooms back out when youíre taking part in a spot of platforming, but it steadfastly remains clingy when youíre fighting. So youíll get repeatedly stabbed and shot in the back by enemies unknown. Itís just, on this stage, youíre fighting on a very narrow strip of land, with little room to retreat or regroup. And there are two groups of mechs that rush you, coming from either side. So, in this case, thereís a whole group of murderous robots that you think are probably out there, but you canít see them. I must have got slaughtered a couple of dozen times and then, that was it, I quit. Enslaved collected a few yearsí worth of dust.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (PC) image

Iíve beaten the game now. I wonít pretend that I had a magical moment when combat suddenly stopped being shoddily and gawky, but I did have a rather intelligent moment wherein I switched the difficulty from Hard to Normal. Challenge be damned; what I needed was manageability. Seeing as years had passed, I started the game from scratch and passed my previous stick point in quick order.

Itís weird that combat has been made such an obstacle because what Ninja Theory really wants to do above making a game is tell you a story. Other elements, like the parkour platforming, are literally press A to win throughout the majority, giving you a linear set of handholds and podiums to navigate that highlight themselves with a fabulous sparkle just in case you canít find them. Itís only in the last few stages that youíll find any threat of failure or harm in scaling around building faces and up sheer walls. Until then, youíre almost embarrassingly protected; unable to even descend off the smallest of ledges unless youíre in the exact right spot and thereís something solid for you to land on.

Still, flinging yourself around the landscape does have an undeniable appeal to it. Itís pretty mindless for the most part, rarely offering you anything but a straight path that leads directly from A to B, but a lot has to be said about the environments. Playing at being somewhat of a trendsetter, Enslavedís post-apocalyptic world thumbs its nose at all those other post-apocalyptic worlds (itís a popular world!) that coat themselves in seven slightly different shades of brown and consider themselves gritty. Just be contrary, Enslavedís broken and abandoned domain has been reclaimed by nature, the rotting skeletons of once great cities swallowed by climbing vines and acres of green. It would be kind of beautiful if it wasnít for the constant reminder that humanity has been almost wiped out and the loss of billions upon billions of lives.

Sobering reminders of lives that once were are littered everywhere but rarely highlighted. They donít need to be shoved in your face; they just exist. Likewise, neither of the cast needs to continue to discuss them because this is the world they live in now. Itís just their reality. Besides, they have bigger problems. Tripís a teenage girl three hundred homicidal-robot-filled miles away from home. Monkeyís a stoic survivor who Trip welds a slave headband to so heís forced to ensure she gets back home safely.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (PC) image

The plot is inspired by A Journey East, but donít put too much thought into that; the developers certainly didnít. One is a tale of an arrogant monkey king being humbled by safeguarding a monkís pilgrimage through ancient China. The other is the tale of a moody muscle-head protecting a boob-tube wearing girl from Skynet v2 in the wastelands of the future. Thereís mocking to have here, but itís all pulled off with such a swaggering sense of confidence itís hard not to buy into Ninja Theoryís world. A lot of the weight is shouldered by Monkey and Trip, who are so brilliantly realised theyíll ruin other games for you. Motion capture king, Andy Serkis, not only lends his voice to Monkey, but a lot of time and effort has been ploughed into capturing so many of the little gestures and facial quirks that are simply not present in the vast majority of games.

They falter, like you and I do, but videogame protagonists have a habit of glossing over. A passive aggressive dig by Monkey might elicit a tired eye roll from Trip, or a sudden spike of explosive anger from her much larger partner might pierce her tough-girl faÁade for a few moments leaving her wide-eyed in terror like a rabbit in the headlights. Their relationship is complicated; itís hard, I suppose, to grow close to someone who has bonded a death sentence with your skull, so you can never quite centre on Monkeyís true feelings on the situation. At times, he seems pre-resigned to the fact that bad things will happen and he just needs to roll with it. Sometimes, he shows a glimmer of understanding towards Tripís desperate actions. At another point of the game, Trip tries to alleviate some tension with a joke about how the first thing a free Monkey will probably do is snap her neck. Monkey isnít laughing.

I suffered through Enslavedís pronounced flaws because I found myself caring about the plight of Monkey and Trip without ever really realising it. Thatís just makes Enslaved all the more frustrating; it stands willingly on the protuberance of being an truly excellent game, but then it goes and lets all that clumsy gameplay get in the way of it.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (January 21, 2016)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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kazriko posted January 21, 2016:

Funny, I spent years trying to finish this game myself. Finally finished it just 3 weeks ago.
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EmP posted January 21, 2016:

Glad it's not just me. It's weird, isn't it? I've abandoned uncountable games that didn't hold my attention, but Enslaved kept tugging away at my memory. Making it perhaps the only game I've ever thought "I'll come back to that later" and actually did.

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