"Its often glaring technical mishaps are eclipsed by sheer artistic majesty. For as easy as the platforming is, the cinematic, almost Uncharted 2-esque set pieces nonetheless manage to create a sense of urgency. Despite the gameís relative simplicity Ė hell, Iíll settle for shallowness Ė I was frequently left in awe of the numerous instances in which the escort mechanic just clicks. And for all of those admittedly awful combat segments, the gripping narrative makes it worth the struggle."
Until just recently, Ninja Theoryís only game under their current name was Heavenly Sword, a decidedly average God of War clone that benefitted from a heartfelt narrative and expertly crafted cutscenes by motion capture wizard Andy Serkis. Iím not about to suggest that a good story can carry a game all by itself, but Heavenly Sword was evidence that a little heart and soul can make an otherwise unremarkable experience worth delving into.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West isnít an average game at all, but rather a perplexing mix of good and bad. Itís often jaw-droppingly gorgeous and sports one of the most well-implemented escort systems Iíve ever used in a game. On the other hand, itís also incredibly unpolished, and the simplistic combat and cumbersome camera frequently drown out Enslavedís more impressive sequences in recurrent bursts of frustration. The game is regularly entertaining but just as often a chore, and in any other case, Iíd be perfectly content to say that Enslavedís many shining moments arenít worth the trouble.
Thing is, itís not that simple. With cinematic direction once again helmed by Serkis and a script co-written by Alex Garland (whoís penned a couple of movies you like), Enslaved is one of the yearís most emotionally ravaging games, and provides us with two of the most complex, believable protagonists in recent memory. Set in a post-apocalyptic future in which robots have enslaved humanity, the game centers on an acrobatic man named Monkey, who escapes imprisonment but quickly falls into servitude of another kind when a woman named Trip fits him with a slave headband that controls his actions. Trip explains that she needs his help to return home, and refuses to remove the device until she gets there.
To call Enslaved a love story is inaccurate. Itís a classic ďodd coupleĒ scenario, with two very different characters in two very different positions forced to travel with one another, with Monkey having good reason to hate Trip but also being responsible for her life. What makes their interactions so fascinating is how these two people express themselves. Trip is never difficult to read, but the stoic Monkey keeps his emotions to himself. Watching their relationship blossom is engrossing largely because weíre never quite sure where Monkey stands. We know there will come a point in Enslaved when Trip finally removes Monkeyís headband, and we have a good feeling that this moment will arrive before the game is over. What we donít know is how Monkey will react when heís finally released, and that question hangs over the length of the game.
The connection between Monkey and Trip drives the narrative forward, and itís what keeps the rather basic gameplay afloat, as well. At its heart, Enslaved is one of those nebulous do-all action games that combines hand-to-hand combat with Prince of Persia-style platforming and everything in between. Stealth? Weíve got that. Orb-collecting? Come get some. And as is usually the case with a game that tries to do too much at once, very few of Enslavedís individual elements would stand on their own. The platforming, for example, feels way too assisted, since Monkey will never attempt a jump that he wonít land.
The biggest offender, however, is the hand-to-hand combat. Youíre at the mercy of a wildly spastic camera system that frequently renders the action nearly incomprehensible, but even when you can see whatís going on, the combat is clunky, simplistic and boring. I made the mistake of playing Enslaved on its highest difficulty right out of the gate, and I strongly recommend not doing this, as it only exacerbates flaws like unresponsive commands and cheap enemy attacks. (Whatís the point of having a dodge move if enemies will automatically home in on your position?) On the default setting, the combat is tolerable, but still the one gaping flaw that continuously holds Enslaved down.
Where Enslaved makes up for it, again, is in exploring the dynamic between its two leads. Monkey can issue a few simple context-specific orders to Trip, and the resulting cooperative play is a real treat. Trip isnít just a liability, and thatís demonstrated often, such as when the two of you must provide distractions for each other when sneaking through areas rife with gunfire, or during a particularly memorable scene in which you must work together to solve a puzzle-centric security system designed to keep out mechs that donít have the benefit of human intelligence.
And even when itís ďjustĒ an escort system, Ninja Theory works that angle to their advantage by intensifying otherwise unspectacular situations. Climbing a tower as itís falling apart isnít a difficult task for Monkey, who is aptly named, but the complication of having to guide the far less physically capable Trip to the top adds an extra layer to the design. Itís sequences like these, of which there are many, that help Enslaved forge an identity of its own.
It certainly doesnít hurt that the world this adventure transpires in is so richly detailed. I could never get around to finishing Fallout 3 because I found the atmosphere too off-puttingly bleak to endure for long stretches of time, and as such, itís a relief that Ninja Theoryís post-apocalyptic landscape is bright, colorful, and exuding personality around every turn despite only a handful of speaking roles. Iíll note that Enslaved is plagued with issues like choppy animations, framerate dips and lackluster texture work, and yet despite all of that, itís one of the most aesthetically pleasing games Iíve played all year.
And thatís a parable for the game as a whole, really: its often glaring technical mishaps are eclipsed by sheer artistic majesty. For as easy as the platforming is, the cinematic, almost Uncharted 2-esque set pieces nonetheless manage to create a sense of urgency. Despite the gameís relative simplicity Ė hell, Iíll settle for shallowness Ė I was frequently left in awe of the numerous instances in which the escort mechanic just clicks. And for all of those admittedly awful combat segments, the gripping narrative makes it worth the struggle. Even if they arenít master game designers yet, Ninja Theory treats its stories with the importance of a Hollywood production, and thatís something I can get behind.
Enslavedís ending is a bit of a letdown, unfortunately. A last-minute revelation isnít given nearly the weight it deserves, and it bogs the story down with more complications than one short cutscene is equipped to handle. Iím not as bothered by it as you may think, though, if only because Enslavedís narrative is less about where weíre going and more about how we get there. Itís a brilliant testament to a certain type of interactive storytelling, where even if we have no say in the outcome, the fact that weíre taking this journey alongside these characters makes it that much easier to watch Ė and understand Ė how their relationship evolves. Enslaved has some major problems, but I hope youíre willing to put up with them, because you need to play this game regardless.
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