Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (PS3)

Title: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Format: Blu-ray Disc
Release Date: October 5, 2010
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Ninja Theory
Original MSRP: $59.99
Extras: 3D Compatible

“If I die . . . you die.”

These 5, simple words, are the basis for one of 2010’s most beautifully crafted video games.  This phrase sets the mood and begins what develops into an emotionally charged relationship between the 2 main characters: Monkey, a brutish man with an uncanny ability to traverse even the most insane of platforming obstacles and Trip, a young woman whose innocence and beauty is matched only by her technical prowess.  Together they make an odd team forced to make the title’s Odyssey to the West.

The game opens with a tension-filled sequence the likes of which I haven’t experienced since Uncharted 2’s opening train level.  The player awakes through the eyes of Monkey who is imprisoned in a capsule-like cell.  Across from Monkey you get a glimpse of Trip, another slave who, for reasons unknown, is able to escape her cell and cause enough chaos and destruction to propel their slave ship on a crash course over what appears to be a post, post-apocalyptic New York.

Making his dramatic getaway to one of the ship’s remaining escape pods Monkey finds that it is already occupied by Trip – her hand hovering over the eject button.  Monkey’s pleas go unanswered and his soon-to-be companion launches the escape pod just seconds before the plane makes its final descent into the rubble below.  As he clings to the exterior of the pod the player receives the first of many scenic views of the New York City of the future.

When gravity resumes control the escape pod crashes and Monkey is thrown to the ground.  After he regains consciousness the player finally gets a sense of how this story will unfold as he realizes a slave band has been selfishly applied to his head by Trip.  This band provides Trip complete control over Monkey’s fate. 

If, at any time, Trip feels threatened by Monkey she can trigger a charge that will eliminate him almost immediately.  If Monkey strays too far from Trip and she feels he is abandoning her the result is the same.  Trip has resorted to using this slave band for the purpose of “persuading” Monkey to escort her back to her family’s home, hundreds of miles West of their current location.

Although we’ve all had the unfortunate pleasure of playing through any number of escort games I feel confident in stating that the team at Ninja Theory has developed something far more than just that.  They have taken a strong story created by Alex Garland (28 Days Later and Sunshine) added some of the most stunning visuals I’ve seen in a video game, thrown in a healthy dose of platforming and tacked on some obligatory combat for good measure.

In between the strong story and character development Enslaved: Odyssey to the West switches between platforming and combat.  To start with I should inform that there is really no way for you to die while in platforming mode.  There is never a wrong step, poorly timed jump or loose grip that will send Monkey plummeting to his death. 

This I found to be both good and bad.  It’s bad in the sense that those wanting more of a challenge in their platforming need look elsewhere.  Enslaved is ridiculously easy.  Monkey’s abilities truly rival that of our simian ancestry.  He is able to jump, climb and swing with such ease that by the story’s end you’ve become numb to the repeated action button mashing. 

In addition, because the platforming does not allow for mistakes, the game forces the player to position Monkey into a predefined start location.  In other words, if Monkey isn’t in the exact position where he needs to be his fluid platforming never gets a chance to begin.  This sounds worse than it actually is but it did provide for some moments of frustration along the way.

On the plus side, if you can get past the level of ease which Team Ninja has devised for their platforming engine you’ll have all the opportunity you could ask for to breathe in the beautiful vistas and dizzying heights I can only imagine the art directors had spent countless hours generating.

Like most good action/adventure games platforming is typically one-half of the equation.  Whether by sword, sorcery or firearms there always needs to be a certain amount of combat added to make a game of this nature successful.  It is with sad admission that Enslaved: Odyssey to the West falls drastically short here.

Monkey’s combat abilities come across as an afterthought to his tremendous platforming abilities.  Through the use of Monkey’s staff the player is allowed a shallow choice between light and heavy attacks with an occasional range attack.  The upgrade tree, aside from unnecessarily maxing out Monkey’s health, is extremely limited and it is difficult to see a discernible difference from one upgraded combat ability to the next.

The only real enemy encountered throughout all of Enslaved takes the form of Mechs – those presumably left over from a time before the world ended.  Most of these enemies are bland and repetitive but, on occasion, offer hints of fearsomeness.  Near the end of the game the enemy types (primarily the bosses) become more interesting but, for the most part, it is too little to enhance an otherwise weak combat experience.

Although Enslaved, at its roots, is primarily an escort mission – forced or otherwise – the game does allow some unique interactions between Monkey and Trip.  Stripped down to their basic usefulness, Monkey is the hulking protector while Trip understands and is capable of using the technology available to her. 

Working together they are able to manage some of the more threatening situations.  Quite often the odds are stacked against Monkey and Trip and sneaking past or behind a large group of Mechs is better than facing them head on.  The player is able to use Trip to act as a decoy and obtain the attention of the various enemies, allowing Monkey to sneak by unscathed. 

In addition, because of the obvious size difference (Monkey is an absolute giant compared to Trip) Trip can be thrown up to higher levels or across further reaching platforms; allowing her to flip a switch or open a gate – thus providing Monkey easier access.

Although Trip’s usefulness is clearly limited it does provide a fair amount of interaction.  Still, I can’t help but reflect on my time spent with Enslaved and realize that Ninja Theory missed out on an opportunity that could have further enhanced an already enjoyable experience. 

Primarily due to her diminutive size it’s not difficult to imagine the point of view changing from Monkey to Trip when a situation may call for it.  Like sending a mouse through a maze to find the hidden cheese Trip could have easily filled that role.

Where Enslaved is enjoyable, albeit simplistic, in terms of platforming and combat, the real motive for my completing this game unabashedly lies with the visuals.  To put it bluntly – Enslaved is the most beautiful game I have had the pleasure of experiencing throughout all of 2010! 

As I have commented earlier in this review the vistas, when viewed from hundreds of feet in the air, are so life-like that, at times, I was overwhelmed with a sense of acrophobia.  Although I admit to a fear of heights I do not believe I am an actual acrophobic.  However, playing Enslaved has provided me with a glimpse of what that particular phobia might be like.  The attention to detail, light, shadow and depth are truly amazing.

Yet another visual that Ninja Theory absolutely nailed was in the various character facial animation.  Anyone familiar with Heavenly Sword should understand Ninja Theory’s motion capture capabilities.  Where Heavenly Sword’s main character Nariko looked gorgeous in 2007, Enslaved has provided us with something I never thought would be possible in a video game – emotion conveyed through facial gestures and, more importantly, through the eyes of Trip.

Honestly, there were times while watching various cut scenes that I forgot I was playing a video game and believed I was enjoying a scripted movie.  The pure innocence that Ninja Theory was able to convey through the eyes of Trip is staggering.  You couldn’t help but feel for her character’s situation and want to help.  Kudos to you Ninja Theory, you have just raised the bar that much higher.

Although I’d love to continue gushing on about how incredible Enslaved looks it is not without it’s technical problems.  Aside from some random screen popping and occasional aliasing, the camera was incredibly jumpy. One minute it was distractingly hard to follow and the next it was smooth as glass – there just didn’t seem to be much consistency one way or the other. 

Another mark against the camera work is that the angle of the camera is very much forced on the player.  Aside from the fact that Enslaved is incredibly linear I got the feeling that the Ninja Theory developers were so impressed with their art work that they wanted to show it off to the player, again and again.  Not really a bad thing in my book but allowing for a certain amount of camera flexibility can be an essential feature to the success or failure of a video game.

The audio portion of Enslaved is yet another argument in favor of video games acting as art.  The musical score and direction was spot on and provided the perfect blend of intense action, beautiful cinematics and emotional character bonding and development.  It was never overdone or inappropriate.   It was exactly what one would hope to expect while taking in the latest release on the big screen.

Although the special audio effects were nothing to write home about they did get their point across.  Explosions were loud and the Mechs were intimidating and… um… mechanical.  At a minimum the effects were accurately represented.

Where the audio effects of Enslaved are average the voice acting is another gold star for Ninja Theory; perhaps due in part to there only being 3 characters – Monkey, Trip and a mid-game character named Pigsy (soon to have his own DLC side mission – hooray).  Regardless, the quality of voice acting they were able to elicit on behalf of these characters was again well above the vast majority of other video games released this year.  If you were impressed with Uncharted 2’s voice acting you’ll feel right at home with what Enslaved: Odyssey to the West has to offer.

Giving Enslaved: Odyssey to the West a fair rating has become a difficult exercise for me.  On the one hand I have become a strong proponent for the argument that video games have always been a form of art – perhaps more so with the continued advancement in technology – and Enslaved is most certainly deserving of that categorical title. 

On the other hand video games need to be just as much fun to play as they are to watch.  It is often rare to find a game that delivers high quality on both ends.  Enslaved: Odyssey to the West comes close to delivering that balance between gameplay and beauty but unfortunately falls short of this mark.


Written by Bill Braun

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