Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is that rare thing for me in console gaming, a title in which the story development and pacing kept me playing even when I'd usually put aside the game for a while rather than repeat a particularly arduous or nerve-wracking segment. The plot, dialogue, character development and character interaction were enough to keep me going when I tired of the action elements. I finished the game, a reasonable 10-12 hours for an average gamer on normal difficulty, in just about two long sessions.
The story and character elements come together very well, but in this case, I'd be shocked if they didn't. In addition to able work by Ninja Theory's Enslaved design team, the game's backstory was written by Alex Garland, who is also an unabashed game buff. Any game project to which Garland becomes attached is at least a minor coup for the developing studio. Voice acting and motion capture for the principal character, Monkey, was performed by Andy Serkis (Gollum in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" film trilogy, as well as other acclaimed screen and television credits). Serkis also wrote and consulted on dialogue, and his screen experience clearly comes through in Enslaved's script. From the story perspective, Enslaved, employing exceptional actors in other roles as well, fielded a veritable dream team of cinematic talent. You could watch this thing like a movie, and indeed the project was first proposed for an animated film, not a game.
Ninja Theory is best known for early PS3 title Heavenly Sword, very good in many ways but often flawed in its gameplay elements. Chief among complaints about the fantasy brawler were its abbreviated length and sometimes uninspired gameplay, requiring repetition of boss fights and certain other protracted combat sequences to even stretch the game to a short six-hour experience. In my opinion, it was one hell of a six-hour experience, but most gamers expect more play time from single-player titles with no multiplayer elements, and fairly so.
While Ninja Theory didn't have much to make up for in the story elements of Heavenly Sword, they've nicely improved things on the gameplay front. As mentioned, Enslaved, which also doesn't have a multiplayer component (though at least one episode of single-player DLC has already been promised), comes in at almost double the gameplay time of the previous title. The extended gameplay includes additional content and more sophisticated combat action, platforming and puzzles rather than just complicating existing elements and forcing the player to repeat them.
Enslaved takes place in a postapocalyptic world, but the studio has managed a somewhat novel turn in art direction: The colors are vibrant and rich, with a variety of wild foliage overgrowing what was once our human society. The world is populated by machines, or "mechs," structurally based on human and other animal forms. While the story is rich and intriguing, explanation of the events leading to the decline of mankind is thin. Fans of Garland's work will recognize this process of storytelling from "28 Days Later," in which the story is largely about the characters and their interactions, and not very much about how things came to be.
As the game opens, our reluctant heroes are captured aboard what they call a "slaver ship" operated by mechs and enslaved humans. The first chapter is entirely concerned with Trip's escape from the ship, while Monkey hitches a ride on her escape pod before the slaver vessel crashes in a future representation of New York City. Trip is a young woman from a wind-farming community to the west, while Monkey is a rebel without much of a cause. He's just trying to complete his life's work — and that's just staying alive in a hostile world. After their escape pod crashes, it's clear to Trip that she won't make it more than a few hundred yards in any direction, let alone all the way home, without the aid of a formidable ally like Monkey.
Trip has various skills with the sort of technology that operates the future world, and while Monkey is unconscious post-crash, she fits him with one of the headbands used by the mechs to enslave humans. She's hacked the headband so that if she dies, Monkey dies. Should Monkey stray too far from her in an attempt to strike out on his own, he dies as well. In the game, the growing trust and bond between Trip and Monkey is subtly but effectively demonstrated by greater distances Monkey can wander afield of Trip without trigging the punitive capacity of the headband.
Enslaved casts the player as Monkey, with no option of taking on the role of Trip, neither through the whole campaign nor even in brief discretionary episodes. There's no co-op play, either, though at first blush, you'd think such a two-person cast would be ideal for a fully cooperative adventure. Co-op play would almost certainly interfere with the seamless storytelling upon which Enslaved greatly relies.
However, Monkey can do various things in interacting with Trip, such as carry her through dangerous situations or, with his brute strength, toss her across chasms she'd be unable to manage on her own. Collecting red Tech Orbs scattered around the levels provide credits for using Trip's knowledge to upgrade Monkey's health and combat abilities, which consist of various close-quarters attacks and a staff that doubles as both an energized melee weapon and a sort of clumsy rifle that can fire exploding and stun rounds. These upgrades don't even wink at the notion of an RPG, but regularly upgrading provides the player with a sense of becoming stronger so that certain combat mechanics that seemed a little rough early on flow better in the latter half of the game. Also, combat sequences improve significantly when you learn to exploit the various weaknesses of the mechs, which attack in diversified teams.
Monkey can direct Trip to follow him at appropriate times and he can also command her to create diversions so that he can move past mechs without being cut down by ranged weapons. Likewise, Monkey can distract mechs from killing Trip, though in the course of gameplay, this feature is rarely used.
Ninja Theory has deftly created a more sophisticated combat experience in Enslaved. It's not so easy to notice early on, but as the player upgrades combat abilities and weapons, and learns the strengths and weaknesses of the various foot-soldier and boss enemies, the game definitely loses the feel of a pure brawler, and tactical skills come into play. You can make it through all the chapters by merely button-mashing, but it's not a particularly satisfying way to do it, and you may end up unnecessarily repeating things a few times.
The platforming and attendant puzzles in Enslaved are fairly simple. Until the last quarter of the game, it's very difficult to get yourself in trouble by platforming: The moves are almost automatic, and the traverses only appear perilous. There's certainly enough single-player content in the title without throwing in a bunch of burdensome head-scratchers, and holding up gameplay while you ponder a difficult puzzle for a half-hour or repeatedly fall off a building by mistiming jumps would certainly get in the way of telling the story in an engaging fashion.
Technically, Enslaved is something of a mixed bag. The art direction and vision is superior. The general quality of the graphics is quite good, though on the PS3 there is noticeable tearing in scenes, and that's persistent throughout the game. It's not very distracting and doesn't destroy the sense of immersion, but it's there and you'll see it.
The audio program, sound effects and the like are very good, but there is no Dolby Digital or DTS compressed multichannel audio production on PS3. It's all uncompressed sound straight off the capacious Blu-ray disc. In theory, this is fantastic. With few exceptions, uncompressed audio is always better than a compressed production. Until very lately, uncompressed digital multichannel audio playback has been a feature of high-end, pricey home theater receivers. Unless your home theater or multichannel audio HDTV supports uncompressed multichannel sound, you're going to get two channels and two channels only. You can work around that by playing with the DSP settings on your receiver and selecting something like the "theater" or "game" audio environment simulations, but without the proper equipment, it's still not true digital multichannel sound. In fairness, this isn't an online multiplayer shooter in which you'll be concerned about failing to hear enemies sneaking up behind you, but I found it disappointing that Ninja Theory did not include a Dolby Digital or DTS audio production, as they've become nearly ubiquitous in top-tier games, especially in titles like this one, which lean toward a cinematic presentation.
Enslaved is one of the more captivating games I've played this year, and I suspect I'll fondly remember it for years to come. However, I should make special note that while I can see myself playing through this game again in a year or two for the story, it's not something I'm compelled to play through again soon. Once you've watched the final scene and the credits roll, there's little to go back for, unless you want to get every trophy. Even the dropped hints provided by the game's only real collectibles are thoroughly resolved in the final scene. The game's plotting is not designed to leave unanswered questions once you've finished playing the main narrative.
Still, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is an instant personal favorite. More so than many top games these days, Enslaved is very much reliant on the sum of its parts. While I think I could make a good argument that the story and character development would stand up quite well without the gameplay, the gameplay mechanics definitely require the resplendent flair of the well-told story to provide anything more than a strictly average experience. Fortunately, Enslaved ranges from consistently good to outstanding, and for that reason, I'd recommend the title if you have an interest in single-player adventures full of masterful storytelling.
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