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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (8.0/10)

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was one of those titles I was intrigued by, but ultimately didn't have time to play. I was a fan of Ninja Theory's other work Heavenly Sword and love Andy Serkis with a passion, so I picked it up a while after release on the cheap. And I have to say, I'm glad I did because the story is fantastic... but the game itself has a couple of prominent flaws that hold it back.

Enslaved tells the story (apparently loosely based on a famous Chinese fable called Journey to the West... I've personally never read it, but hear it is fantastic) of a misfit with the rather apt moniker of Monkey (Andy Serkis). The tale starts as Monkey is fleeing a burning slave ship with a young woman named Trip (Lindsey Shaw, who is also very good in her role).

But after a bumpy landing, Monkey awakes to discover Trip has attached a slave headband to him. She enslaves him... see? Trip has set it so that he will feel a blast of pain at her command. Hopefully, this will keep him compliant. And if he gets any clever ideas (like snapping her neck for instance) the headband will unleash a lethal dose. If she dies, then so shall he (you can already see the basic gameplay coming into shape can't you?)

The end result is that they are stuck together; an unlikely duo. She promises that if Monkey can get her home, then she will release him. Problem is her home is three hundred miles across the wasted ruins of the Eastern seaboard crawling with evil robots... she can't do it alone. And while she abhors herself for what she had to do to poor Monkey, she had no choice. While I don't want to give too much away, the story develops about as you would expect (barring a brilliant ending that I didn't see coming). It's at times heartfelt and poignant, at times funny, and at times exciting.

It's funny, I'm not sure if it's the writing or the brilliant performances put in by the cast but I can't honestly remember the last time I was so absorbed with the story and characters in a game. I can tell you that the astonishing facial animations along with the brilliant voice work and motion capture of Andy Serkis, give these slightly cartoonish characters an unbelievable amount of personality. I can't honestly think of a game where raw emotion has been so well captured, it really is quite impressive. It's in the eyes... 

But it's the gameplay and design where Enslaved is really a bit of a head scratcher (please imagine a monkey scratching his head... thank you). There are some really cool elements at play here... but they don't go anywhere. Monkey has a staff that serves as his primary weapon. You have your standard light and heavy attacks that can be mixed up to form combos. These are perfectly satisfying, but don't evolve at all. The combat is essentially the same from beginning to end. I don't know if it's because I read about this problem in other reviews, but I couldn't seem to get that thought out of my head... it became more obvious the longer I played that I was simply spamming the same attacks over and over.

The other thing is the platforming. Monkey lives up to his name, climbing acrobatically all over pretty much everything. It looks amazing (the animations look great the first few times but quickly become repetitive)... but it's actually surprisingly easy. If Monkey can jump from one place to the next, he will do so, but if he can't then he won't... so you won't end up leaping to your death like you do in other games (Assassin's Creed for example). At first this might not seem like such a bad thing, but by removing any inherent difficulty that comes from the decidedly risky endeavor of climbing around simian-style, the truth is it actually makes things a little boring as all you are doing is watching the same animations ad nauseum. For such an agile chap, it's surprising where he can't go if you see what I mean...

Then there is Trip. Monkey must protect her, that's part of the deal. You only play as Monkey, but can control Trip from a menu of preset actions. You can tell her to wait or create a diversion, things like that. If she does get cornered she will release an EMP blast to stun the bad bots, but it takes a while to recharge so you have to be on your toes. On the whole though she seems to stay out of the way pretty well.

One of the bigger complaints for me is the camera. It's sort of a pseudo-360 degree camera that the player controls some of the time... but it only seems to work properly half the time. There seem to be a lot of invisible barriers that interfere with the camera as you are panning around. This causes rapid zooms or worse, leaving you staring right into a wall. It can make combat frustrating. Other times the camera will randomly change to a different perspective when you enter a new area. If you had Monkey running in a certain direction the change in angle means he'll suddenly take a right turn into a brick wall. It's not a game breaker, it's just annoying. 

While the facial animations are some of the very best I've seen, the rest of the game is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to graphics. Some of the environments are stunningly vibrant and rich. But upon closer inspection some parts are almost last-gen quality. It's a weird dichotomy. But with the market over-saturated with post apocalyptic wastelands colored in browns and grays it's nice to see some color at the end of the world.

Then there are the orbs... oh, those orbs! Trip can upgrade Monkey's staff or shield if he collects red orbs from fallen foes or finds them on their travels. And that ain't hard because they are everywhere... I enjoy running around each level and checking every nook and cranny (I do that anyway) but this is a bit ridiculous. It feels more like a chore...

I really enjoyed Enslaved, but felt that as good as it was it could have been better. Bashing the snot out of the mechanical menace is pretty fun, but it does get fairly stale. Taking the combat mechanics from God of War or even Heavenly Sword would have given the player more options to keep the action fresh. The camera can be a pain in the butt. The platforming looks cool, but offers no real challenge. I would have loved to be more free in that respect, I think Assassin's Creed climbing mechanics with this story would have been awesome. But all in all, I think it's worth checking out simply for the 'Steam-punk version of The Matrix' story and the wonderful performances put in by Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw.


Score = 8.0 / 10

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