We all look for different things to be entertained, and videogames provide a huge variety of options in that regard. You enjoy deep plot and interesting characters? Fire up an RPG. Do you like explosions and guns? Load up a shooter. To pit your mind against your foes? Strategy is where it’s at.
Sadly, as gaming has become more and more commercial in its life time, many developers seem to be forgoing less popular types of game in favour of third person and first person shooters, which they know will likely sell more copies. At the end of the day, it’s business, but this is still a sad trend.
That’s why Enslaved is somewhat dear to me. My time with the game has been short (completed less than 24 hours after first turning it on, including time to sleep, eat, bathe e.t.c), but memorable. It’s not going to be one of the all time classics, but there are elements of the game that really stand out, so lets take a closer look at Enslaved: Odyssey to the West from Ninja Theory.
The world has been destroyed by a great war, and humans live as isolated communities, or as nomads wondering the wastes. One such person, Monkey, is captured by Slavers and in the process of escaping is forced into the service of a young woman named Tripitaka, or Trip for short. She offers Monkey a deal- get her home and she’ll remove the slave headband she placed on him. Don’t help her, and the headband will kill him.
The setting is very well realised and detailed, featuring all sorts of areas from overgrown cities to ramshackle communities to industrial graveyards. Once nice thing is that unlike so many post apocalyptic settings, technology isn’t mystified or thrown out all together, it’s still used and applied, even repaired. Monkey has an electronic shield as well as a motorcycle, and Trip can operate computers as well as other useful technical skills. I find this sort of thing far more realistic than say, Nier, where technology has been totally forgotten.
Enslaved is best described as a cross between Batman: Arkham Asylum and the Prince of Persia series. The combat feels very reminiscent of Arkham Asylum, waiting for the right moment to attack, timing your blocks and special attacks and so forth, while the platforming and puzzle sections (which are very, very easy) feel very much like the Forgotten Sands.
The game plays very well in both theatres, but not as well as the games the inspiration seems to have been drawn from. Still, AA and PoP are pretty much at the top of their game, so any comparison isn’t going to be favourable. Bottom line, Ensalved plays like these two games, but not quite as well as them.
Combat is frantic at first, but as you learn you realise you have great control of dictating the flow and pace of the fight. Enslaved throws you some curve balls, such as enemies with shields, or different mix of enemies (there are only 4 basic types of enemy, so the combat style is usually dictated by the composition of the enemy force and the arena, rather than the type you are fighting).
Platforming is easy to the point where some might call it coddling. Your route is always shown using shiny objects, and it’s impossible to kill yourself by running off a ledge. Personally, I don’t see this as coddling, but more removing a source of frustration and allowing you to focus on the real challenges, such as timed jumps. Let’s face it, there are few things more irritating than running off a ledge in a 3D platformer just because the camera swung around at the wrong moment, or you nudged the analogue stick too hard while trying to get into position. Still, certain ‘Old Skool’ gamers may be but off by this.
Beyond combat and platforming, there isn’t much else left in Enslaved’s gameplay. There are some puzzles, but as said, these are exceptionally easy. Overall though, it’s a satisfying, if limited experience.
Graphics and sound.
I’ve lumped these two together for this review as Enslaved has one feature that puts it head and shoulders above the rest. The character presentation is astonishing. The voice acting and motion capture puts even my favourite RPGs to total shame.
Andy Serkis’ (most well known for playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films) performance as Monkey is excellent, giving the character a strange tough guy voice, with an almost New York twang. However Lindsay Shaw as Trip and Richard Ridings (Notice the British connection here?) as Pigsy also give excellent performances. The work on the facial expressions is also nothing short of stellar, surpassing even Red Dead Redemption. The graphics team got the subtleties of expression down to a T. One of my favourite moments is when Pigsy is just about to cry, and he looks exactly like someone who is starting to choke up- his mouth movements, his eyes- everything is spot on.
One of the things I’ve noticed about the voice acting is that much like the subtlety of expression I first saw in Red Dead Redemption, the voice team manage to get the subtle elements of speech in too. All too often in games, the voicework just sounds like someone reading out loud as if they where narrating an audio book: They may get the inflections right and convey emotion well, but it just isn’t organic. In Ensalved, the characters grunt, clip words, run their words into other words, gasp for breath when exhausted and convey emotion through simple sounds as well as language. This really puts it a cut above anything else I’ve ever played in that regard.
Great voice acting and great modelling mean that Enslaved’s cut scenes look more like watching a well acted movie than a videogame. Top points there.
The levels are interesting and varied, and also very colourful (something sorely lacking in many modern titles which seem to think brown needs to be mixed in with everything), without looking cartoon like. Enemies are also modelled with the same care shown to the main characters, and while they can look a little silly (seriously, these where war machines?) at times, they still manage to look threatening and move in a very fluid way.
The music is interesting. Ninja theory have gone for the downplay, putting music into only the most dramatic moments, and leaving a much more minimised background music in the other times. One memorable example is a moment when I expected there to be some thundering bass and dramatic strings, yet nothing transpired. It made the moment seem… creepy. Alien. Given what was happening around me at the time I think that’s probably exactly what the developers where going for. Still, I don’t know if it was intentional, but if it was it shows considerable thought for the aural side of the gaming experience.
Story and presentation:
While the characters are very well rendered and acted, the writing doesn’t seem to be as good. The cast never really seem to develop, even Trip (who goes though a very traumatic experience) doesn’t seem to get anything new from the events of the game. The closest thing I’ve seen to development was in Monkey, but it was more confusing than anything else as the character’s motivations and reasons are totally unclear. It was a mental whiplash moment, totally out of character and totally out of left field. The moment was never foreshadowed, or never explored in retrospect so it just comes off as a ‘WTF’ rather than anything deep.
The story was adapted from a Chinese novel by the man behind 28 days later, Alex Garland. To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of that film either, so maybe I just don’t like Garland’s style. He’s written some interesting characters (and as I said, they are VERY well realised in video game form), but they never really seem to develop or go anywhere. They just say as they are. This sort of works for Monkey who is a very pragmatic individual and just accepts situations as they are rather than howling at the moon, but then the aforementioned event (kept shrouded in mystery for the sake of spoilers) throws that out of the window. Then immediately after it he’s back to normal.
Trip and Pigsy, again are quite interesting to start out with (Even if Trip is a little wet) but are never really developed, or even explored for that matter. The exception here is Pigsy, who’s development is forced into the story in a very ham fisted (pun not intended), rushed, I’d even go so far as to say contrived way.
The story itself and the ending are fairly generic. It’s well executed, but with a professional writer and such a skilled core of performers, I honestly would have expected a story to compete with FF7 and a presentation that would knock my socks off. What we got certainly isn’t bad (though it does have a few plot holes), but it’s not great either.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West marks a new high water line in terms of character presentation in video games. This sort of creative team really pushes the idea of games as art, and between the presentation and some creative camera work, at points it really felt like watching a high quality movie. The gameplay is fun, but not earth shattering, and the graphics are among the best currently on the 360, and are certainly more varied and creative than other titles that put a lot of emphasis on graphics. Overall, Enslaved’s gameplay could do with being a little deeper and the characters need to be a little more developed and/or explored. The story also needs some polish, but all the pieces for a fantastic saga are in place, and I would certainly buy another game from this creative team. If they can build on this, then we may have one of the best videogame stories ever developed on out hands. As it stands, Ensalved is a fine game, but could have been something very special.