Enslaved: Odyssey To The West
From the moment we set our eyes on Enslaved, the latest game from Heavenly Sword creator Ninja Theory, it was clear that it was working on something special. Having now played the final game it’s even more obvious that this development team has moved on leaps and bounds since its last, PS3-exclusive effort and that elusive marriage of story and gameplay is much closer to being achieved. Thanks to help from great British media talent like Alex Garland (writer), Andy Serkis (actor) and Nitin Sawhney (music) complementing the unique vision of the Ninja Theory team itself, Enslaved is a rare gem of a game even if it is far from perfect.
But let’s concentrate on those positives for the time being, none of which are stronger than the story and the character development. Enslaved begins with these archetypal leads and makes them its own. Monkey, our lead character and reluctant hero, is the alpha male. He’s a loner and cares little for the company of others. It will come as no surprise that his cold, hostile shell begins to break away as he spends time with Trip. Her timid, gentle, but intelligent nature begins to chip away at Monkey’s cold exterior even though she essentially has him trapped by the slave headband she placed on him.
So far, so by the numbers, but thanks to some superb performance-capture sessions with Serkis (Monkey) and Lindsey Shaw (Trip) there’s a subtlety to the cut-scenes and such natural conversation that we were drawn into their exploits. In terms of performance this goes beyond even what Heavy Rain managed to achieve. It’s not just about the dialogue, but the body language and facial expressions, the gaps between the lines that say as much as words could. This subtlety is what elevates what at its base is a straightforward, often-told tale of opposites attracting as they survive peril after peril to something much smarter and more rewarding.
The simple conceit of Trip enslaving Monkey using an electronic headband so that he has no choice but to do as she says and help her get home, gets things rolling. The tension between the pair, the short answers and snide, offhand remarks between them show their lack of trust, but as danger rears its ugly, metallic head again and again a relationship is forged and the idea that Monkey is in any way a slave to Trip’s wishes is more or less abandoned. He comes to take on Trip’s quest as his own, almost as a point of pride. Thankfully that means the game can go on for just a little longer.
As it is Ninja Theory has placed enough twists, turns and red herrings within the plot and weaved enough of its storytelling into gameplay moments rather than cut-scenes that, despite its weight and unrelenting presence throughout every aspect of the game, the story never feels like it’s treading on the toes of the action. You may begin to think you know where Enslaved is leading you, but we would imagine that you’re wrong. Again, Ninja Theory is far too subtle for that.
Elements such as the floating masks that only Monkey can see add a question mark to everything that follows, but thankfully all this is resolved by the end. There should be no loose threads for you by the time you finish the game. The addition of a third character to the mix in the form of Pigsy couldn’t be timelier either. As the story takes several turns for the worse, he adds some comic relief and a new dynamic to Monkey and Trip’s relationship.
Pigsy's introduction also marks a shift into the endgame as events come to a head and new gameplay ideas are brought into play to spice up the final third. It’s a good example of storytelling and gameplay being served at the same time, which Enslaved really seems to excel at. The ending may leave some feeling a little flat. We can perhaps say that it is not as cathartic and victorious an ending as some would like. We’d rather not say too much more on that front for fear of spoiling things, but it could be considered a weak point in the overall experience.
A centralising, nemesis figure might have helped ramp up the drama and sense of achievement come the finale, but we guess that wasn’t Ninja Theory’s wish. Your enemy is faceless, just like the hundreds of mechs you must fight to reach this unknown foe. Victory may ultimately be hollow, but the journey is not. Ultimately that’s really the point. Enslaved didn’t find inspiration in the classic Chinese tale Journey To The West for nothing. It’s how Monkey and Trip get to their objective rather than what happens there that is really interesting.
But as we’ve said, for all that the story is the heart of what Enslaved is all about and what it has achieved, it never seems to be at the expense of gameplay time. Beneath a relatively simple top layer of combat and platforming you will find plenty of depth and features to explore. The first of these is the simple addition of collectables called Tech Orbs that feed back into the gameplay.
These small glowing balls may not seem all that important as you find them floating around the game world and collecting them from fallen enemies, but once you start spending them on upgrades you begin to see how far the rabbit hole goes. Monkey’s health, shield, combat and staff can all be juiced up by Trip thanks to the Tech Orbs, but unless you collect an awful lot of them there’s no way you’ll max out any of his abilities in full without sacrificing your abilities elsewhere.
Concentrating on health and shield improvements therefore makes a lot of sense, but that means perhaps putting up with reduced staff firing rate or melee attack power. We would certainly recommend unlocking the Focus Attack ability as early as you dare as this simple special move is great at getting you out of sticky situations and rewarding an aggressive melee approach.
Once you start to see and feel the rewards of your orb hunting, collecting them becomes as much a part of the game as the combat or the story. Knowing that the Tech Orbs are often off the beaten path is also something to note. You may need to travel in a different direction or climb a different part of a building. Enslaved doesn’t offer the most open world around and its path is usually a very linear one, but getting your mind caught in that path will actually cost you. You need to be able to think on your feet sometimes.
The same goes for the combat itself. With light attack on Square and heavy attack on Triangle you would be forgiven for thinking that button mashing alone will get you through the game. That approach may very well get you some way and with luck you could even complete the game that way, but greater satisfaction and ease of progress can be achieved by using the full arsenal of skills Ninja Theory has to offer you.
By taking fuller advantage of the opportunities around you the combat becomes far more enjoyable and taxing. Once Trip starts handing you information on mech weaknesses and you begin ripping gun arms off or creating EMP pulses by attacking the right enemy first, the tactical side of Enslaved comes into play. Knowing which mechs to attack first and which ones are the greatest threats to you is essential. Enslaved can be a tough game at times, especially when it throws four or five enemies at you simultaneously.
That may not seem like a lot, but when all you have is a limited shield and a stick to fight with, that’s plenty. Once you’ve upgraded yourself to perform the Focus Attack and Counter Attack moves you can really toy with the mechs and get some extra satisfaction from the close-up kill moves. This is combat stripped of all the fancy moves and mechanics that clutter up many games. Ninja Theory’s last game, Heavenly Sword, was testament to how developers can be bogged down in over-complicated gameplay mechanics.
Sometimes keeping things simple gives the player more control and more impactful choices to make and so it is with Enslaved. Monkey is a straightforward character whose combat style matches his personality, but by being selective in the moves you perform, choosing and timing them wisely and using the space available to you, he can be just as graceful as Nariko was. But Enslaved isn’t all about combat as Ninja Theory has attempted to make more of an action-adventure game than a hack-’n’-slasher, again moving away from Heavenly Sword.
Climbing and platforming are also important areas of expertise for Monkey as he puts his name to good use. This is an area, though, that some will find a little underused and reveals in stark detail the level of linearity Enslaved uses to keep you moving forward. The climbing mechanics aren’t as sophisticated as you’ve experienced in Prince Of Persia, Assassin’s Creed or Uncharted. They are simply functional.
That’s not to say that they can’t be fun and sometimes even challenging when you’re asked to be as fast and accurate as possible (climbing up a crumbling Brooklyn Bridge being a prime example). The issue is that Enslaved has been designed so you can’t jump anywhere other than where you’re supposed to. That removes a level of difficulty and annoyance that comes from these sorts of gameplay mechanics, but it also takes the fun out of path finding.
On occasion, when looking for those Tech Orbs, you might find secondary routes that lead you to prizes, but ultimately the game only ever wants you to go in one direction. What it does show off, though, is Monkey’s superb animation, mostly handmade although obviously informed by the cut-scene performances of Andy Serkis. This is an area where Heavenly Sword’s development has clearly helped Ninja Theory push on into bigger and better places.
Everything Monkey does is smooth and simple. Inspired by the athleticism of parkour athletes, he is as direct in his approach to crossing terrain as he is to knocking out mechs. Since path finding and accuracy aren’t really an issue, what challenge there is in the platforming action of the game comes from being as smooth and timely in your actions as possible to make Monkey look his best. That may seem like an odd idea, but much like Ezio in Assassin’s Creed II, making him look like the climbing god he is becomes half the fun.
One area that might have done with some more time spent on it is the puzzles you are given. There’s very little by way of difficulty to any of them in all honesty. What they do well, though, on several occasions is tie back into Monkey’s core strengths of combat and climbing. Moving platforms around in a theatre, for instance, isn’t difficult to work out, but requires a fair amount of leaping and ultimately pays off with important story advancement.
Likewise, moving some tram cars around isn’t too tricky, but leads to an interesting and intense chase and combat sequence. Anything too difficult would have slowed down Enslaved at key moments. It’s a difficult balancing act that could have ruined the atmosphere and rhythm of the game if done incorrectly, so perhaps difficulty was sacrificed in the name of better pacing.
Which brings us to one of the real stars of the show, the world itself. Up close some of the textures aren’t too pretty, but when you take a step back and just look over the tattered remnants of New York and beyond that Ninja Theory has created, it’s hard not to be impressed. There’s a level of colour and detail placed in this world that we wouldn’t necessarily expect to see from something made using the Unreal Engine 3. Whether out in the streets or down in the depths of a mech factory, there is life and colour everywhere.
As you walk around first New York and later places further west you will see signs of the life before the wars and in-between. Posters on the walls speak of political troubles, graffiti tells the story of people turning their backs on their leaders. Abandoned chairs and bedding remind you that these places were once full of people who can no longer be found. There are many clues and hints to be seen all around you if you want to look for them and they all add to the atmosphere of the game.
While this may be a vision of the world that has seen humanity destroy itself with war and technology it is not a world of death. Life abounds here and that is perhaps another of Enslaved’s key story themes. Life will ultimately go on regardless, finding new ways to survive and cope. Monkey and Trip are from opposite ends of this new spectrum of humanity, but each of them just wants to survive and make the most of what life has to give them. It’s a simple message and one handled with care.
Thankfully, you never feel like you’re getting some social or political comment rammed down your throat. Anything you take away from Enslaved in that vein is something you’ve created for yourself. Ninja Theory has clearly grown and improved as a developer with Enslaved, moving beyond what it achieved with Heavenly Sword to create a far more satisfying gameplay experience while also putting together a narrative that is completely engrossing.
As we’ve said the acting in the cut-scenes is second to nothing else we’ve seen and as important as the story is to this game it doesn’t happen at the expense of anything else. The ending may seem odd, but it will have you thinking (we hope) and it at least can’t be accused of being obvious or unoriginal. More could have been done to make the combat, climbing and puzzling elements of the game more engrossing, challenging and varied, but none are so basic or stripped back as to lack interest.
In the end if you’re looking for a great story with solid gameplay and brilliantly realised characters then Enslaved is definitely worth checking out. Few games this year have been so vividly created or so well balanced. Ninja Theory’s achievements should be lauded.