Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Review
Written : Wednesday, October 13, 2010
By: Richard Walker (GT: Redriceman82)
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is all about its setting and characters, taking the ancient Chinese novel, Journey to the West, and transposing the story to a post-apocalyptic setting unlike any you'll have seen in games before. Typically barren, brown and grey, Enslaved's demolished post-apocalyptic America is bright green with ferns breaking through cracks in the concrete and vines wrapping themselves around bridges and skyscrapers.
"Post apocalyptic playgrounds have never looked this good."
Following an action-packed escape from a flying prison ship, you're dropped in a version of New York engulfed in greenery; and as the nimble and powerful Monkey, you're tasked with escorting Trip to her home, 300 miles away. A fellow prison ship escapee, Trip, fits Monkey with a slave headband while he's unconscious, so she's able to command him, and so if Trip dies, you die.
If this makes Enslaved sound like one big escort mission, then don't worry, because it really isn't. Enslaved is a sprawling adventure that takes you across hundreds of miles of destroyed America, and Trip is more than capable of taking care of herself as you navigate your way through crumbling concrete, masonry and iron girders. In fact, you grow to rely on one another during your epic journey as Trip is a hacker and technologically-minded individual, able to unlock doors and scan any danger lying ahead using her handy little dragonfly.
If Trip is the brains then, Monkey is conversely the brawn and as such, he has a variety of devastating robot-smashing combos at his disposal. Most consist of bashing X and Y intermittently, with X reeling off a few fast strikes, while Y unleashes some slower heavier attacks. It's not the deepest of combat systems, but it does a more than adequate job and it's not long before you're able to upgrade Monkey's equipment using the glowing orange tech orbs you gather on your travels.
Upgrades are broken down into four categories and can only be actioned when you're in Trip's vicinity, as she's the only one able to transform the orbs into enhancements. Monkey's shield, health, staff and combat capabilities can all be upgraded and it'll likely take you a couple of playthroughs before Monkey reaches his peak. Collecting orbs though can be a bit of a pain at times, but you always feel compelled to grab them as you'll often be striving for that next health boost, shield upgrade, combat ability or staff improvement.
"Monkey by name, Monkey by nature."
While combat starts out as a bit of a grind, once you start applying the upgrades, things gradually become a bit more enjoyable and less protracted. You'll be smashing through mechs with ease by the end of the game, but then the game starts to increase the numbers to compensate. Generally, there's only about five or six different varieties of common mech to take on too, so you'll quickly suss out their attack patterns and know what to expect. Looking like a collection of rusty old razor blades moving with a menacing, almost feline grace, Enslaved's robot enemies often attack with speed and aggression, so mastering the art of blocking with the right trigger and putting in a counter attack or charged shield-breaking swipe is paramount.
Some mechs also have faults denoted by an exclamation or fire icon, meaning you'll want to isolate them and take them down first to get the upper hand. Robots with a fire icon have an explosive fault whereas the exclamation-marked mechs stun all enemies in the immediate vicinity. There's still a bit too much button-mashing in Enslaved's combat than we'd have liked, which is surprising given how much more detailed Heavenly Sword's combat was. From a control standpoint, Enslaved outstrips Ninja Theory's previous effort, but there's less variety and flow to the fighting. Sometimes the camera, in trying to stay close to the action, gets a bit muddled and confused, and in the rare instances that it gets stuck on scenery or fails to give you the best view of what's going on during a fight, it can cause some minor irritation.
Enslaved is more engaging during its exploratory sequences, developing Monkey and Trip's burgeoning relationship as you leap to higher areas with Trip on your back, throwing her across gaps or up to otherwise inaccessible plateaus. Of course, with a name like Monkey, there's plenty of climbing to be done and it's of the prescribed variety, very much like Uncharted or Tomb Raider. Due to its prescribed nature though, it's impossible to fall or make a mistake, which sort of makes sense seeing how you're strong, agile and capable of making huge athletic leaps. There are a lot of old-school tropes in the climbing sections, such as shimmying along precarious ledges, some of which crumble and fall, then there's the ever-popular fire hazards, which spew flames in a specific pattern. It's the kind of thing that hasn't really changed since Sonic the Hedgehog and there's no attempt to buck the trend here.
"Look out! He's behind you!"
Ninja Theory and prolific writer Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) do craft a fantastic story in Enslaved however, and despite Trip forcibly enslaving Monkey to escort her to safety (hence the title), the inherent goodness within both characters means that you'll have worked out by the second or third mission that the pair will gradually grow fonder of one another as the narrative wears on. It's to the credit of the performances then that Enslaved's yarn remains suitably compelling and entertaining from start to finish, save for a slightly contrived, unplayable and somewhat misplaced epilogue sequence. Still, cut-scenes never outstay their welcome and the occasional boss battles err on just the right side of challenging and frustrating, although some do come from the old 'rinse-and-repeat' school of boss fights.
Enslaved's strongest suit is in its art direction and motion-captured performances, which are quite possibly some of the best we've seen. Andy Serkis, who’s best known for his portrayal of Gollum in Lord of the Rings, does a great job as the strong, but emotionally vulnerable Monkey and the rest of the cast turn in equally stellar performances to make the story every bit as absorbing as you'd hope. The game's vision of a post-apocalyptic America is startling, with its luminescent grass and terracotta red autumnal copses, which slowly gives way to decaying masonry, rusting corrugated steel and vast dilapidated complexes comprised of rusting steel, grinding gears and menacing flames. Even in the areas where Enslaved could have easily been grey, brown and boring, Ninja Theory has managed to drench them in colour and rich, incidental detail.
It's for this very reason that you'll happily grab 100% of Enslaved's achievements, most of which tie-in to the story anyway, so completing chapters, certain tasks and the game at each difficulty level awards plenty of straightforward gamerscore. Playing on hard is an easy 175G, as the achievements for easy and normal are stackable and the game is rarely challenging, even on a playthrough at the toughest level. More difficult are the obligatory collection cheevos, which require you to track down every tech orb and every mask. Upon completing a chapter however, you can enter the chapter select in the main menu, see what you're missing and then replay the level. Certain achievements connected to rescuing Trip from certain bosses on the other hand are annoying. Try them on easy I would.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a fantastic adventure title that's both beautiful to look at, compelling to play and enjoyable for the most part. It's not without its problems however, and we encountered one or two glitches that forced a checkpoint reload, as well as the odd problem with the audio getting muddled, causing Nitin Sawnhey's score to completely drown out the dialogue. Other than these issues however, Enslaved is fun, engaging and utterly stunning. Chances are once you've played it through the first time, you'll be tempted to embark upon the journey all over again.
Something has gone a bit wrong with Enslaved's soundtrack, as the mixing seems to be out of whack at times, causing some sound effects to be a tad muted while others are booming and pronounced. Nitin Sawnhey's score is nothing particularly special and you'll seldom stop to let the music wash over you. As fans of Sawnhey's work, we expected better to be honest.
Enslaved shoves a massive middle-finger into the face of every drab post-apocalyptic video game landscape out there, with stunning vistas packed with verdant leafy greenery and vertiginous rubble strewn steel and concrete structures. It looks unlike anything we've seen in recent memory, affirming Ninja Theory's place as a developer capable of some remarkable visual feats; including some unparalleled motion-capture work, care of stalwart mo-cap man, Serkis.
Despite uncomplicated combat of the button-bashing variety, Enslaved is fun to play for the most part. Boss fights can be a little tiresome at times and occasionally there are far too many waves of mechs to contend with, leading to huge bouts of frustration, but thankfully these moments are few and far between. Dashing around on Monkey's cloud is a fleeting thrill that's slightly underused, but the core climbing and exploration aspects are solid and enjoyable, if a little too prescribed and simplistic. The game could have also benefited from some more complex puzzles and more creative collaborative moments between Monkey and Trip. Otherwise, Enslaved is nice, satisfying stuff while it lasts.
There's nothing here to speak of other than the main single-player story and we fear that the downloadable content option sitting on the main menu is likely for character skins and weapons rather than additional chapters or extra story content. Still, we can hope. Enslaved's narrative is complemented by things to collect, such as glowing white masks that initiate weird flashes of Andy Serkis's holiday snaps and hundreds of tech orbs that act as currency to upgrade Monkey's abilities. There's a bit of replay value for cheevo hunters and indeed, if you get a kick out of Odyssey to the West's story, you'll revel in revisiting it.
Pretty standard stuff really. The majority of achievements revolve around completing the story and there are a few for completing certain actions. For instance, getting headshots with a plasma shot from your staff, stunning 75 enemies, killing 200 mechs and so on. Collection cheevos are a grind, much as you'd expect, but at least you can revisit any chapters you like and know how many tech orbs or masks you need to find. Getting a full 1000 points shouldn't take too long.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West demonstrates that Ninja Theory is a developer that can deliver excellent and compelling stories, with plenty of visual fidelity and interesting characters. Climbing and jumping around the towering structures of a vibrant America reclaimed by nature is preferable to hammering X and Y during combat, but the game becomes more enjoyable as you gain upgrades for Monkey. An incongruous coda lets Enslaved's narrative down a little, but the rest of the game is superb enough that you'll happily forgive most, if not all of its shortcomings. It looks like DmC is in safe hands.