At its highest level, Enslaved seems to be a game determined to make me actively dislike it. Let’s start with the concept: you play as a rippling, shirtless, tribally-tattooed, spiky-haired “brutish loner” named of all things Monkey, and escort a girl named Trip across a post-apocalyptic jungle version of New York City ravaged by futuristic robot overlords. I can only assume that the monkey reference is an attempt to painfully spell out the sensitive-meathead-hunk angle the writers were working with, but I generally prefer my main characters to be more James Bond than Tarzan. The whole concept sounds like a big ol’ “yuck” in my book. So how did this game free me of my strong preconceptions and emerge as one of my favorite games of the year?
Enslaved won me over due to its well-thought-out script (a reimagining of the literary classic Journey to the West) featuring believable characters, and by wrapping that story in gameplay reminiscent of some of my all-time favorite games. I see a healthy dose of Uncharted’s environmental traversal in here, a little Ico-style puzzle elements, some Beyond Good & Evil themes, and (since the game is developed by Ninja Theory) Heavenly Sword-inspired combat. I found the pacing entirely engaging as Enslaved gets all of these aspects working in a coherent storyline that make it very hard to set the controller down. In fact, I played through all eight and a half hours of the game in one day. The story penned by Alex Garland (28 Days Later) is not only excellently portrayed through Andy Serkis’ (Gollum from Lord of the Rings) motion-capture and voicework, but through the gameplay revolving around the reluctant teamwork between Monkey and Trip. The fact that Ninja Theory develops some of the most detailed facial expressions seen so far in the video game world certainly doesn’t hurt matters either.
As the subtitle suggests, Enslaved really feels like an odyssey as Monkey and Trip journey across exotic and dangerous locales. Where most games in this genre have you exploring ancient ruins, this game expands the concept by having you navigate the stunning vistas of the decrepit remains of modern day New York City. The sense of scale in the environments is wonderful and the camera adjusts to capture every moment in the most cinematic way possible. This is especially true during several “holy crap” climbing sequences where structures are collapsing beneath your hands. Speaking of hands, some may feel that Enslaved holds the players’ hand too tightly in the platforming as jumps can usually only be made if they are going to be successful and get you to the next grapple point or safe footing. As for me, I enjoyed the guided experience that shielded me from frustration and allowed me to focus on the task at hand – getting Monkey and the less agile Trip past the current obstacle and on to the next.
That next endeavor seemed to always be a surprise and since I don’t want to spoil the experience, I’ll be intentionally vague. There are melee combat moments with Monkey’s staff, there are ranged shooting sections, there’s hoverboard riding, there’s puzzle-solving, and there’s boss battles. While my description sounds like a list of amenities at a high class resort and some of the melee combat could be smoother and more exotic, for the most part, dodging, blocking, and countering is all here. It can get frustrating when your timing is off and it starts to seem like every mech the game throws at you has an annoying shield which requires you to attack them from behind. Fortunately, getting close enough to melee the enemies that have you pinned down with gunfire is far more enjoyable. While Trip can’t directly attack mechs, you can have her deploy a timed distraction that draws their fire, allowing Monkey to quickly climb and swing his way to flank the enemies. This tactic pops up from time to time and is just one example of the characters’ co-dependence.
Throughout the game, Monkey can beef up his health, defense, and combat skills by cashing in Tech Orbs hidden around the levels and from exploded mechs. While this invites you to explore every inch of the environments, at the same time it borders on unnecessary filler when a good portion of the orbs are simply placed in out of the way corners. That might seem like an odd complaint, but when the game has so much momentum wanting you to move forward, it briefly took me out of the experience to take a timeout to collect orbs. Additional issues with the game include drops in frame rate, some visual stuttering, and unexplainable moments where Monkey isn’t responsive.
These bumps in the road shouldn’t keep anyone from experiencing the journey that Enslaved offers. It really hits all the right notes for me. The storytelling is among the best in videogames, hitting on a wide array of emotions and bringing out humanity in the bond between Monkey and Trip. All the while, the gameplay incorporates well into the story and consistently presents the player with unique and visually compelling experiences. To take a game that I clearly wanted to hate and turn it into something I loved means this title is a gaming odyssey that shouldn’t be missed.
Outstanding | Very Good | Fair | Poor | Awful
Recommended Buy Price: $50.00
Current MSRP: $59.99
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was provided for review by Namco Bandai. I completed the campaign in eight and a half hours accumulating 31 out of 48 Achievements for 580 GamerScore. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is also available for PlayStation 3