What a Ride
I love watching the world burn. It’s okay admitting this, so long as you properly frame it. By my opening statement, I mean to say that the destruction of the world as we know it is fertile storytelling ground. Some of my favorite films and movies come out of the ashes of our world and take place in lifeless wastelands, populated by desperate and reluctant heroes, ravaged by scavenging bandits and crying out for someone to step up to the adversities of a scarred land and restore order and life.
So, you might understand why I might be drawn to a title like Enslaved. Namco tapped developer house Ninja Theory to paint a picture of a world brought low by its own mechanical servants. In the two hundred years before the story begins, the world was destroyed by Mechs, semi-intelligent killing machines bent on annihilating the human race for reasons never fully explained. In the ruins of America, survivors pick their way through the ruins in small communities, but they are preyed upon by Slavers from the West.
All said, it’s a great place to start a story – and it’s a story that’s actually well over 500 years old to boot.
Enslaved is based on the classic Chinese tale, The Journey to the West, though its environs are gussied up to reflect a post-apocalyptic North America. You control Monkey, a survivor wandering from settlement to settlement, trading what he finds in order to survive and evade slavers. His most recent endeavor however has caused him to be captured, and he is en route to Pyramid in the west. Circumstance crosses his path with Trip, a girl from a small wind-farming community that still understands and can interact with high technology – and who manages to not only break her bonds, but also manages to crash the slaver ship in the process.
After an over-the-top tutorial encounter (shit gets ridiculous around the 8:30 mark), Monkey and Trip find themselves as unlikely allies. While Monkey was unconscious after the crash, Trip fits him with a Slave helmet to ensure his loyalty in getting her back home. If Monkey helps, she’ll remove the slave helmet, which can kill him if he wanders too far or lets Trip die. But, to fulfill the bargain, they’ll need to escape from the ruins of New York and travel a long distance to do so. Things start from there – but a larger story unfolds, and an epic journey begins, resulting in an eventual trajectory to the West.
It’s not quite a platformer, and it’s not quite a sandbox – but it does leave room for exploration. Moving off the beaten path will reward you with several types of goodies, and most gamers will be familiar with the interface, which has hallmarks of the Devil May Cry style with a little bit of first person shooter thrown in for ranged staff combat. It also places a heavy emphasis on climbing as well as running through obstacle courses and races at times. It switches between these just enough to break any repetitive tedium you might encounter so as to not be overbearing or frustrating.
One could also make the argument that it’s true hallmark feature is that the characters are interdependent on each other from a mechanical standpoint. Trip is the brains of the operation – she’s simply not trained for combat the way Monkey is, and to be honest… Monkey doesn’t think much beyond how to climb to high places and bash things in the face. You’ll find each character suited to their own range of tasks, and while you never directly control Trip, Monkey occasionally has to follow her lead or take direction from her on how to best get her to the hard to reach spots that Monkey can get to easily but that she can’t.
I am a graphics whore. I’ll admit it. Nothing makes me happier than a game that just floors me with visuals. I’d hesitate to say that the graphics are full-on realistic. But, the game has a visual style and sense of grandeur. It’s polished just enough, and it’s convincing. Ninja Theory put a lot of attention into details and hallmarks of the genre. The city of New York as overrun by nature and ravaged by war is amazing, and as you progress into the Wind Farm Colony, the Junkyards and eventually the territories of the West, the visuals keep to style and keep you immersed in the illusion of a ravaged North American continent. The mech design is also impressive from the basic sentry mechs right up to the colossal giants of later stages of the game.
The game lets you play it on your terms as well. Monkey has several options for character advancement, allowing you to increase your physical robustness, adapt your shields, learn new combat techniques and upgrade your staff for ranged attack. Likewise, you can opt for stealth or combat approaches, with a favoring towards conflict- a rarity in an arena where stealth is often rewarded. Fighting mechs as opposed to bypassing them, results in the acquisition of more Tech Orbs – the currency used to buy upgrades for Monkey and his gear.
One of the more satisfying elements of the game also stems from its combat – mechs will kill you. A single mech can be overcome with brute force, but the combat mechanics need to be learned and used. You cannot ignore concepts like blocking or stunning your opponents if you expect to survive. In cases of a three or more mech pile up, you’ll need to make sure you use full circle staff blows to clear space and let you single out mechs, lest they take you apart at the joints. You also benefit greatly by making sure you’re not just button mashing. When that takedown prompt comes up, get on top of that. You get benefits such as tossing an exploding mech onto an opponent or being able to stun them briefly to give you time to focus fire where it’s needed.
Lastly, the game tells a good story – and that stands for something in my book. Without an undercurrent of investment in the characters and their struggles, I have difficulty with games. Even the most basics of platformers has something. Mario needed to find his Princess. Simon Belmont had to kill Dracula to end his reign of terror. Enslaved gives you everything you need in this respect. You watch the characters interact with one another and evolve. The relationship of mastermind and lackey turns into one of mutual respect. They overcome their societal differences and learn to work together. It never feels forced, and when characters suffer setbacks, it’s easy to find one growing attached to the characters and their stories. Few games get that right. This one doesn’t do too bad – though at times it does seem a little bit like Monkey develops Stockholm Syndrome.
There are a couple of bad things about the game to note, and one of those is the camera. The game is picky about when and where you’re allowed to fully rotate your point of view camera, and it can break the flow of the game sometimes. Worse still, it can make it difficult to really get a bead on what you’re looking for. The game is highly dependent on being able to quickly determine where your climbing and acrobatic hand holds are to be found. The camera is meant to keep you looking in the right place in some places – but sometimes it does so without rhyme or reason, making for a bit of frustration when you’re trying to figure out the best approach to any given situation – including combat. Combat’s camera is a little more forgiving in terms of rotation, but it could benefit from a little more intelligence behind determining a best angle to start you out.
There’s also a few portions of the game that essentially break down to Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver and old School Tomb Raider style puzzles. The windfarm puzzles drove me up a wall. This is not necessarily due to the difficulty of the puzzles (though at least one stymied me for a bit) but the interface through which you have to work with Trip to solve them. It can be sluggish and there were a few moments where I found myself saying ‘come on’ and wishing it were possible to change Trip’s mind half way through to save some time.
Also, I hope you like cut scenes. While they drive the story and make you care, sometimes, they put one right before a checkpoint. This means that if you die (likely) on a specific leg of the story, you come back to the cut scene again. Did I mention you can’t skip them? Because you can’t. And in some places, I found myself more than a little anxious to stop with the talking and get to the saving Trip. I’m all about the occasional bout of negative reinforcement for motivation in a game – games shouldn’t be cakewalks – but c’mon guys. Gimme a break here.
Lastly, it’s short. That’s not always a deal breaker for me, but it is for some. You’ll weigh in at about eight hours playtime by the game’s clock. It took me a grand total of three days to power through in six hour chunks. Take that how you will.
All things considered, I have to admit that this game puzzles me in that didn’t garner more favorable reviews. It was pretty much panned across the board for being a game that failed to deliver more than a few hours gameplay. But, I’d not let that stop you, especially when you can get this game on the cheap via Amazon (as low as $6.80 used at the time of writing) or at your local GamePawn. It’s a tidy little story with some really epic battle scenes, just enough customizability, and challenging enough to be satisfying. I give it a good four stick review and would recommend it to purchasers of fine post-apocalyptia.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PS3, PC ; Publisher: Namco Bandai Games ; Developer: Ninja Theory ; Release Date: October 5, 2010 ; ESRB: TM for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99
This review is based off of a retail copy of Enslanved: Odyssey to the West purchased by Hey Poor Player.