Remember when you were a kid, and you would call out that you were going to the park, and your mum would yell back to take your little sister, and off you’d go, and she’d cry and moan the whole way? Enslaved is exactly like that. Except that it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where nature is staging a takeover, and every burned out car could be a mech in disguise.
Put-upon babysitter vibe aside, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West unpacks in its full, finished state (we previewed code about this time last month) into an involving third-person action adventure game. You’ll play as Monkey; a brutish and brooding wildman who escapes a slave transport only to be re-enslaved on the ground. His captor, Trip, needs his help to traverse 300 miles of dangerous terrain without her becoming either prey (again) to slavers or paste beneath the steely boots of the mechs that control the world in the near-absence of humans. Because politely asking Monkey for a hand probably wouldn’t have worked, Trip locks a headband in place through which she can issue him commands and feed data direct into his HUD (which becomes your HUD, in that curious way videogames have of being as tricky as dreams). The catch is that if Trip’s heart stops a-pumping, then Monkey will expire too.
The game was co-written by author Alex Garland. When I say author, I mean proper author. Like, of books. They’re sort of like Kindle, but made of paper. Pretty weird, eh? He wrote the Beach (which many of you probably know by the movie starring Leo DeCaprio). He also wrote the film 28 Days Later, and turned his hand to writing for games after a love affair with the medium dating back to when he was a kid. The next meaty chunk of hype is around the involvement of co-director Andy Serkis (Gollum, the cook who gets his head eaten by those weird slug things in King Kong) who is also a motion-capture expert. Between Garland’s script and Serkis’s direction (the game includes some very nice cinematics) I was expecting something pretty damn special.
And it is well written - you have to give it that. The dialogue between Monkey and Trip is always crisp and clean; only very occasional timing slips (which is more likely a problem of editing than poor voice acting) make things seem a bit stilted. All that said, it’s not brilliantly written. While Enslaved may sit in the upper echelons both in terms of general narrative hook and the execution of dialogue, it didn’t blow me away. I wonder if this is an effect of being a huge fan of Garland’s debut novel, and therefore getting my hopes up a bit much. Either way, I am pleased someone of his calibre has transitioned across from books to films to games and can only hope that his influence carries. More games could benefit from the kind of holistic story/character development/character interaction model.
As with so many other action adventure games, there are three main parts to the gameplay experience: getting from a to b; combat; puzzle solving. Naturally, the story weaves quite well in and out of all three (no doubt Garland’s influence) and I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll concentrate on the mechanics. The issue is, well, none of them work all that well. Perhaps the best moments in the game are where all three combine, requiring you to think strategically about how to take down enemies, and the path you’ll travel to do it.
Monkey’s weapon of choice is a staff that doubles as a kind of bazooka, firing both plasma and stun blasts. At first you will only be able to get up close and personal with your foes, experiencing some of those button-mash extravaganzas I mentioned in the preview. They are... okay as far as battle goes: satisfying, but repetitive, and the enemies don’t put up too much of a fight. Monkey has a limited automatic shield which will cover his approach to enemies that have projectile attacks, but in hand-to-hand you’ll barely find yourself using the shield attached to the staff. It’s better just to hammer out your heavy attack over and over, occasionally switching it up with a light attack or wide attack when things get a bit dull.
Combat, health, shield and staff can all be upgraded; upgrades which must be purchased with Tech Orbs you’ll collect around the landscape. The upgrades are damn expensive for the most part; in fact I haven’t played a game in a while where I have so obsessively traversed the landscape looking for pick ups, simply because affording them is hard work. Annoyingly, the game doesn’t go into much detail about what you’re supposed to do with them in the first instance, and you’ll have been playing a while before you finally work out that they’re worth anything. It is, however, far from a meaningless chore. You’re going to need that extra bit of health, more room for ammo, stronger shield, etc.
First time playing Enslaved I called it a twitchy, jerky mess. Well, that remains true at times, which is another small disappointment. There are two main reasons for this; one being the changing POV (occasionally visionary, mostly not) and the delay in response from the controller. It makes Monkey - a swinging, diving, agile ape-man - seem sluggish. This can be supremely frustrating.
Because you’re responsible for Trip’s safety, you’ll sometimes carry her on your back or help her to hard-to-reach places. This can mean throwing her across gaps before following her with your much more manly leap. Problem is, sometimes her lady’s abdominals fail her and she requires Monkey to help pull her up; the first time you realise you’re needed for this action is actually a really good, visceral moment. The immediate problem is that you end up flapping your thumbs across the controller while yelling obscenities as you try to get Monkey to do something... anything, before she plummets.
Fortunately(?) there are a number of invisible walls in this game, which stop Monkey from falling into the abyss himself. While I would ordinarily lament the rigid linearity that can only be caused by invisible walls, in this case it’s probably a good thing. Monkey spends a lot of time rolling in the wrong direction when you’re trying to get him to jump somewhere, and as the next handhold isn’t always immediately obvious as the one you’re currently clinging to crumbles, the complete inability to jump anywhere but in the right direction is a blessing.
Some fantastic level design makes the limited (fairly basic) puzzle solving quite a neat little part of the proceedings, but the set puzzles aren’t nearly as much fun as working out how you’re going to beat the crap out of five mechs, rip the gun off another, take over a turret, collect all those tech orbs and then get the hell outta Dodge. Don’t forget, you need to bring Trip with you, which adds another level of difficulty. The rumble and hulk of the mechs is menacing, Trip’s inability to keep calm in a crisis will set you on edge, and as this all comes together you’ll find yourself very much drawn into some adrenaline fuelled scenes. One of Trip’s best features is her ability to create decoys, which will draw fire from enemies, allowing Monkey to sneak into an attack position. Between the plasma and stun blasts from his staff, you can sometimes put together quite a brilliant shock and awe assault: have Trip decoy, while Monkey stuns, runs, and brings the pain.
The game has a great score, which is used to excellent effect. And the brilliance in the use of music and sound effects is only deepened by large chunks of gameplay in which Monkey and his captor roam around the levels in complete silence. The vast open areas (even if you’re limited in where you can venture) and absence of any kind of noise combine to give much of Enslaved a very eerie feel.
Developers Ninja Theory have built a good looking post-apocalyptic America. Vegetation has injected itself into every nook and cranny in the formerly bustling New York City as well as the world beyond. The enemies are unmistakably machine, but somehow human in their malice. And the work that has gone into Trip and Monkey is impressive. They are near perfect opposites (I don’t want to use the word juxtaposition, or I’ll have to beat myself up) and that extends to their visual representations. Overall, the game is graphically solid; built, as it is, in the Unreal engine. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s still very easy on the eye.
So, a few control and camea issues aside, and putting aside also the lack of replayability (this is a a game you’ll probably play through twice at the most) Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a solidly written, very entertaining, occasionally heart-racing adventure. You can’t imagine that artists like Alex Garland and Andy Serkis are brought into a project like this without very careful consideration: there is a clear intent, here, to make Enslaved into something a bit different. Originally, the idea for Enslaved was to make a movie using the Unreal engine, and certain aspects of that cinematic influence remain. Certainly the relationship between the game’s main characters goes a little deeper than we’re used to seeing in an entertainment medium where the point is often to find the next enemy, and blow his brains out.