Game Info:

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Developer: Ninja Theory
Released: October 5, 2010
ESRB Rating: Teen for Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence
Available on: PS3, Xbox 360 (version reviewed)
Genre: Action-Platformer
MSRP: $39.99 (Amazon)

Recent trends in game design have, of late, indicated that certain developers believe that simplified games are en vogue. Stripped down displays, sparse controls and more have begun dotting the landscape. No longer do we have to wade four menu screens deep in a role-playing game to give characters that extra punch that might help. Sports games favor single button presses, as an antidote to a steep learning curve for anything resembling skilled play. Even platformers, that simplest genre of years ago, have somehow become “simplified”, perhaps needlessly so.

And so it is with Ninja Theory’s newest game, an action-platformer called Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. The majority of Enslaved is focused on the traversal of crumbling environments and the defeat of giant robots. While both of those things sound like they could add up to – let’s speak plainly here – an awesome game, neither really hits its mark at any point during the ten- to twelve-hour game.

The problem is that the gameplay is either utterly unengaging or, in the case of the (very basic) combat, unresponsive to the point of frustration. Platforming is completely one-dimensional. You hit one button to swing and jump from grip to grip, and if you want to descend, you can pull the control stick down and hit that same button, or you can hit another button. It’s literally that simple, and absolutely uninvolving.

Strong Points: Mostly gorgeous graphics; engrossing narrative and characters
Weak Points: Uneven gameplay; sometimes unstable framerate, especially when a lot of activity is on-screen; platforming is way too easy, and hampered by unevenly difficult combat
Moral Warnings: Violence against robots takes the fore here; one of the characters, Trip, is consistently dressed provocatively; lots of profanity, most of it involving blasphemy

It also doesn’t help that most areas feel like carbon copies of the opening train sequence from Uncharted 2. In that game, it was impressive, it was cinematic, it felt like something new (and if not new, the execution was near flawless). Here, it feels like a retread, one pockmarked with frustration and cheap deaths brought on by an almost broken level of linearity. And even without that broken feeling, the very fact that you can’t miscalculate jumps and you can’t really make any mistakes during the course of gameplay makes the game almost unbearably easy through these sequences.

During the platforming sequences, the only places where I died were when interacting with Trip (your companion). In more than one sequence, I found myself having to throw her across a gap. This wouldn’t be a problem, but actions are only permitted in very small areas; even if you’re right next to an indicator for an action, the game won’t react unless you’re in a predetermined spot. When I finally threw her across, the game refused to let me jump until I was in a specific spot. Trip was, meanwhile, hanging onto a ledge, waiting for me to pull her up, or else fall to her death. After making the jump, I stood on the ledge above Trip and jammed the button that would haul her up (in this case, the B button). Four or five button presses later, she fell and I had to restart. You learn to adapt, but it sucks the fun out of the platforming – and not because you die.

All of which says nothing of the combat. Like the platforming, it’s marked by unresponsive controls, and seems to take its cues from other games by other developers. When it pays off, it’s flashy and fun. All too often, however, enemies will swarm and overwhelm the player. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining because the combat was artificially hard; it wasn’t. But instead of a trial-and-error, “I did this wrong” kind of feeling, I ended up having an overriding sense of aggravation during these (all too frequent) segments of the game. I turned the game off a few times during my playthrough, simply because I didn’t want to deal with it anymore.
Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 76%
Gameplay 15/20
Graphics 7/10
Sound 10/10
Stability 3/5
Controls/Interface 3/5

Morality Score - 73%
Violence 6.5/10
Language 3/10
Sexual Content/Nudity 8.5/10
Occult/Supernatural 10/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical 8.5/10

Other games with this kind of hack and slash mentality have a very deliberate pacing to them. This is true even with the hardest of these. There’s a natural rhythm that those games fall into by design. Enslaved has none of that. You can’t measure its combat system as something decent, because there isn’t much “system” there. Enemies rush the player, throw cheap attacks and do so without pacing or flow. It’s such a stark contrast to the platforming that it’s almost as if two different studios developed the different areas of the game.

Conversely, boss battles are cool, but also pretty much a mess. The camera pulls in annoyingly close during these encounters. It makes no sense, because without that fault, these encounters (which do not generally make use of typical combat elements) would seem to be some of the standout moments of the game.

Sprinkled throughout are some interesting shooter segments, which break up the pacing but yield mixed results. They aren’t difficult and they aren’t obtrusive, but they feel off. Moving around the reticule isn’t smooth (I was coming off some marathon Halo: Reach sessions when playing Enslaved, which might be the reason for this), but instead seems to rely on a grid. I couldn’t get the reticule to move in anything but straight lines and angles, while enemies I was aiming for were moving in smooth arcs.

Yet while I have some serious issues with the fundamental ways that Enslaved is played, not all of it is bad. In fact, a lot of it is pretty good, and that’s what makes me feel so torn about this game.

Despite being really, really green, Enslaved is a mostly gorgeous effort. Textures are sometimes a bit too muddy, and light bloom is almost too obtrusive. Animation is amazing, however, with solid performances by Andy Serkis as Monkey, and Lindsey Shaw as Trip. And when I say “performances,” I mean exactly that: voice acting and motion-capture were done at once, so these characters feel like they’re there. Though the game isn’t dialogue-heavy, its emotional resonance certainly benefits from this.

The sparse dialogue is made stronger by just how well-written it is. Penned by Alex Garland (screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Sunshine), Enslaved’s excellent plot is made so by the impressive demonstration of growing trust and dependency (a relationship) between the two leads. It defies the audience, because it’s never what the audience wants – willfully – and that’s just what makes it one of the best stories to come out of the medium in years.

Based on Journey to the West, one of Chinese literature’s four great classics, Enslaved follows Monkey and Trip as they attempt to make their way to Trip’s home. After a daring escape from a crashing slave ship (a sequence all too similar to the opening of Uncharted 2), Trip fastens a headpiece to Monkey’s head. If he removes it, he dies. If he abandons her, he dies. If she dies, he dies. Monkey’s reason to assist Trip is purely a selfish one, and it drives the plot and the action for a good portion of the game.
Enslaved’s story – easily the most captivating part of the game – stands out because of the growing relationship between the lead characters. A third wheel of sorts, Pigsy, comes in late in the game and mostly provides additional comic relief and help with gameplay scenarios. Ultimately, he’s a necessary element to the plot, but he always feels somehow superfluous to the proceedings.

I don’t like the ending. It seemed slightly obtuse to me, mired in cliché and philosophical posturing. But then, the ending doesn’t so much matter here; the journey is what is important. Until those last few moments, it’s a magnificent one, despite the shortcomings of the game proper.

There were some stability problems I ran into while playing Enslaved. My Xbox froze at least twice when I was playing the game, and once on the load screen. At one point, I ran into some strange glitch that caused a reticule to not appear on the screen. Hopping off the turret that I was manning, and then remounting, fixed this.

The frame rate also sporadically drops in Enslaved. It’s a good-looking game, but it’s not that impressive. With the amount of action happening on-screen at once, the sometimes-stuttering gameplay seems a bit odd.

One of the biggest problems I actually do have with Enslaved is the unnecessary level of profanity in it. Monkey frequently curses, often blaspheming in the process. Trip and Pigsy aren\'t exactly innocent in this regard, either, but neither character curses just as much as Monkey does.
Worth mentioning also is the somewhat sophomoric humor that Pigsy brings to the table, specifically one instance with a genital joke.

There\'s also plenty of violence in Enslaved, but only the beginning of the game has the player fighting people. After that initial sequence, robots are the main enemies, and there\'s no shortage of them. There\'s supposed to be blood somewhere in the proceedings, and stuff does spray out of the robots that you kill from time to time, but it\'s black and oily-looking. Coming from robots, I simply assumed that it was oil and moved on. Still, it\'s worth noting, if you\'re concerned about that sort of thing.

Trip wears typically revealing clothing, which is surprising given the way her character acts. I\'m not saying that I expect every female lead in any game to be dressed in a modest, Puritanical fashion, but I also don\'t want to see female character designs appealing to the baser appetites of the gaming culture. That Trip is designed as such is annoying, because her personality conveys something much, much different.

Still, the game remains very much in T-rated territory, not pushing the box with sexuality or violent content, and hardly providing content worthy of more than a PG-13 rating in film.

I walked away from Enslaved, and was ready to be as harsh as possible because of how frequently I became annoyed with it. The game was enjoyable, to be sure, but there are far too many rough edges for me to fully recommend it. Were that extra layer of polish added, and some balancing issues fixed, this would be an automatic recommendation. As it stands, I can’t much say that it’s an amazing title with a great story on top of great gameplay. It’s not. The story is worth experiencing, but how much you get out of the rest of the final product is highly dependent on your tolerances as a player.


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