Monday, 3 January 2011

Game Review: Enslaved: Odyssey To The West

Format Played: X-Box 360
I like a good flawed gem of a game, which is lucky for Enslaved: Odyssey To The West. Because while it has many strengths (some of which are moderately groundbreaking for both the genre and the medium), it also has a fair few glaring alarm bells that would scare a lot of gamers away from its charms. And that would be a shame, because it is extremely enjoyable once a rhythm is found from its blend of traditional but clunky gameplay.
One of the primary strengths of Enslaved is the story and writing – somewhat unsurprising given main writing duties were performed by novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach / 28 Days Later / Sunshine) and the story itself is a re-imagining of classic Chinese story Journey To The West. Transplanting itself from a fantastical version of ancient China to a post-apocalyptic and overgrown American wasteland where humanity has been decimated by an ambiguously-motivated force of mechs, the setting is largely generic but manages to mark itself out from the pack via the highly detailed, lush environments and a truly striking colour palette. The latter might seem an odd thing to remark upon but after playing 1,001 brown and grey games set in humanity's downtrodden future, the vision of a gloriously multicoloured and vibrant robot apocalypse that Enslaved provides makes you feel that maybe a bit of mechanical terror wouldn't be so bad after all. The visuals are backed by a superbly gentle orchestral score by Nitin Sawhney, making it even easier to lose yourself in the world.
If you have read Journey To The West or watched cheesy '70s TV adaptation Monkey you will be familiar with the main characters. The plot centres around gruff wanderer Monkey, whose nomadic lifestyle has been rudely interrupted by Trip, a capable but naïve young woman who has been left stranded in the ruined remnants of New York. They must travel together back to her home through an unforgiving land while they realise their feelings for each other blah blah blah.
Only it isn't even a single blah. Garland, accentuated by expert motion capture actor Andy Serkis as Monkey and a similarly well-appointed support cast, has managed to weave a genuinely refreshing feel into this well-worn tale. Emotions are portrayed subtly and with conviction. Body language is utilised as much as dialogue, and both are head-and-shoulders above the vast majority of games. Even when sometime comic relief Pigsy happens along his character is portrayed with a depth and feeling that the odd knob gag fails to destroy. While fairly linear and predictable, the story itself is a highly engaging romp that pulls you in and keeps you mashing your buttons until the slightly twisty-turny climax rears its head. If you are familiar with Garland and his opinion-dividing third acts, this will come as no surprise to you. Personally, I enjoyed the hell out of it.
You may have noticed that in that steaming pile of praise there wasn't much to be said about the gameplay. Yes, well. Here comes the slight downer. Enslaved is a fairly straightforward bash 'em up/platformer hybrid, somewhat let down by a lack of innovation and clunky controls. The platforming aspect is lovely to watch, with Monkey's simian agility carrying him with grace and power from structure to structure. However, it is let down by a complete lack of danger or tension – your path is indicated through faintly glowing handholds and it is impossible to fall at any point. Later in the game some effort is made by throwing in flame jets and giant cogs and other such gaming nonsense, but the overall enjoyment granted by this aspect is fleeting and paper-thin. There are rarely multiple routes and the few secret areas you come across (filled with a few collectibles) are both uninteresting and obvious. When the current gaming landscape includes the excellent exploratory platforming of Assassin's Creed and Uncharted, Enslaved suffers badly in comparison.
The combat is somewhat stronger, but still lacking. Monkey's staff handily doubles up as a robo-cruncher and a plasma cannon to take apart pesky enemies from a distance. While both ranged and melee combat are a tad on the simplistic side and hampered by a camera that seems to have trouble making up its mind whether or not to be controlled by the player, there is nothing inherently wrong with them and the combat itself is spread out enough that the presence of only 4 or 5 enemy types throughout the game doesn't irritate. This is discounting the infrequent boss encounters, which are predictably straightforward but fun. There is basic levelling up to be done to weapons, health, shields and the rest of it. As you can tell, nothing spectacular and nothing that hasn't been done better by other games over the past few years. Indeed, the combat system in particular feels like it could have been ripped straight out of a generic PS2 game. There are also stealth-style options available throughout for sneaking up on turrets and mechs using Trip's slightly unexplained distract-o-matic tech, but it's never developed beyond the obvious technique of running a bit closer every time they shoot elsewhere
Occasionally Monkey has the opportunity to use his ‘Cloud’, a glowing disc that allows for vehicle-ish exploration and chase scenes. Like the rest of the game, it’s lovely to look at and fun to play despite being a bit on the awkward side. The storyline is pitched at just the right length for the gameplay to not outstay its welcome, with about 6-8 hours depending on how much time you spend faffing around collecting energy orbs (experience fodder) and masks (story-driven floating weirdness). Replayability is strongly dependent on how much you want to hammer difficulty levels and collectibles, and it'd be hard to make a recommendation to purchase if you want a game to soak up a couple of weeks with.
To sum up: great visuals, story, score, script and mo-capped acting. Mediocre platforming and average combat that prove fun despite themselves. If you are willing to give a game a chance and overlook its lesser qualities in favour of a narrative that rightfully deserves attention, then Enslaved comes highly recommended. If you are someone who games for the challenge, then steer clear. I suspect in the ongoing war between 'cinematic' gaming and 'traditional' gaming (and don't get me started on those two tags), Enslaved might be the most divisive release yet.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review, though you already know my feelings about Monkey. At best this is a rent it game.

    I am, genuinely, surprised you think the story is good. I think it's massively flawed and the end is both lacking in imagination and kind of breaks the logic of what has gone before (in a way I can't explain without spoiling it). Put the story of 'Enslaved' up against a story like Bioshock's and it really looks rather slack.

    I hope this will spring a sequel that takes the combat mechanics in a more fulfilling direction and also has a story that doesn't try (and IMO fail) for epic (or which the author doesn't seem to get bored of halfway through and dash of an ending). It does have some great moments but, for me, it became more and more of a let down once I'd passed the halfway mark and the end made em want to throw the controller (I will explain when I see You).

    Definitely worth playing. Not worth paying full price for.