Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Review

By Garnett Lee, Oct 13, 2010 10:00am PDT Action games often define their main character(s) in combat, their stories largely predicated on staging arenas for that to happen in. Enslaved takes the opposite approach. It begins with the story--a futuristic reinterpretation of the classic Chinese work of literature "Journey to the West" set in a post-apocalyptic America--and the action then flows along in support of it.

Because the difference relates directly to development of the story, it only becomes evident as the game unfolds. Initially, Enslaved came across to me like most every other action adventure. As is common of its type, it introduced me to the main character I'd be playing, "Monkey," in a dramatic opening level. And taught me the basic controls as I raced to escape from a disintegrating slave ship I'd been imprisoned aboard before it crashed into the heart of the decaying, long-abandoned, ghost town of New York City.

The first sign of something different about Enslaved comes with the introduction of his companion for the rest of the game, Trip. Throughout the escape, Monkey has trailed a mysterious girl. He awakens to find that she's enslaved him with a mind-link headband, out of fear the stranger will harm her. When I first learned of this twist to the game I worried that it would fall into a pattern of contrived sections setup to play off a master-servant relationship.

It's not like that at all. The interaction between Monkey and Trip becomes a centerpiece for the game, and not by being forced into co-op moments. Yes, the game uses Trip in a number of ways--sometimes Monkey must lead her by the hand or even carry her on his back, others he leaves her safe to clear the way ahead. In places I could take advantage of Trip's support and in some I needed her help to advance. But throughout it all, I always felt like I was 100% in control of what happened through Monkey.

The actual things I was doing, though, were less rewarding in and of themselves. Monkey splits time in Enslaved between beating up a variety of robotic mechs with his staff and clamoring around the world exploring for the next route on the journey. Monkey's fighting moves with his staff look like a well-choreographed martial arts movie much of the time but that comes at a cost. The controls are loose, forgiving of button mashing in one sense, but lacking the crisp response and combo mastery of more sophisticated systems. The frantic pace of combat also goes beyond the capability of the camera system resulting in occasional moments of disorientation.

A character and combat skills development system well integrated to the game's design helped keep me involved with the action when the controls did not. Collecting glowing red tech orbs scattered around each level (for some reason there's always a handful behind Monkey at the start of each), let me upgrade Monkey's abilities to fit how I was playing over the course of the game. So early on I went with health and shield for better survivability, but later on I focused on more situational upgrades, like improving the duration of his stun attack.

The exploration part of the adventure has no such safety net and here's where the commitment to putting story first really squares off against expectations for how a game plays. Scrambling over ruined buildings, making apparently perilous leaps, poses no challenge. Every ledge and handhold Monkey can reach glows making the next move obvious. And they're the only place Monkey can go because the game won't let him jump any place that's not intended nor can he fall to his death.

Enslaved never made controlling Monkey, in combat or out, the center of my attention. The game's focus was on presenting Monkey's journey to me as its core experience. Yet I found it as difficult to set down the controller as any game I've recently played. Only as I reached the end did I fully appreciate how invested I'd become in Monkey, Trip, and their story. At no point had the game bludgeoned me with long explanations of what was going on. It let the tale play out there in front of me; I got it, and loved every minute of it.

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