Enslaved: Odyssey To The West Review
Posted by Sammy Barker
Loosely based on the traditional Chinese novel Journey To The West, Enslaved dictates the tale of Trip and Monkey as they traverse a dangerous post-apocalyptic world. Set some 150 years after the Earth's collapse, human life has all but been eradicated. The overgrown, dilapidated skyline of New York city greets the couple's arrival in the Western world and marks the start of their journey. Naive and fragile, Trip imprisons Monkey as her safeguard. With the incentive of avoiding death should he keep her safe, the duo enlist on a journey across the sparse Western world in search of Trip's father, getting caught up in a revenge mission along the way.
The game benefits from a script written by Alex Garland (of 28 Days Later fame) and some outstanding performance capture technology. Building on the work done in PlayStation 3-exclusive Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory's ability to capture raw emotion in characters is industry leading. Likewise, the game's ambitious artistic scope is incredible, though it can cause the game engine to creak. Thankfully, the ambition is stronger than the technical hurdles — there's a better game lurking behind Enslaved's constraints, and it's exciting that there's a studio willing to push those technical limits. As with Uncharted and Heavy Rain, Ninja Theory are clearly driven by the motivation to create a moving interactive story; and the crux of that ambition lies in the game's powerful ending.
Enslaved's greatest strength is its characters and the story it tells with them throughout the ten hour campaign. Ninja Theory's use of performance capture and facial animation is mesmerising, giving the game's small - but fantastic - cast the personality that the story demands. It's the littlest things that the studio do so well - eye contact between the models give the impression of real conversation. Likewise, the way the eyes are animated conveys so much meaning. Trip, the naive female character in the story, is able to portray so much sadness just through her eyes. That kind of attention to detail, coupled with some great voiceover and scripting, makes the game believable. It also forces you to commit to the game and see it through to its conclusion. Enslaved makes you care about the characters, and that's a fundamental narrative technique that so many other games fail to deliver.
Instead of banging you over the head with sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, Enslaved leaves vast chunks of its plot hidden in the world. The game focuses on the story of Trip and Monkey — the universe is simple the context of their predicament. As such, there are hints within the world that can be read into — America's political state, the fall of human existence — but they are hidden messages placed discreetly within the world. They are part of the universe's make up and not part of Trip and Monkey's tale. Thus the universe has a depth that can be explored if you're willing to give it the time and thought. If not — there's still a brilliant story to follow.
There's a moment early into Enslaved's campaign when Trip sends Monkey in pursuit of a robotic dragonfly. It's one of the most subtle aspects of Enslaved's campaign, and it's all the more brilliant for it. It demonstrates Ninja Theory's ability to choreograph deft lulls in pacing with beautifully simplistic interludes. The resulting scene requires you to climb a tree while Trip and Monkey bicker to each other about the ridiculous nature of the situation. It's clever, and it's elevated by teasing melodies of Nitin Sawhney's brilliant score.
A big chunk of Enslaved's navigation revolves around basic platforming mechanics. These have been much criticised leading up to the game's release because of their simplistic nature. It's impossible for Monkey to jump in the wrong direction, and each platform is clearly earmarked by a glowing structural placement. As such, the platforming mechanics lack any semblance of difficulty, but they represent a key component of Enslaved's pacing. Typically these sections are narrated by massive set-pieces and huge sweeping vistas of the universe. The way the camera dances around the environments to give you context of your navigation enhances the scope of the journey. The careful pacing also means platforming becomes a key portion of Enslaved's biggest set-piece moments. It may restrict the difficulty, but it keeps the story progressing and ensures you explore the most noteworthy aspects of the environment.
There are a number of moments throughout Enslaved's campaign where you're required to interact with one or more co-operative AI partners. These sections implement simple co-op puzzles that require you to work as a team to progress. These are also introduced during combat. For example, Trip is able to draw enemy fire while Monkey moves through the environment. Upon finding a stable position, Monkey can then draw that fire away from Trip, and command her to move forward too. It's super simple stuff, but it adds an extra layer to the gameplay — and the AI is good enough to cope with the strain of the co-operative gameplay. It never feels like you're trying to protect an idiot.
We're openly against the use of the Unreal Engine. Its technical shortcomings hinder Enslaved in many ways, but respectably Ninja Theory's done some amazing work pushing the engine to its limits. Despite the trappings of the Unreal Engine, Enslaved is a beautiful game. That's largely due to Ninja Theory's artistic vision, with huge skyline vistas occupying the game's opening hours. It also makes use of colour, a technique agonisingly overlooked in most modern post-apocalyptic titles. It looks great, even though there will be a part of you that wished that the game was running on Naughty Dog's engine.
There are times when Enslaved completely outstrips its technical potential. With so much happening on-screen, the game struggles to meet a stable frame-rate. The camera can also be problematic, framing the action from unusual positions. Likewise, movement can be twitchy, making it difficult to navigate the environments. This can be especially frustrating in areas that demand precision — one instance requires you to move through an arena of mines, and it's annoying when the gameplay makes the traversal of these arenas more challenging than it should be.
While Enslaved's combat is flashy and entertaining, there's a lack of depth to what's possible. Attack animations are cued up by hammering the Square and Triangle buttons and, despite looking good, there's a disconnect between the button presses and what's occurring on-screen. The combat also fails to really develop. The introduction of projectile and stun attacks help to add an extra layer, but it's not enough to make the combat a stand-out component of the package. The camera can also lack fidelity during combat situations, framing the action too closely and making it difficult to deal with multiple enemies. It's flashy and functional, but it lacks depth.
At times Ninja Theory's ambition outstrips the technical limitations Enslaved is confined within. Its short-comings are easily overlooked though, in part due to a powerful script and grounded characterisation. Enslaved's gameplay can seem flimsy and automatic, but it is the window-dressing for an exceptional adventure with well delivered dialogue and industry leading performance capture.