Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
In 2007, UK based developer Ninja Theory released Heavenly Sword, one of several PS3 exclusive holiday blockbusters of that year. With hopes for a sequel dashed after a battle with SCEA, Ninja Theory has since gone multi-platform. Recently, it was announced that the next installment in the popular Devil May Cry franchise is to be co-developed by Ninja Theory. That's still a ways off, but in the meantime, this week, Ninja Theory and Namco are releasing Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. This third person action adventure is a re-telling of a 400 year old novel, "Journey To the West," which I may have to look up now having played Enslaved. Anyway, I got a great vibe from this game at E3, so my hopes were high. Having just completed the game several hours ago, I'm pleased to say that Ninja Theory has struck gold again, and Enslaved is one of my top contenders for game of the year.
Fight For the Future
In Enslaved, players take the role of Monkey, a loner with incredible agility and fighting prowess. The story begins with Monkey trapped inside of a cell aboard a slave ship. A young girl, Trip, is also trapped aboard the same ship, but she manages to break out of her cell with skillful hacking. The entire slave ship soon begins to fail and descend to a New York set 150 years in the future. Only, this isn't the New York you might expect -- buildings are dilapidated, mechs roam the grounds, and vegetation and plant life is overgrown. Just before the ship smashes into the ground, Monkey manages to grab a hold of the outside of Trip's escape pod. She lands safely, but Monkey suffers a harder fall. When he comes to, he realizes a band has been placed on his head. This band, stolen and hacked by Trip, forces Monkey to obey Trip's command. If he disobeys, he dies; if Trip dies, so does Monkey.
As you can imagine, this isn't the most ideal way for two strangers to meet. Trip needs Monkey to get her back home. Without his help, Trip will be snapped up by the Slavers again or killed by the numerous Mechs in the three hundred miles between the crash site and her home. Left without a choice, Monkey reluctantly agrees to help Trip get home, but promises that as soon as he gets her there, and she takes off his headband, he will kill her. As you can probably guess, that doesn't end up happening, and the two go on to team up with Pigsy, a friend of Trip's father, to stop the Slavers and Mechs at their source (a place known as Pyramid).
For the first two thirds of the game, Monkey and Trip work together to navigate puzzles and defeat dozens of mechs and turrets. Trip never gets directly involved in the combat, she does offer some assistance, primarily in recon and in distraction. Very early in the game she modifies a mechanical dragonfly (that she wears in her hair when not in use) that is used to scan most new areas. This quick scanning process is presented as a short in-game cutscene and shows you your ultimate objective and gives you an idea of the resistance you may encounter on the way, including marking the trigger radius of mines. Her decoy device can create a holographic distraction that will distract turrets and those mechs with guns so that you can flank them while they are busy shooting at a short-term holographic image. On a few occasions, Monkey will also have to command Trip to activate a switch to help solve a puzzle, too.
As Monkey, players are tasked with keeping Trip alive. While that might sound like a game-long escort mission chore, it's actually quite transparent. Mission design is reasonable and smart, I never felt like Trip was in the wrong place or just doing something stupid (a feeling I have definitely gotten in other 'escort' scenarios in games). There are really just a few scenarios where Trip can die: when mechs are around her and you are taking too long to kill them, when she is slipping from a ledge, and during a chase sequence. Other than that, you don't have to worry about Trip. On the same token, even though you have to stick somewhat close to her and follow her commands, this never became a nuisance. Frankly, that whole idea is very transparent during gameplay and you feel like you're just playing a 'normal' game.
More On Gameplay, Upgrades, Presentation
Speaking of playing Enslaved, it reminded me very much of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Not only is the campaign just as long -- it took me about eight to nine hours to play through on Normal -- but the gameplay is very similar. Ninja Theory did a nice job balancing the platforming or scaling aspects with the combat. Those are the two primary elements of gameplay in Enslaved, but I must commend Ninja Theory on always adding a little something every so often during the campaign to keep it fresh. The best games in the well-trodden third person genre will do that to keep their experience continually enjoyable. The climbing, jumping, and scaling sequences are very Uncharted-like, with some Prince of Persia style pole jumping as well. I don't say that to knock Enslaved, as I'm a huge Uncharted (and Prince of Persia) fan, but I think that's the most succinct way to describe how the game plays: platforming mixed with combat.
Combat in Enslaved is centered around Monkey's retractable bo staff. It looks an awful lot like Kilik's staff from Soul Calibur, another Namco series, which is kind of interesting. This staff has both light and heavy attacks, as well as a charged attack, focus attack, shield, and stun and plasma firing capabilities. The staff is quite fun and simple to use. There are no strict combos to learn, you simply make use of the staff's ability as you see fit. For shielded mechs at a close range, for example, you need to hit them with a charge attack to lower their shield. If at a distance, you need to switch to Stun and hold LT to bring up a targeting reticule. After hitting the shielded mech, simply press left on the d-pad to switch to a plasma round and use LT and X to aim and fire again. When you're surrounded, you can do a wide angle attack with X+A, and after you've purchased the upgrade, a Focused Attack with Y+B proves very useful. The shield is highly useful for the many fast attacking mechs in the second half of the game as well.
The Focused Attack ability is one of several abilities that Monkey can purchase throughout the game. Currency in Enslaved are those glowing orange spheres you see all over in the game. These are Tech Orbs and you can ask Trip to upgrade you anytime she's close by. Upgrades include Shield, Combat, Staff, and Health categories. Shield upgrades include things like improving regen time, how much damage it can take, and so forth. Combat upgrades include increasing the stun effect caused by the Wide attack, and the ability to use the Focus and Evade Attacks. Staff upgrades increase the amount of Stun and Plasma ammo you can hold and their effectiveness, and Health upgrades increase your overall health and its regenerative abilities. By the end of the game, I was able to purchase almost every upgrade available. What's kind of funny though is very late in the game, when you are told you can no longer purchase upgrades after a certain point, you still collect Tech Orbs, even though they have no use.
The upgrades certainly make the combat in the game easier, although the game is pretty easy to begin with. There are some moderately challenging moments, but overall, the game moves along at a very steady clip. It may feel short by the time it's over, but, just like the original Uncharted, it's a hell of a ride that you'll want to take again. There are no additional modes outside of the campaign, but there are two collectibles -- getting all of the Tech Orbs and all of the Masks (a key part of the story I don't want to spoil for you).
One other cool gameplay mechanic I should mention is The Cloud. Think of this as a hoverboard for Monkey. You can only use it at scripted times, but, it makes for some great sequences. The Cloud allows Monkey to zip right over water and move very quickly in the environment, including catching some big air. The Cloud is used during some chase sequences and boss fights, as well as to navigate a couple of environments.
All in all, I enjoyed the story, the characters, and the gameplay very much in Enslaved. I don't have a lot bad to say about it, but I can't help but think that more examples of Trip and Monkey having to rely on each other would have been better. If you remember the hype around EA's Army of Two, for example, and then actually played through it -- you kinda know what I'm getting at. In other words, you might expect all kinds of different ways that Trip and Monkey work together to make this tremendous odyssey, but in reality, there is really only a handful of (different) things that they actually have to rely on each other for. Making it even more apparent is how the animations on the most common of these 'teamwork' moments is always the same. The two most common teamwork moments have Monkey picking up Trip and throwing her up a ledge to higher ground or Monkey lifting a barrier to allow Trip and then himself through. You just notice that by the third and fourth time (of probably fifteen or twenty total) that the animation is the same each time and that was a bit disappointing.
The Unreal Engine is put to excellent use in Enslaved. The visuals are quite excellent and combine a gorgeous amount of colors and textures together. Even without the raw technical power of Unreal, the costumes of the characters and the mixture of mechanical and natural in the gameworld is really nice. I believe my favorite level was The Old Battlefield which boasted the best outdoor environment of the entire game (which is saying something considering how many beautiful outdoor levels there are). The Titan Factory also had a really cool sequence with this green lighting that was great. I loved the facial animation in the cutscenes too, especially those of Trip, who looked outstanding. There were a few very brief moments of stutter during some heavy disc reading periods, but for the most part this was a very smooth, great looking ride. I thought the audio presentation was also very impressive. There isn't much of a soundtrack, but the voiceovers and effects were very well done.
Bottomline, Enslaved is a fantastic game with only some very minor drawbacks. Let's get to the summary...
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Enslaved is on my short list for game of the year. I had a great time with it and I think anyone that enjoys third person games, especially those in the vein of Uncharted, will love this one.