Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: Enslaved: Odyssey To The West

A retelling of the Chinese novel Journey To The West, you play as Monkey: an acrobatic survivor in a post apocalyptic future 150 years from now. The journey begins as you make your escaped from a slave ship, only to be shackled to a young girl - Trip - who enlists your help in getting her back to her home.

Drawing comparisons to the Uncharted series due to it's mix of clamboring and combat, I personally would pair it closer to the likes of Dante's Inferno as the combat is all about hand-to-hand versus gunplay.

That said, the gameplay isn't terribly deep on this title. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing, as this is a game that is more focused on the story and characters. There are skill based games and there are narrative based games (and of course ones that fall inbetween) and Enslaved clearly falls into the latter category.

What gameplay elements there are: clamboring, parkour style acrobatics mixed with button mashy combat and collectibles, only serve as a tool to keep the story moving along, and guide the player along the extremely well written plot. The platforming is 'no fail' - you won't accidentally fall to your doom if you miss a jump because you CAN'T miss any of the jumps. Your only options are to jump or not jump. On the one hand, this may frustrate rabid platformers as being too easy, but on the other, it allows the player to focus on drinking in all the gorgeous scenery and invest yourself into sympathizing with the character's motivations and personalities.

The combat is very straightforward with light and heavy attacks, coupled with explosive and stun projectiles to handle ranged enemies. While many action/adventure aficionados may poo-poo the lack of complexity, this suits my button-mashing playstyle perfectly. Not all games need to have a deep combat system that only fidgety fourteen year olds with spastic reflexes can master. You can upgrade your health, shield and combat moves, but they are mostly increasing damage and ammo capacity types that don't require learning a whole new set of multi-button combos to execute.

In short, if you are looking for a challenging gaming experience, look somewhere else. This game is about character.

The design and art direction is where this game truly shines. The world they have crafted is the most beautiful post-apocalyptic vision since...ever. There is still the whole 'destroyed beauty' aesthetic going on, but it seems that Ninja Theory took copious notes from Life After People and I Am Legend. Gone are the smoggy skies and dark and drab cityscapes. Instead we have ruined metropolises (metropolii?) covered with lush plantlife with the sounds of the jungle echoing in the background. It was also great - having lived in NYC for the last 10 years - to scramble around iconic NY monuments and wonder "Just what the hell happened here?" Whether I was finding a way out of a demolished Grand Central Station, or picking my way across a dilapidated Brooklyn Bridge, I was continually in awe of how fantastic the gameworld looked.

The character design is of particular note here as well, especially the facial animations. I once read an interview with some Bioware developers, and they were talking about how much time they would spend on getting the eyes just right. The reasoning behind this, for them, is that we tend to focus our attention towards the face and eye area when listening to someone speak. So it led them to really focus on making those areas of their character design especially realistic. Ninja Theory apparently read the same interview because I have never seen facial animations as elegant as in Enslaved. A furrowed brow, a scrunched up mouth, a knowing look all convey so much more emotion and information than any line of dialog can. I suppose that Andy Serkis serving as the director of the game - as well as being the voice and motion capture artist for Monkey - had a lot to do with these excellent theatrical touches to help make the characters that much more believable.

A nice touch the developers did is that they tell a story by artifacts left around the environment. We are never outright told exactly what happened on Earth to leave it in such a dismal state. Instead we see old billboards that have been painted over with revolutionary style slogans and piles of 'ancient redundant technology' that allow the player to create their own backstory about the fall of man.

There have been some rumblings about the length of the game being a tad short for a full $60 price tag. But I counter that with this argument: how much do you pay for a movie these days? At least $11 for an adult ticket. And if you want snacks, you can look at upwards of $20-25 for a 1.5-2 hour experience. Clocking in at around 8-10 hours, Enslaved more than gives you your money's worth. Especially considering the cookie cutter hero plots that most games employ.

If you're looking for a well crafted adventure that focuses on story and character over skill and mechanics, then Enslaved is the game for you. Lush, beautiful environments, endearing and believable characters, and an engaging and mysterious plot all add up to an experience that is more like a movie than a game, further blurring the lines between passive and active entertainment.

Score: 8/10

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