Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a beautiful game. Indeed, Ninja Theory’s efforts to conceptualize, design and render an arresting apocalyptic vista can’t go unnoticed. It’s unfortunate, though, that Monkey and Trip’s journey through a world stricken by mechanical malevolence is marred by repetitive and tedious combat. Here, the ‘video game’ part simply gets in the way.
Enslaved is shackled by an identity crisis – it’s unclear whether it wants to be an action game spliced with platforming elements or a platformer married to a dilute combat system. And that’s the problem: it doesn’t commit itself to either. Particularly in its combative elements, Enslaved executes the bare minimum to ensure that moments spent outside of puzzles and platforming are barely entertaining – and I emphasize ‘barely’.
Don’t stray beyond the game’s most elementary difficulty, either. If you do, it simply exacerbates an already frustrating combat system – you don’t want to fight seemingly endless waves of enemies any longer than you need to. And as situations ramped up in intensity – in that the number of foes presented steadily got bigger – I felt ever-more ill-equipped to deal with the threats at hand. Although a master of the monkey bar, Enslaved’s male protagonist is frustratingly one-dimensional in combat, leaving Odyssey to the West to feel like a poor man’s action game. It indulges in its weakest attributes – its combat – whilst benching its star players: the world, the platforming and the characters.
By a considerable margin, Enslaved‘s characters – and the ever-evolving dynamic between them – are its greatest achievement. Captured by slavers, Monkey and Trip make a miraculous escape after their transport suffers considerable technical difficulties. But there’s a problem: female protagonist, Trip, is three-hundred miles away from her tribe. Through the use of a slave headband, which forces a person to comply with her every whim through pain or potential death, Trip obliges Monkey to her escort her home.
It’s fascinating to watch the pair’s relationship develop from one of obligatory servitude, to one of mutual interdependence, and, most surprisingly, friendship. It’s the progression of this bonding that is perhaps Enslaved‘s most compelling aspect – it makes it worth experiencing despite its relatively mindless, button-mashing combat. Moreover, the game’s writers, Alex Garland and Tameem Antoniades, actually make you care. It’s at the game’s most intense, albeit heavily-scripted, moments that you want the couple to succeed.
To succeed, however, the pair are forced to exploit their symbiotic relationship. Trip, for instance, is able to draw enemy weapons fire, heal Monkey and upgrade his various abilities. Monkey, on the other hand, wields the ability to carry Trip, throw her across otherwise unreachable distances, and is able to command the ‘Cloud’ – a hover-disc type device that allows quick traversal of vast distances. It’s an effective and well-balanced dichotomy that justifies the existence of characters that would otherwise be reduced to plot devices.
Enslaved is sprinkled with genuinely stunning scenarios: navigating a crashing sky ship; fleeing from the jaws of an over-enthusiastic mechanical menace; and reaping revenge on that very same menace are all examples of powerful, heart-straining situations. These situations, in fact, provide only further contrast to the moments spent engaging with the game’s cookie-cutter combat.
Running on Unreal Engine technology, Odyssey to the West forgoes the browns and greys typical of post-apocolyptica. Ninja Theory’s take on a world without order is a one of delicate destruction – every artifact of a bygone era looks like it might crumble from even the lightest touch. This, too, like the game’s character development, is one of the title’s crowning achievements. Platforming, whilst well-implemented, is merely a device through which to view Enslaved‘s gorgeously-drawn world.
Beyond fleeting moments of sheer brilliance, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a disappointment. Moreover, these moments set the bar so high that it’s a benchmark to which, despite their best efforts, Monkey and Trip never quite manage to return. If narrative and artistic vision captures your imagination, Ninja Theory’s latest adventure is worth the trip. If, however, you’re looking to endlessly beat the crap out of mechanical beasties in a stylish and entertaining manner, then look elsewhere -– Enslaved: Odyssey to the West isn’t worth monkeying around with.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was reviewed on Xbox 360. The game was played to completion on ‘Normal’ – with some chapters played on ‘Hard’. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West launches for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on October 5th, 2010 for an MSRP of $59.99.