Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (PS3 Review)

This adaptation of an old Chinese novel has been written by Alex ’28 Days Later’ Garland and Tameen Antoniades. Set 150 years into the future, many wars have taken place and the human race is almost nothing than a memory to the wastelands. People are outnumbered by the mechs; leftover robots from a forgotten war, still running the same programmes of kill anyone that they come across.

You play as the brutish Monkey who is forced to escort the slender young woman Trip back to her home after they escape from a slaver ship.  He’s forced because she slipped a slave headband on him that forces him to obey her and comes with the other downside of killing him if her heart stops beating.

The plot is not as prominent as you might think, I wish there had been more to be honest because what’s there is very good and the work done by the actors and motion capture animators is excellent. Andy Serkis (Monkey) and Lindsey Shaw (Trip) have done an excellent job voicing the characters and providing the motion-capture. It might not be as smooth as Uncharted 2, but it’s the little details, like facial movement or minor body language signs that raise Enslaved to the upper tiers of character animation.

Throughout the adventure you can see how the chemistry changes between the two characters as circumstances change. Thankfully it goes about it with a degree of subtlety to make it a bit more believable. Some of it can be left to your own personal interpretation too. The addition of a third character initially provides a bit of comic relief, but he soon outstays his welcome in every possible way and really messes up what the game has built up with the atmosphere of Trip and Monkey being alone against the seemingly impossible mech-infested Wasteland.

Gameplay

Monkey lives up to his name by being able to hurl himself around with surprising agility considering his hulking size. Pipes, outcrops of bricks, ledges and so on all have a shimmering effect to help you spot them and the camera generally does a good job of pointing them out for you. The only challenge to the climbing sections is when you’re put under pressure by sections falling away due to decay or building-shattering explosions. For the most part though, you’re at your leisure and you can’t actually jump the wrong way to your doom, it can feel a bit too easy at times.

The only really frustrating platforming difficulties arose when trying to jump down from ledges, as the game wants you to stand in the exact position or it flat out refuses to acknowledge that you can actually jump down there.

For the most part, Monkey focuses on melee attacks using his staff and occasionally his fists. The attacks feel like they have some real weight to them as they smash into the exclusively mech enemies. You can use the collectible red Tech Orbs to buy upgrades like dodge moves and counters and a power move, but no extra combos.

Thankfully this isn’t a game that constantly throws enemies at you, but even so the lack of depth to the combat is on show for all to see. You’ll be pressing buttons in different combinations to try and produce something new, but it’s just the same combo over and over. Considering the amount of moves on offer in Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword, it’s pretty poor.

The staff can also be used as a ranged weapon, to fire damaging plasma blasts or electric pulses to stun the enemy. It’s handy for stunning shielded foes and then following up with a plasma shot. You can use it at close range too during melee combat, but it can be tricky to aim when the robots are right on you.

Sometimes you will have to take cover to avoid incoming fire from turrets. Monkey and Trip will automatically duck down when near a low wall, allowing you to focus on getting past the hail of bullets. The pair take turns darting across an opening, usually while the other one distracts the turret. Trip has a cool hologram to distract the bots, while Monkey prefers the old fashioned way of standing up, waving his arms and shouting “Hey.” You decide when Monkey asks Trip to use her distraction, or follow him or to pull a lever to navigate the game’s puzzles that involve bridges and moving platforms.

Monkey also has a Cloud device that can travel across water like a hoverboard that will also work across some sections of land. If you’ve played Jak 2 on PS2, it’s similar, but with better handling. There’s no room for Trip though, so you have to use it to find or create a path for her. The first location you use this is quite an eye-opener.

The game’s ability to mix up gaming styles of combat, climbing, Cloud sections, turret shootouts (with you shooting), navigating open spaces while staying in cover, platforming and puzzles is an exercise in finely struck balance. At no point, did I become bored with the game and considering I played through it over the course of a ten hour day, that’s pretty damn good.

Ten hours though, is perhaps too short, especially considering I spent quite a lot of time looking for collectibles. But there are three difficulty levels available, plus you can manually select chapters to try and find all the Tech Orbs and hidden masks. And you will go back; there will be too many end-of-level cutscenes were you see missed Orbs cheekily dancing around in the background mocking your collecting skills.

Environments

Enslaved’s environments excel in scale and spectacle. Climbing around the outside of the slave ship as it starts to explode into pieces is a real adrenaline rush and the views that surround the summit of many of Monkey’s climbs make the effort more than worthwhile. The later levels let the game down a little as many of them are indoors and just dull to look at compared to the overgrown city or the hugeness of the mech graveyard with giant rusting mechs dwarfing everything.

The use of colour is refreshing too, from the red flowers that have taken over whole city blocks, the pure blueness of the sky, or the rainbow hues of the mech fuel-contaminated waters of the mech graveyard. The minor attention to detail like the cobwebs moving with the draft in the old theatre, or the butterflies, and that strange whale song-like animal noise you sometimes hear in the city, all help add to the great atmosphere of the game.

So much was built on this game’s looks and presentation; however there are a few flaws that can’t go unmentioned. For some of the cut-scenes there’s no avoiding the fact that the lip-syncing is out, but more unforgivable is the texture pop-up that occurs. It feels like you’re catching the game with its pants down, just horribly awkward for all involved. For example, you’ll spot a panel on a door that is awash with blur, suddenly get a more detailed layer added, the same again with a picture full of missing people, one second it’s a grey blur then all the faces suddenly appear. This happens more than once and is really frustrating as it distracts from the cutscenes and it left me marginally disappointed in a game I expected so much more from visually. This could have been fixed with a bit more time/effort in development, or maybe with a bigger install file to cut down on loading.

It’s hard not to forgive so many of these flaws though by the time you reach the final stage; I can’t remember a level with a boss fight so undeniably gargantuan. A proper ‘jaw on the floor’ moment. It’s the characters and story that really come out on top here though in this excellent adventure with enough gameplay variations to keep you hooked from start to finish.

The Good: Engaging plot and characters hold up an adventure with a great blend of gameplay styles in a world often amazingly beautiful.

The Bad: A few technical issues with texture pop-up, combat is fun but lacks depth, Pigsy is an unwelcome addition to the cast and there are occasional frustrating moments when you try to climb downwards.

Gameplay: 8, Graphics: 8, Sound: 9, Overall: 8

8/10

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