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Ninja Theory has teamed up with Namco-Bandai in order to remake one of the oldest Chinese folk tales ever written—Journey to the West. The developers took a leap in terms of cinematic presentation and interpretation in order to tell the story in the best way possible, so what happens when a hot red-head and a monkey man team up to fight killer robots? Ironically, you get a pretty competent version of Wu Cheng’en’s work and an incredibly gripping epic that may have evolved story-telling in games.
Not since Uncharted 2 has a game done so much in terms of body language, tone, interaction, articulation and chemistry with the main characters—it’s almost frightening. Andy Serkis has once again helped create wonderful characters in a video game. In his follow up to Heavenly Sword, the main cast, Monkey and Trip, respond to one another differently as their strange partnership evolves into a legitimate relationship. We can see these two grow into three dimensional beings that have their own unique values, beliefs and attitudes which are delivered by some very talented actors. More amazing than their relationship dynamics is the genuine emotion that the player invests in their story. Every battle and every tragedy has an element of suspense do to the fact that we want them both to make it through Hell. We need the journey to end well just as much as they do. A third character is introduced later in the game who fits perfectly into the Monkey/Trip dynamic and feels like an organic addition to the cast. Enslaved is one of the best examples of theatrical story-telling in games today and should be studied by other developers because it is now the standard.
The art design is also unique in that it embraces a colorful palette in a post-apocalyptic universe. We’ve seen the dilapidated sludge of human demise in so many titles released in the past few years alone that Enslaved’s robust celebration of nature and robotics is refreshing; picture Uncharted 2 mixed with the early Abe’s Oddysee games. As mentioned before, the character animations are very impressive, but the PS3 version does suffer a bit from slowdown and screen tearing from time to time.
Controlling Monkey can also feel awkward at times. Basic movement is hindered by a weird delay which is made more noticeable by the momentum he creates when moving. It’s almost as if he is running on a sheet of ice during some actions. Eventually you become used to how he moves in the game world and make adjustments. Most of the buttons are context sensitive so Monkey will jump only if the platform he is on is designed for him to jump from—a good idea that nearly eliminates falling death. But the same button that could make him jump also makes him roll which can feel clunky. If he is being shot at and there is cover close by, the “X” button will either make him slide into cover like a baseball player or he will vault over the cover and get shot up because the game thought that’s what you wanted him to do. During a very specific maneuver in the game, Monkey has to throw Trip across ledges in order for her to reach the other side. Sometimes she doesn’t fully land properly and it is your job to simply jump over to where she is dangling from and help her up with a press of the “O” button. For some bizarre reason, this is not a smooth animation to pull off and Trip usually winds up falling to her death. This is something that should have been caught during play testing especially because this takes place close to half a dozen times during the game.
The imprecise movement never becomes an issue during melee combat though. The combat is basic for an action game with the fast attack and heavy attack buttons, but it is effective and engaging. New skills can be unlocked by collecting shiny red orbs. These orbs can also be used to buy upgrades for your staff, which doubles as a cannon, and health and shield upgrades. Traversal in the game is handled intelligently. Obviously Monkey is able to climb and swing acrobatically which translates into a single button press to launch him from point to point. Some sequences require good timing in order to avoid traps and hidden dangers while others are timed forcing you to think on your feet. The gameplay is set up like so; transverse the colorful, destroyed world, enter a large area, Trip scans the area for enemies, you decide how to get through the area. The setting is varied enough to make each section unique so you don’t feel as though you are playing the same level over and over. The story once again acts as the best reason to play through to completion but the combat is also rewarding in its own right especially when you discover just the right sequence of mechs to destroy in order to progress.
Just because you have to help Trip get to her home safely doesn’t mean that you are relegated to a giant escort mission. Trip is actually quite useful even if you have limited control over what she does. She can distract mechs with a hologram decoy and can release an EMP blast if enemies begin to surround her. The game does require you to stay very close to her early in the story. If you travel too far you can die unexpectedly. The game could have done a better job of letting you know where the boundaries are. Most cases you start to wander away and before you have an opportunity to react to the headband Monkey dies and you have to restart from the last checkpoint. These situation shows up much less than the falling Trip issue, but it may discourage you from exploring the ins and outs of the world.
Overall, not enough can be said about how well Ninja Theory orchestrated the story, pacing, character interactions, emotions acting and dialogue. Most games treat narratives as afterthoughts, but Enslaved features it prominently from start to finish. There are a few strange hiccups that prevent the game from hitting triple A status, but it comes within a hair of nailing it. Control issues needed to be addressed and tested more rigorously, but combat is largely unaffected by these issues and the gameplay is still enjoyable enough for a high recommendation. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a remarkable example of what video game stories can and should be.