Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Review

By Jeffrey Matulef - Posted Oct 05, 2010

Enslaved is a return to form for linear, single player IPs. It may be too rigidly structured for its own good, but a lovable cast, solid combat, and great pacing do well to make it an adventure well worth taking.

The Pros
  • Deep, Interesting and rousing combat
  • Lots of variety in gameplay mechanics and inspired visual design
  • Great characters and good pacing
The Cons
  • Too many invisible walls making it difficult to tell where you can go
  • Not always challenging and puzzles feel underdeveloped
  • Can't always backtrack for collectibles

They don't make 'em like they used to. These days it seems practically mandatory that any game released has to have an open-world, include multiplayer, or be a sequel. So Ninja Theory (Heavenly Sword, the upcoming DmC) took a big risk releasing Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, an aggressively linear, purely single-player IP. Thankfully, the results paid off. Varied set pieces, robust combat, thrilling platforming and likable characters make Enslaved one of the best games of its kind since Nathan Drake's latest adventure.



Happiness in Slavery

The story concerns two fugitives who've escaped from a slave convoy. You play as Monkey, who despite his quirky name is a brutish, survivalist loner. The other half of your party is Trip, a street smart woman determined to make her way home across the killer mech infested wasteland. While this may appear to have romantic comedy of the season written all over it, their relationship is tenuous at best. Trip equips Monkey with a slave crown that he can't remove. If he disobeys, he gets shocked. If she dies, he dies too. While this sounds like an adventure based The Story of O, its actually a reimagining of a famous 16th century Chinese novel, Journey to the West.

As a game, it's an action/adventure, blending some of the finest elements in recent gaming together. It has the platforming of Uncharted, the partner-based puzzle solving of Ico (right down to a windmill homage), the collecting of Jak & Daxter, staff-based combat resembling Beyond Good & Evil, and there's even cover shooting. This may sound derivative, but when most games are content to copy a formula from one game you can't fault Enslaved for borrowing from such a diverse library.

When it comes to monkeying about, platforming is extremely automated. The jump button is context sensitive and Monkey won't leap unless there's something to grab onto. While this allows for some of the most spectacular parkour sequences in gaming with minimum frustration, it may not present the challenge platforming aficionados seek. Climbing is merely a means to an end for Monkey, no different from walking but a lot more exciting.

Combat, however, is deep and intricate. Bashing mechs with a staff starts out simple, but grows in complexity. There are plenty of upgrades to purchase for new moves and greater damage. Certain enemies will put up shields requiring a charged stun attack to remove, discouraging simple button mashing. You'll soon gain the ability to shoot from your staff with different ammo types for direct damage or stunning. Ammo is scarce though, so you can't grow to rely on it. Effortlessly switching between melee and ranged combat is fluid and only gets more enjoyable as it evolves.

There are further options outside of combat on how to approach a situation. Trip can set off a decoy – useful for distracting enemy turrets as you scurry to take them over from behind – and some set pieces allow for stealth (one gripe; you get more currency defeating enemies, so while stealth is a fun meta-game, its benefits are null). It never quite reaches the option-heavy heights of Batman: Arkham Asylum, but there's generally enough ways to go about your mission to keep things interesting.

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Monkey Shines

What really separates Enslaved from most games of its ilk is its characters. Monkey in particular is one of the most unique protagonists in gaming. Looking like a mix between Ray Liotta and a gorilla, he's gruff, sensitive and mischievous. Played by Andy Serkis (best known as Gollum) he's extremely expressive and brings a lot of warmth to what so easily could have been a one-dimensional badass. Trip may play damsel in distress one time too many, but she's also smart, resourceful, and conveys subtle signs of remorse and self-loathing at enslaving Monkey. Witnessing their twisted relationship evolve naturally remains a highpoint throughout.

The storytelling is otherwise well done, if a bit sparse. Penned by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) the story moves in more interesting directions than one would expect from the premise. While there are scant few characters, a central mystery keeps players guessing until the wonderfully ambiguous conclusion. It may throw in too much at once in the 11th hour, but the finale poses some interesting questions about the human condition, even if it doesn't attempt to answer them.

The writing isn't the only thing that shines. The world of Enslaved is not only gorgeous, but original. Set 150 years into the future, mankind is eradicated and nature has overtaken the landscape. While remnants of civilization are everywhere, it's all overgrown with moss, rust and foliage. Simply put, this is possibly the most colorful post-apocalypse I've ever seen.



Monkey Trouble

While the world may be as beautiful as any I've seen, your interaction with it is forcibly restricted. It's not Trip, but rather invisible walls holding you back. While handholds are highlighted, it's often unclear what you can jump on and what's just decoration. Expect to roll into a lot of boxes testing if they're climbable.

There's also a general lack of challenge that permeates the proceedings. Aside from a few tricky chase scenes, I only died a handful of times playing on the default normal difficulty. Puzzles too, feel underdeveloped and all too easy to figure out.

Finally, the levels will often have unmarked points of no return, so scouring chapters for 100% of collectibles is infinitely more frustrating than it should be. Only the most OCD stricken need apply.



Stockholm Syndrome

Despite these nitpicks, Enslaved is a tightly woven, worthwhile adventure. Its heavily scripted, linear nature won't appeal to everyone, but for those looking for a focused single-player experience will find much to appreciate here. It may not be the most comprehensive package around, but what Ninja Theory lacks in quantity they more than make up for in quality. Enslaved's 11 hour journey is rife with harrowing scenarios, breath-taking vistas and memorable characters, making it a rousing odyssey from beginning to end.