Release Date: 05/07/2010
Played On: PC
Available On: PC / PS3 / XB360
Time Played: 8h 5m
Progress: Completed Story
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Namco Bandai
For the longest time, I didn't have a console in the house to play games on. Since the SNES I had been a PC gamer, but when the shiny new Playstation 3 was released, I knew it was time to dive back in. One of the first games I played on this fancy new generation was Ninja Theory's hack and slash Heavenly Sword. It was the pinnacle of graphics, but suffered from a short campaign with uninspired combat. I didn't care at the time, because I was blown away by the experience, so continuing the journey with Enslaved: Odyssey To The West couldn't go wrong.
However, I neglected to pick up the game on console, as it was slammed heavily by critics and the general opinions I could find about the game all said it was bad. It wouldn't be until I found it again years later on PC for a few bucks in a sale that I figured the time was right to venture forth into the unknown.
My memory may be hazy, but I remember when Enslaved was being hyped because there were a bunch of development trailers that talked about all the cool technology they were using in the game. Motion capture was a big thing and there were more than a few shots of people wearing body suits and ping pong balls. In fact every graphic I had seen for the game led me to believe that I would be in for the same sort of quality I had loved in Heavenly Sword.
By today's standards, there are a bunch of reasons why the in game graphics are nothing to write home about, but when I think of it as a seven year old game, I'm pleased to see how detailed the world is. I'm a fan of post-apocalyptic environments, with cities covered in overgrown vegetation and filled by crumbling buildings, which is in abundance throughout Enslaved. It's clear that they took their artistic skills from Heavenly Sword into this larger and more ambitious project.
At the same time, the character animations are both jarring and brilliant. I get the feeling that some of the janky animations are just par for the course of the time that it was made, so I forgave most weird jerky movements. What really saves it though, is the attention that's been given to the player character Monkey.
He's obviously inspired by Monkey Magic and similar films, as his clothing and movement shout loudly of their influence, not to mention the staff that acts as his primary weapon. All that's well and good, but Monkey really shines when he's scaling the side of buildings and flinging himself from place to place.
Mechanically speaking, Monkey's movement is as simple as locating a shiny hand-hold and pressing jump in the correct direction. There's usually only one way through an obstacle course; think Uncharted, but more linear. Branching paths are rare and it's obvious when you reach a dead end and know that there will be a shining pipe to shimmy up somewhere nearby.
Despite its simplicity though, the coolest thing about jumping around as Monkey is the way he flings himself from point to point. Just like his namesake, he tumbles and flips through the air, which gives a great sense of momentum and fluidity. I often had a smile on my face when I nailed my button presses in rhythm and Monkey swung around a building like he's cruising through the jungle on a sunny afternoon. There's a lot more to do in the game, but that simple bit of effort made traversing a linear path a lot of fun, and quickly became something to look forward to.
Combat is pretty basic, with simple combinations of strong and weak attacks. Alongside a block and evade button, Monkey is able to use his staff to shoot bolts of energy that will either harm or stun an enemy at range. It's a serviceable system, but I did find myself pining for the big sword driven combos of Heavenly Sword, which relied on a stance system instead of relegating each action to its own button.
You're not alone though, as Monkey finds himself tied to Trip, who has linked herself to you via a headband. Hence the name of the game as she effectively makes Monkey her slave and tasks him with helping her and protecting her as they journey across the land. It's a really interesting part of the story that never gets explored in a meaningful way. Instead it ends up being a simple mechanic of: don't go too far away from Trip, or let her die. There's a real potential for interesting dynamics in their relationship, but by the end of the story it's just a simple and predictable case of how she had to force him to help her in the beginning, but he ends up wanting to do it anyway. It's really not a spoiler… you figure it out after the first cut scene.
I'm really in two minds over how I feel about Enslaved, as it offers a lot of cool elements to enjoy, along with a big old bland mess of nothingness. The environments are beautiful and interesting to explore, but it's painfully linear and hates it when you stray from the directed path. Monkey's jumping around animations are joyful to see, but fighting endless numbers of the same robot enemy type gets old fast. The story has boat loads of potential, even with the polarising ending that some folks didn't like, I was eager to see where it would go, but in the end all those possibilities boiled down to the obvious path ahead.
Enslaved was a good time and I had fun playing it in spite of its flaws, but maybe that has something to do with picking it up in a sale many years after release. I might have liked it more back in the day, but I would have paid full price for it. Even Heavenly Sword made me mad when I finished it in a couple of hours; it didn't matter how much I enjoyed it at that stage because I had forked over the full retail price for it.
I hope that one day there will be a follow up to Enslaved that capitalises on the interesting ideas that made it better than bland. The cynical side of me doesn't expect any miracles though as I don't think the game did very well and it's been years now without a peep. Ninja Theory went on to develop 2013's DMC: Devil May Cry (which I enjoyed as well), so I'm not holding out hope for anything unique from them at the moment. Perhaps their upcoming title Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice will have me eating my words with joy…