In August I was lucky enough to be given the change to play a few levels of an early build of Enslaved: Odyssey To The West. You can read my thoughts from that hands-on session here, but I think it would be fair to say I was quite excited about the potential this game had. Now that I have completed the final game, I have to say that I am a little disappointed that some of that potential hasn’t been realised and whilst the game still looks very pretty, the gameplay is deeply lacking.
Enslaved: Odyssey To The West is a brand new IP (Intellectual Property or a ‘new game’ if you will). A third-person action-adventure title from Cambridge-based developer Ninja Theory, set 150 years in the future the human race has been all but eradicated by a global war and killer robots are roaming the Earth looking to finish the job. The story is a new take on the classic 400 year old ‘Journey to the West’, with adaptation written by British novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland. You play the role of Monkey, a strong and athletic yet solitary survivor that has spent his life hiding from the machines. The story is never really presented to you, only really revealed through in-game events and dialogue during the game. A great example of this is that there is no back-story, the opening of the game starts with Monkey imprisoned moments before his unexpected escape.
During his escape Monkey encounters Trip, a tech-savvy girl who has escaped and is trying to get back to her home community. To that end, after their subsequent escape she uses some robot technology to enslave Monkey so that he has no option but to help her get home safely. If she dies, he dies and so the two set off on their journey.
Let’s start with the positives. Voice acting in this game is top notch. Dialogue is delivered with character and confidence and for the most part, is refreshingly naturalistic. The standard of the artwork and level design is excellent. The rich environments look fantastic and the post-apocalyptic world is realised in great detail. It’s a good thing they look good too, as the environments don’t change that much as you progress through the game’s 14 chapters. The worst visuals in the game are ironically the in-engine cutscenes. These frequently looked terrible; in stark contrast to the game’s generally polished aesthetic, I saw more texture popping and graphical glitches in these hands-off scripted sequences than at any other time during the game.
My main complaint with Enslaved is that it holds your hand far too much. There is really very little for you to figure out and so there are few opportunities for the player to get any real sense of achievement. Each new area is ‘scanned’ by Trip, who then gives a very specific set of instructions on what you need to do to progress to the next area. With the challenge of working out how to move to the next area removed, there is nothing left to do but to go about your chores like a good little Monkey. At first I thought this was just part of the introduction/in-game tutorial, but sadly it persists to the very last chapter. The chores that you are left with can be broken down into traversal, combat and a couple of switch-based puzzles.
Traversing the environments, like many aspects of Enslaved, looks very pretty with its excellent combination of motion capture and well-tuned animations. The environments are detailed and deliver a great sense of scale. Unfortunately, it’s totally on rails – once again Enslaved takes any sense of achievement you might feel from traversing these environments by making it impossible for you to fall off, miss a jump or go in the wrong direction. All the hand-holds you can grip shine in a special way that indicates that they are indeed hand-holds. There is only one path up or along whatever it is you are attempting to climb, so it’s really just a matter of looking for where the next shiny hand-hold is, holding your stick in that direction and pressing A. You never have any real idea where you are heading, or how you are going to get there, you’re just looking for the next shiny hand-hold.
Only in the last quarter of the game are timing elements brought in. Gears will momentarily block the path to the next handhold or a flaming vent will engulf the next hand hold in fire periodically. Possible instant death for a mistimed jump? A bit of excitement? No, not at all. Jumping into the gear, or grabbing a hand hold as it is engulfed in flame only depletes Monkey’s health a little. On a few rare occasions you get to use Monkey’s blue hover-board style ‘Cloud’, it adds a welcome change to the gameplay, controls very well and feels fun to use. It’s just a shame that it’s only used on a few occasions and isn’t better integrated into the gameplay.
The switch-based puzzles start out as just a couple of switches you need to flick, and progress into some simple alignment puzzles. Flicking a switch moves a platform and you need get them lined up right in the right combination that will allow you to reach your goal. It’s never very complicated, and seems a little too contrived in most instances.
Man vs Machine
Melee combat is one area of the game where you are allowed to get your hands dirty and subsequently where most of the challenge is found. Early on Monkey is armed with a staff and some gauntlets, other than the occasional mounted gun these are the only weapons you will encounter in the game. Your staff can also shoot plasma and stun bolts, giving you some shooting sequences, the occasional chance to used ranged combat.
Combat is based on a light and heavy attack, a wide knock back attack that gives you some space when you are getting crowded and a stun attack that takes away enemy shields as well as temporarily stunning them for a short while so you can pound on them. Monkey’s combat choices can later be augmented with upgrades that unlock a few evade counter/block counter move and focused attack moves.
The combat feels nice and can be a little tricky in places. It’s not very varied and there are only really 4-5 types of enemy robots to beat on. Mostly it is about prioritising your targets and learning how to combat each robot type. There are some nice finishing moves and the action mostly feels fun, but it’s repetitive nature makes it begin to feel like a chore after a while. When you are in a hostile area the hand-holds that will later take you out the area just don’t shine and wont work. You can’t use your acrobatic skills in combat, so there’s no leaping off walls and grabbing enemies. You can’t use your ‘Cloud’ in combat either, mostly because it rarely works except during some boss battles – and even then it’s just used to get some space between yourself and the boss. On the rare occasions where you can use your Cloud around normal bad guys you have to deactivate the Cloud to fight them.
All in all
Enslaved gets sloppy towards the end. The ‘Cloud’ that supposedly works in some areas and not others also starts working only in some areas when you are fighting a boss, but not the same area once the boss is dead. Dialogue gets a little childish in places and the storytelling becomes more and more nonsensical. I personally did not care for the conclusion. Monkey started out as a likable rouge, but as I found myself getting more and more annoyed with Trip’s endless demands for things she wants me to do, Monkey seemed to fall more and more in love with her ultimately left me thinking the guy was just a bit of an idiot.
All they asked was that we let you know you can get it from their website, right here.