Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a game I nearly overlooked. Since it debuted with relatively little fanfare at the beginning of the busy autumn push, in the same week as other major releases, I wonder how many others passed it by. A story-driven non-sequel without a gory/cutesy/sexy hook can always use a hand, so I'm proud to throw in my words of recommendation. Enslaved deserves to be played now.
I knew next to nothing about the setting going in, but the game does a respectable job of keeping your attention during the exposition.
You play as Monkey, a huge but ridiculously athletic man of the future. Almost everything about him seems familiar in some way. At first I was reminded of that sci-fi staple, the wrongly imprisoned hero who exploits an opportunity to break free and destroy his captors - but that was a little off. Then I thought he might be a brooding antihero with a dark past - but that doesn't seem to be the case. Once I left the first stage and found out a little more, it was evident that I was looking at a post-apocalyptic story cross-pollinated by the legend of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.
Enslaved begins with nothing but questions. All we see is an unarmed man in a ship that's falling out of the sky. We don't know where he's from or what he's capable of doing, but it quickly becomes evident that he can handle himself well. Besides his captors and the prisoners in suspended animation around him, there is only one other human seen - one potential ally - but she is obviously intent on escaping at all costs and does not care what happens to him.
Enslaved deserves to be played now. And it's worth a purchase. Support quality.
The first act is a combination chase/escape as Monkey and the woman, Trip, head for the rapidly dwindling number of escape pods. Trip herself almost causes his death a couple of times, as she closes doors in front of him. The resultant running and leaping on the ship's hull is breathtaking - well, besides the fact that Monkey cannot lose his grip or fall after a mistimed jump. And therein lies the first problem some players will have with Enslaved.
The hero is amazingly acrobatic, almost like Beast from the X-men in some ways, but the game is also extremely . . . supportive. Accessible ledges gleam brightly against the background, and all you have to do is point in their general direction and press a button. Whether the target is close by or at the far end of Monkey's leaping abilities, he will leap confidently and securely to the landing spot.
Once in a while, the surface you land on will immediately begin to crumble or collapse. This forces you to react with a little less leisure, but it only happens a handful of times over the course of the journey.
That automated safety net is good and bad. With the amount of jumping you have to do (Enslaved: Odyssey to the West took me about eleven-and-a-half hours to beat), it would really become tedious to have to deal with precise directions and variable power meters for each leap. You gotta figure that this Monkey dude knows what he's doing and wouldn't need to stumble and hesitate before most leaps. But there are some incredible obstacles and impressive distances to cover, so the almost non-chalant approach to successive death-defying bounds is a bit odd.
But what would be a better system? Quick-time events or golf-game-style meters on certain jumps? That seems too derivative. And just making another Uncharted game? Very derivative. Still, since the combat is largely secondary to the running and climbing, clearer acknowledgement of the awesome heights and distances would be welcome. Just because a character is highly skilled at what he does, doesn't mean we as players shouldn't have to work to make him do it.
The other weak area of Enslaved is its version of the ubiquitous collect quest. In this case, as in many, many other games, you collect orbs to unlock and power up your offense and defense. It takes a lot of these little suckers to access all the higher levels of health, attacks, and other powers, but getting them breaks up the fluid motion of the main character. Since we don't have complex jump controls to slow down the action, it makes no sense to burden us with all these little nooks and crannies with one or two orbs in them when thousands are needed for the rewards. Maybe if they gravitated toward you, it would be fine, but having to walk over each one individually just doesn't work in the fast-paced parts of this game.
As careful as I was about picking up orbs, I still didn't level-up all the abilities I wanted to. Close, but not quite. But Monkey was already overpowered, so no big deal.
Speaking of overpowered, Monkey's ultimate goal in Enslaved is to see Trip safely home. Yes, the same Trip that almost got him killed on the plummeting aircraft. While he was knocked cold as a result of her actions, she compromised his liberty by fitting him with a tech headband. So when you're flipping around and scaling the sides of dilapidated buildings, it's all in her service. Stray too far, or let Trip get killed, and it's game over, courtesy of your new friend.
Fortunately, Trip has some survival skills of her own. So much so that this never comes across as an escort-the-squishie game. She can't fight worth a damn, but she has a stun trick and a handy hologram distraction among other tools in her arsenal. Yeah, Monkey'd probably be better off without her, but you as a player will never get sick of her. She might be the lowest-maintenance character of her type in any game I've played. And she might also be the best looking.
Thanks to countless of hours of hard work, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West features wonderful facial expressions and movements to go along with its engaging story. Monkey is another computerized work of art brought to life by Andy Serkis (who was nominated for an Academy Award for his iconic portrayal of Smeagel in the Lord of the Rings series). Serkis just seems to "get it." He nails the sweet spot between the subtle acting you see in a movie and the broader gestures necessitated by the video game format. Serkis also co-directed the game, so I hope that his involvement in this medium grows from here.
There's a lot more to say about Enslaved but I encourage you to experience it for yourself. Seeing New York City overrun with foliage and broken skyscraper husks, skimming the water's surface on a personal hoverboard, sneaking past some sentry and tearing others to pieces, a late-game crude companion to lighten the mood: it's all wrapped in a coat of engrossing acting and skillful storytelling. And it's worth a purchase. Support quality.