Inside Pulse 12

Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Sony PS3)


Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Ninja Theory
Genre: Action
Release Date: 10/05/2010

This is why demos were created. Enslaved was a game I had little to no interest in. I remembered the general lackluster response to Ninja Theory’s other game, Heavenly Sword, and another story based off of Journey to the West wasn’t all that enticing. There have been countless media adaptations of the Chinese novel, most famously Dragon Ball. We really didn’t need another one.

Still, I do have soft spots for 3D action games, so I downloaded the demo. Initially, I wasn’t impressed. The game was pretty enough, but it chugged along. The gameplay wasn’t much to write home about either. I felt the combat was weak, the navigation flawed, and the camera annoying. I was ready to write the game off until I reached cut scene that concludes the demo. It was there that I got to see Monkey and Trip interact with each other. There was something in their performances that instantly hooked me. I wanted to spend time with these characters and find out where it went.

So, when this game showed up, my curiosity forbade me to pass it up. I have a habit of forgiving gameplay flaws if the game has enough charm, but would this game manage to do even that? Or, perhaps, was the gameplay better than I had initially thought? There were a lot of questions I had going into the time it took to take this game out of the case and put in my PS3.

Let’s find out the answers.

Story

As the story goes, the world is about a century and a half removed from an epic war between humans and robotic entities known as Mechs. The humans lost the war and now live in small communities that either stay on the move or try to hide. You start off aboard a slaver ship that is rounding up whatever humans you can find. Monkey is a newly captured slave that is still in the middle of his orientation when another prisoner by the name of Trip has sprung an escape attempt. The escape destroys the ship, but both manage to get off safely. However, Trip manages to slip a slave headband on Monkey while he’s unconscious. Basically, he can’t disobey a direct order without being overwhelmed with pain and anything that causes her heartbeat to stop will result in his death as well.

This may not seem like the best way to start off a relationship of any sort, but Trip seems remorseful. Even still, she’ll only take off the headband when Monkey helps her travel the six hundred miles it will take to get home. Considering this is through treacherous terrain patrolled by still active Mechs, it will be no easy task.

The setup might not be anything special, but it’s the characters who move the story forward. Through subtle facial expressions, body language, and a realistic script, both Trip and Monkey come off as believable humans that you easily grow attached to. The two start off as reluctant allies, but over time something deeper starts to form. It is very natural and never feels forced. When a third character is thrown into the mix, it throws a monkey wrench (no pun intended) into the proceedings, but in a good way. The story becomes more diversified without ever losing its realism.

What makes this story spectacular is that you become invested in the outcome of the main characters. When Trip is in danger, you’ll feel a rush to save her. When she’s in pain, you’ll want to comfort her. At no point does anything feel forced or contrived, and even the game’s open ending doesn’t do anything to derail the satisfaction you get from the story. When the game wants you to be sad, you’re sad. When it want’s you to laugh, you’ll laugh. It can move you in whatever direction it wants. You’ll have to play through the game to understand it, but this is probably the best video game story I’ve seen in some time. (And before you say it, this fact has nothing to do with the fact that is an adaptation of a classic novel. The characters are the story. The rest of it is merely backdrop.)

Graphics

Firstly, the art for this game is a definite hit. The cities of man have crumbled with age, leaving rusting hulks and toppled structures across the landscape. Nature isn’t about to just sit around and wait for these hulks to rot into nothingness. Rather, plants have started to reclaim everything, leaving you with a breath taking view of beautiful but deadly world. Other locations, such as a deserted shanty town and giant junkyard of sorts evoke different emotions but are still very nice to look at. You might think that Monkey’s hair is a tad bit ridiculous, but the overall look of the game is pretty sweet.

On the technical side of things, the game staggers to keep up with itself. The framerate is already notorious for being sub par for the entire game, yet during big moments and even some cutscenes, the game can slow to a crawl. Given that these are the moments when you want the game to run at its best, this is an annoying fact to say the least. I also noticed some instances of pop in towards the end of the game as well as some horribly pixelated shadows that took away from the game’s overall beauty.

What the game really nails is how the characters move. There was some extensive motion capture done for this game, mostly by Andy Serkis of Lord of the Rings fame, and it shows. The characters move in a believable way such that a head gesture or a movement can tell you more than words. Even better are the facial expressions, which are some of the best I’ve ever seen in any video game. When you can tell what a character is thinking by looking at their eyes, you know this is some pretty fancy tech. Animations are pretty smooth apart from the aforementioned framerate issues. Watching Monkey as he moves from perch to perilous perch in an apparent effortless manner is almost art in and of itself.

If it weren’t for some of those technical flaws, this game could easily be earning top marks in the graphics department. As it is, the game can’t seem to run itself at full speed and that hurts the overall score.

Audio

Bravo to the voice actors. The most solid of scripts can be murdered by bad or mediocre voice acting. However, Andy Serkis as Monkey and Lindsey Shaw as Trip are incredible in their performances. Just as much as the writing and the graphics, it is these powerful performances that sell you on the characters. I’ve been going on about it for a while now, but all of the elements truly come together and work fantastically. Honestly, this game could easily be in the top ten of all time when it comes to voice acting.

The music is another fantastic touch in this game. When it needs to, it sits quietly in the background, lifting the mood with a fanciful tune or keeping you alert with a brooding melody. When the action ratchets up, the music flares to great heights with heavy drums, perfectly fitting the action. My copy of the game came with the soundtrack, and I found myself amazed at how subtle the music was, yet every last tune fit the game like a glove. While playing, you might not even notice it, but it is always there guiding you along whatever emotional path the developers intended.

The sound effects are also perfect for the game. Each strike is filled with weight an menace, especially when you’re battling larger, quicker mechanical constructs hell bent on your destruction. The plasma blasts that emit from your staff sound perfect, and I can’t recall a single bleep, crash, or whisper of wind sounding out of place during the entire game.

For all of the above reasons, I can’t Enslaved anything less than a perfect score in the audio department.

Gameplay

Alas, it is in the gameplay department that we start to see cracks form in this beautiful face.

The game is split up into two primary different types of gameplay. You’ve got standard combat and platforming sections. Often, these sections are separate from each other, with only a comparably few scripted scenes merging the two effectively.

Combat is pretty basic. You’ve got a light and heavy attacks with Monkey’s staff that can be strewn into a few basic combos. You can block by holding a shoulder button, evade with X button, and shoot energy blasts from your staff in a third person mode. The combat isn’t very deep even when you’ve purchased all of the upgrades. You’ll pretty much always block an oncoming attack and then lay in a trusty combo or two until the Mech is scrap metal. If the enemy is shielded, you’ll need to stun them with a charge attack or by using special ammo for your staff. Then you can start laying in the hurt. You’ll eventually learn some nifty dodge and counter attacks, but it doesn’t have much depth. You can pretty much handle any fight however you want and come out on top unless you blatantly ignore long ranged enemies that chip away at your health.

One problem you’ll notice right away with the combat is the camera. Instead of staying behind you, the camera zooms in and jumps with each blow. Not only is this distracting, but it often severely hampers your view of the action. During the early sections, this isn’t much of a problem, but when the game starts throwing more enemies at you, it becomes all too easy to lose track of enemies or be utterly unaware of their presence while you’re beating on someone.

To make matters worse, there is a noticeable lag between button inputs and Monkey’s actions. This makes the game less about reflexes and more about compensating. You have to spend extra care learning the timing for dodges, or else you’ll end up frustrated.

Platforming is an example of severe hand holding. When you’re supposed to be swinging around the environment, it is always painfully obvious because the object you’re supposed to interact with flashes. Then all you have to do is move the analog stick and press the X button. It might be fun to watch as Monkey moves from platform to platform, but it isn’t all that impressive to play. There are some bits towards the end when you actually have to time your jumps to avoid shooting flames or turning gears, but it comes too late. They’re the only times during these sections when you’ll feel some danger, and they are admittedly better because of it.

Now, seeing as Monkey is trying to help Trip across this landscape, you might think you’ve got to lead her by the hand like you would in something like Ico. To the contrary, she’s pretty good at staying out of the way and only moving forward when its clear. She can’t attack, but if an enemy gets too close, she can stun it long enough for you to save her. She can also conjure up a distraction to divert enemy fire, allowing you to move relatively safely. There are several moments when you need to use this feature to move ahead so you can then distract the enemies yourself, allowing her to move forward. Also, in puzzle sequences, you’ll need to direct her to turn levers, move across platforms and the like in order to get both you and her safely across. Trip had a good chance of turning this game into one long escort mission, but instead it is her constant non-intrusive presence that adds weight to whatever it is your doing. Trust me, when all of that jumping and fighting is going towards saving a character you actually care about, you can forgive a lot of the flaws.

The game is super linear. That isn’t always a problem, especially if the game was intended for it, but here it causes annoyances left and right. For starters, you may need to jump up onto a ledge, but you’ll find that some parts of the ledge won’t let you climb them. Other times you’ll want to leap over an obstacle that you know you can leap over, only to have the game not register the move and instead have you perform a dodge roll into it. You can’t fall off of ledges, you can’t make jumps if there is no visible place to jump to, and the sense of exploration is killed because of that. This is a carefully crafted experience when it comes to the games pacing. This works out great for the story, but it doesn’t amount to much in the gameplay department.

Thankfully, you’ll be so invested it everything else that is going on that you’ll probably forgive these shortcomings.

Replayability

Playing through the game from start to finish will take you somewhere in the neighborhood of ten hours. This is quickly becoming the standard length for modern action games, but it still feels a bit short. The game offers three difficulty settings that affect how much damage that Mechs do as well as how much damage they can take before going down.

Your options for replay aren’t too limited if you’re up for it. The game features a decent chapter select that allows you to go to your favorite moments. It isn’t much, but it is more than a lot of games offer. If you’re the kind of person who want to look around for the last collectibles, max out your upgrades, or even earn trophies, this system is especially helpful because it tells you how much you have left to go for each chapter. It’s very useful.

Still, if you don’t go for that kind of thing, this game is probably only good for the first play through. You might decry the lack of multiplayer, but the inclusion of such would dilute the experience. Overall, you’ll need to consider if the ten or so hours is worth it for you.

Balance

I would be loathe to call this a difficult game in any regard. You might have some difficulty before you’ve purchases a few upgrades, but most of the game is pretty easy to get through. Throughout the entire game, I only died twice during combat, twice because of some instant kill move, and a few others because of a few frustrating moments.

Those moments are a couple of chase scenes when Monkey rides on a floating disc. Basically, you’ve got to chase down some big Mech while grabbing speed boosts, making jumps, and all on a time limit. They’re meant to be cinematic moments, and they are, but they’re still frustrating for a couple of reasons. The biggest reason is that it is mostly about pattern recognition. You need to play these sections over and over again in order to get it right. The problem with that is that you have to suffer through thirty second load times every time you fail. There were two of these sequences, and they were the only times I got pissed at the game.

If you’re looking for a challenge, this game will not satisfy. Even the hard difficulty was relatively easy to go through and the easy difficulty is a bit of a joke. Once you’ve bought the regenerating health upgrade, it becomes hard to die through losing all of your life. Point in case, you find health vials that Trip can use to restore your health. I used this once, just to see what it looked like.

Originality

I can’t think of anything this game particularly steals from any other game. Sure, you could say that the navigating sequences are ripped from something like Assassin’s Creed, but I didn’t get the same feel from this game. It doesn’t have the freedom of that game, and is more about the the visuals that navigation. The combat doesn’t really rip off of anything, rather it conforms to industry standards. (Without the quality)

Still, I can’t say anything this game does is new. Motion capture was used extensively in Heavenly Sword, post-apocalyptic landscape are becoming increasingly common in video games, etc. What does feel original is how the characters move the story forward rather than having a bunch of reactions to outside stimuli.

I’ve long been a proponent that originality is an overrated aspect when it comes to criticizing games. Just because a game doesn’t do anything new doesn’t mean the score should be lessened. Still, I think it important to mention to potential buyers that originality isn’t this game’s strong suit.

Addictiveness

You might think that significantly flawed gameplay could lessen your ability to become addicted. If you do, then you really didn’t pay attention to the earlier parts of this review.

I beat this game in only a small handful of session. I kept it to about two or three chapters a time only because I didn’t want to blow through the whole game in one day and then struggle to remember anything about it. I was totally invested in what would happen to Monkey and Trip that I couldn’t wait to pop this disc in and continue the adventure. The last time I felt this way about a similar game was God of War III itself. Judging by how much I’m in love with that series, you should be able to see how impressive that is to me.

Other people I know who’ve played the game have pretty much said the same thing. The presentation and pacing work incredibly well together. Enslaved is a well crafted experience that will keep you interested from start to end. Even after I’d seen the credits, I had to keep playing, and not just for review credits. I was still hooked, and I wasn’t ready to be done yet.

Appeal Factor

There’s been a serviceable about of buzz surrounding this game thanks mostly to the talent involved and the art style making some waves. As such, I know there are a lot of people looking closely at reviews to see if they should bother picking this up. It stems a lot from the opinions of Heavenly Sword that said it could be something special if the gameplay were improved. This being Ninja Theory’s first game since, expectations were high.

What it boils down to is the same conundrum, though with a better story to outweigh the gameplay. If you liked Heavenly Sword despite its flaws, you’ll probably like this. If gameplay is of the utmost importance to you, this game is worth a rent at least.

If you like action games, or you’re looking for a good story, this game is worth look.

Miscellaneous

In terms of bonuses, the game is lacking. There’s nothing to unlock, even though behind the scenes footage is widely available on the internet. I really wish a making of documentary was included with the game, as this is one of the rare games you want to learn more about.

One issue I have is with the way the game installs. It seems to be installing during odd sequences in order to avoid a lengthy install time at the beginning. This leads to two annoying problems. First, there are a bunch of sections where you go through one door and then wait around for a while until the next door opens. It’s clear that this is to hid loading times, and it gets annoying. Also, you need to keep a certain about of space free on your hard drive or the game won’t play at all, even though it takes up space with the install.

There are also some glitches that pop there heads in every once in a while. The audio starts early, a character might disappear, or you won’t be able to move for a little while after a cutscene. You’ll only encounter a few of these moments whilst playing through the story, but it does show a lack of polish in some regards.

Overall, the game feels like it could have used a bit more time in development. They could have tightened up the gameplay, tried to fix the framerate, and cleared up some of these glitches.

The Scores

Story: Amazing
Graphics: Good
Audio: Unparalleled
Gameplay: Poor
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Below Average
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
Final Score: Enjoyable Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

With dynamite writing, voice acting, music, art design, and one of the best stories in recent memory, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, the rest of the game can’t quite hold up. The gameplay is lacking in terms of depth and functionality, it doesn’t have much replay value, it isn’t very challenging, and there are plenty of flaws and hiccups that lessen the overall experience. However, the game does do enough with what works to make up for those flaws, which I can’t say for most games I’ve played. If you’re willing to sit through some frustration, you’ll have an overall enjoyable experience.

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