Enslaved: Odyssey to the West begins with a rather bland tutorial. Monkey, an acrobatic wanderer, escapes from his cell on a slave ship and runs through one long hallway while explosions kill the enemies around him. Even though the ship is crashing, there’s no sense of urgency since the game doesn’t want to rush players through its tutorial. Then the back half of the ship splits apart, Monkey is sucked outside, the whole ship goes vertical, and Monkey has to scale its massive wing before it crashes into a building. At this point, the camera pans out and you can see the building rocketing towards you. If you don’t get up that wing fast it will kill you, but let it kill you. Take this moment to marvel at the sense of scale on display. One massive structure is hurtling towards another, and there you are—caught in between. After the first level, you’ll be hooked, and Enslaved will keep sticking its hooks in you until you reach the end and wish for more.
After surviving the crash, you’ll spend a lot of the game exploring the lush ruins of a long dead New York City. Another survivor, Trip, wants to get back home, but she can’t traverse the dangerous world alone, so she uses a slave collar to force Monkey into helping her. The story moves at a brisk pace, and there’s never a good stopping point. Even though the game is split into chapters, each chapter begins with a cut scene that will leave you wanting more, sometimes with the promise of action and sometimes with the promise of story. Ninja Theory has created a fascinating world with unique characters, and you’ll just want to know what happens next.
The characters are a major part of Enslaved, and it’s obvious that a lot of work has gone into bringing them to life. The voice acting is superb, easily the best of the year. Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw are able to convey a lot of emotion through subtle inflections, and lines that might sound cheesy in other games (like the typical “go flip that switch over there” instruction) sound natural. You’ll feel compelled to obey the order not because the game is telling you to do it, but because Trip is. It’s a testament to the skills of the actors and writers involved that Trip is able to come off as a sympathetic character within 30 seconds of slapping a slave collar on Monkey’s forehead.
The slave collar also gives a narrative justification for a lot of standard “gamey” things like the HUD, destination icons, why we can’t run away, and why we can hear Trip even if she’s far away. It’s clever and shows that the developer cares about how story and gameplay can work together. It’s a shame then that the gameplay is lacking the same level of polish as the story.
As far as character-focused action games go, Monkey doesn’t have a lot of combat moves, only eight total, and most are available from the very beginning. This results in a slow pace for combat since you don’t have to hit a string of buttons to do one move. Everything can be done with a single button press (though sometimes you do have to hit two buttons at once) so your thumbs will never be flying wildly across the controller. This simplicity is actually refreshing for the genre and you’ll certainly use all the moves, but the awkward pace takes some getting used to.
The camera, on the other hand, is constantly annoying. Whenever you attack or make a long jump, the camera insists on zooming in close to Monkey. This isn’t a problem during the platforming, but in combat, the effect is compounded when you fight next to a wall since the camera is never allowed outside the geometry of the level. Instead, when it tries to zoom in behind Monkey and he’s near a wall, it’ll get in so close that you won’t be able to see enemies around you or even the enemy that you’re currently attacking. Fighting in tights spaces is always frustrating.
The platforming feels good but has its share of issues. Jumping is purely context sensitive, so you can only jump when the developer wants you to be able to jump. This leads to some odd moments where Monkey is unable to get over a mound of dirt even though he’s just scaled an airship. You also can’t fail when platforming since you can only jump from one handhold to another, which makes it all overly easy.
Despite its gameplay flaws, Enslaved is one of most engrossing games of the year. The relationship between Trip and Monkey is a joy to watch. They never voice their feelings, but they don’t have to. The characters say more in a single sentence than other games can explain with a paragraph of exposition. And sometimes words aren’t even necessary, the detailed facial animation says it all. Such subtlety is refreshing for a medium more known for its over the top spectacle.
It’s strange that in an action game my most memorable moments weren’t big fight scenes, but are found in lines of dialogue that were written so perfectly written and delivered so beautifully that I can’t get them out of my head. That’s not to say that there’s a lack of action (the final boss battle is particularly grandiose), but the narrative aspects of the game are just so well crafted, especially the surprisingly poignant ending. While there are better pure action games out there, if you care at all about story or characters then Enslaved is a must play.