Saturday, April 16, 2011

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Enslaved is a pretty weird game. It's a retelling of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, a story which has inspired countless other adaptations such as Dragon Ball, set in a future where society has been wiped out and the few remaining humans fight to survive against slavers and homicidal robots. It has a lot of platforming components to its basic gameplay, but it's literally impossible to fall to your death. The main character is a freakishly athletic shirtless man with facial tattoos and voice acted by Andy Serkis, best known for playing Gollum. The entire game is basically one long escort mission. The third most prominent character is a fat guy who resembles and sounds like a talking pig, and the story goes on for the entire time with no real visible villains. Namco was disappointed with the sales, but frankly I'm surprised it did even as well as it did. There's just not much about the game that screams commercial success, despite the lush visuals and solidly fun action. I really dug the game a lot, and find it a bit disheartening that it's now so cheap and probably won't get a chance for a sequel. But I definitely see why that's the case. It's a unique product released in a really busy time without much fanfare.

Even with better positioning though, it was probably destined for a fate similar to a game like Beyond Good & Evil, which miraculously actually does have a sequel in development, at least last I heard. I was repeatedly reminded of that game while playing this one, though it isn't quite from the same school of design. BG&E took a lot of inspiration from The Legend of Zelda's philosophy of a large open area leading to various puzzle-heavy dungeons, while Enslaved takes more from the recent Prince of Persia games with a linear progression of platforming-heavy areas punctuated by larger set pieces and some combat. They're not exactly alike, but I think the comparison is apt, and I think there's more than a little in common between the two, enough to make me think a fan of one would like the other. They were both developed by European studios, which sometimes have a flavor that feels distinct from American games. They both have a main character equipped with a powerful staff and a vehicle that lets them float over water, and are frequently accompanied by one or more computer-controlled characters. They both have good stories heavily featuring characterization that's unusually strong for a video game.

The game starts as Monkey escapes from a slaver airship that crashes in a destroyed and overgrown New York City and is then subdued by Trip, another captive with a lot of computer skill, who uses a special headband that will kill him if she dies or he disobeys her orders. She promises to set him free when he brings her home, though there's tension between them at first as Monkey resents her actions. As he guides and protects her on the way to her village, their relationship changes into a friendlier one, and the development there is one of the game's strongest aspects. It gets a bit awkward with the pig-like third character is introduced, but he eventually becomes sympathetic as well and pays off well before the story ends. There's a weird use of live action elements sprinkled around here and there that also feature heavily in the ending, the bizarreness of which overshadows the actual revelations of the plot at least a little bit, but I appreciated that they took risks and tried out new things with the story. A lot of it works because of the voice and motion capture work, which I believe was directed by Serkis, and lends a realism to the animation that helps a lot.

The visuals in general are pretty spectacular. All of the animation is a pleasure to watch, with Monkey being one of the smoothest and most agile game characters I've had the fun to play as. The environments are awe inspiring as well, with a lot of the highlights coming early on in the destroyed city, but there's a lot of cool stuff near the end as well. Some of the areas in the third quarter or so of the game are a bit bland, focusing on indoor industrial locations, but the game is just fun to look at any time you're outside. There are some Unreal-engine related issues with the detail on certain things popping in later than it should that seemed to get worse as the game went on, as well as some problems with audio skipping or dropping out, but they didn't end up distracting me much. It wasn't the most technically perfect game I've played, but I liked the look as a whole a lot.

And it's a fun game, too. Monkey is fun to control, the interaction between him and the other characters usually adds to the joy of working things out, and there's even some light shooting elements thrown in that work. The mix of stealth and brawling in the combat helps out a system that's not terribly complex on its own, and which manages to sustain itself through the length of the story. The platforming is a bit on auto-pilot, as the game only lets you jump towards things you can actually jump to, but Monkey's acrobatics make it entertaining nonetheless, and there are parts where obstacles or collapsing portions do add an element of danger that is otherwise lacking. No single element of the game is really taken to its fullest extent in a game that doesn't last terribly long, but it mixes things up a lot and pulls you along with the story that it's just a fun ride while it lasts. The orb collecting and upgrading sort of felt like they were only there out of some sense of obligation that a modern game should have collecting and upgrading, but they didn't hurt the game either. Really, not much about Enslaved is truly exceptional or original, but the way it puts everything together without the seams showing and with a solid sense of wonder makes it greater than the sum of its parts. I like shooting things and blood exploding everywhere and dark, serious stories just fine, but things like this are always welcome.

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