Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is apparently based on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, but I think Ninja Theory have pulled a fast one. Yes, the character names are the same and there’s some kind of journey involved, but I’m pretty sure ancient eastern literature didn’t go in too much for giant robot scorpions the way Enslaved does.
Years of steroid abuse have transformed Sun Wukong the Monkey King into a gruff, feral nomad who rides an unfeasibly huge motorbike. Tripitaka (Xuanzang in the original text) has suffered an inexplicable gender shift and is now a sassy, tech-savvy chick that looks suspiciously like the protagonist from one of Ninja Theory’s earlier games, and fantastical Ancient China is now post-apocalyptic New York, ravaged by a global war that has something to do with robots. I understand that adapting classic literature is never going to be a smooth ride, but Enslaved is so far removed from its “source material” that I’m just going to treat it as its own intellectual property and forget about JttW altogether.
It’s the future again and humanity is on its last legs, struggling to survive in a world overrun with an army of bloodthirsty mechs who work for some shady organisation called Pyramid. Our protagonist is a chap called Monkey (voiced by Andy Serkis), who at the start of the game is trapped aboard a giant slave ship that’s plummeting rapidly towards the ground. During his acrobatic escape he meets a hot young woman called Tripitaka, and together they manage to survive the crash. When he wakes up, he finds that his new friend has strapped a magic headband around his noggin and if he doesn’t stay close to her and do exactly what she says his head will explode. Trip needs to get back home, 300 miles away across the dangerous wasteland, and because she’s a vulnerable stereotype she needs Monkey’s help to do it. Enter the player.
The whole headband thing is an intriguing concept, but its presence is in service to the narrative rather than the gameplay. It only really has any effect on Monkey during scripted sequences, and at various points the game completely forgets about it and lets the pair of them run around huge distances apart. Other than that it’s just a neat way of keeping Monkey shackled to the plot without having to waste time explaining his backstory and motivations. It also has little glitches which give Monkey visions of what the world was like before the war, which gain significance later on and also add a layer of interesting mystique to the story which is otherwise absent in the overarching narrative.
The underlying problem with Enslaved’s narrative is that it presents us with too many things we’re supposed to just blithely accept. Why did this war occur? Who are the bad guys? Who are we rooting for and why should we care? Why are Monkey’s hands so big? All of these things are never really answered, and without wishing to spoil anything, the ending (while reasonably well done) offers little in the way of closure. An antagonist is only truly effective when they’re characterised in such a way that we naturally root for the hero. A game can’t just tell you to feel certain emotions about certain characters; if it’s doing its job correctly, you’ll be feeling them anyway, but an entity without personality, motive or, in this case at least, even an identity, doesn’t create the feelings of antipathy that we should have for the bad guy.
(Note: Enslaved’s bad guy figure does have all of the above elements, he just isn’t introduced until the final ten minutes, so the point still stands).
I wasn’t actually going to write about Enslaved at all, but reading Michael Abbott’s essay on the game really brought it to the forefront of my mind. His thoughts follow a very similar trajectory to mine and our opinions on the narrative structure and the fusion of gameplay and storytelling elements run almost parallel, but I wanted to take a little time out to expand on some of the things (both positive and negative) that really stood out for me personally. However, I strongly suggest you read his essay for a broader impression of the game as a whole.
The overall pacing is pretty bad: the opening is strong, the ending is strong, but the middle chapters are a dreary concoction of repetitive design decisions. There’s a reasonable balance of combat and exploration, but both are flawed in such a way that neither are as fulfilling as they could be.
In particular, the “platforming” mechanic really bothered me. Performing complex acrobatic a sequence is phenomenally satisfying, but only when risk is involved. Consider the difference between a jump that you actually perform yourself (the kind you might find in Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia) and a jump that the game performs for you. In Enslaved, Monkey won’t move to another ledge or platform unless the analog stick is pointing in the appropriate direction. If you’re trying to jump to an object that looks like it can accommodate you and actually can’t, Monkey won’t attempt the leap and fall to his death; he simply won’t jump at all. Removing this sense of danger also eradicates any sense of thrill or accomplishment. This isn’t platforming, it’s just moving in a ridiculously obtuse way.
What did impress me, though, were the visual design and the flamboyant artistic direction. The early chapters in particular are lush, vibrant landscapes; bright, natural colours (especially green) are juxtaposed with the tattered architecture of a ruined civilisation, and the overall effect is dazzling. It reminded me of Dante’s Inferno in a way, another game (also based on classic literature, incidentally) which was quite mediocre in almost all areas other than aesthetic design. There’s something to be said for an interesting-looking world, regardless of how you are forced to interact with it.
In the end, though, Enslaved simply isn’t strong enough as a whole to capitalise on the few things it does do reasonably well. It’s not a bad game; it’s ambitious, has high production values and the talent behind it to help it tell an excellent story; it’s just more concerned with emulating the core elements from other, better games than standing out from the crowd. It’s a shame, but hardly a surprise.