Enslaved: Odyssey to the West review
Enslaved: Could be a double entendre
Here's something that almost nobody knew much about, yet comes out and suddenly kicks most peoples' asses; Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, a game developed by the same guys behind Heavenly Sword. If you want my honest opinion, Heavenly Sword isn't that good of a game. Story's great, but the gameplay is pretty average when compared to the competition (Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, God Of War). So when I heard that they'll be developing this game, the only thought that went through my head was "yeah, umm... not a good time to release something with average gameplay when you have Darksiders and God Of War 3 to compete with" (then again, Visceral Games didn't listen when releasing Dante's Inferno RIGHT IN BETWEEN THE RELEASES OF BOTH GAMES!!), though to my surprise, it actually has good gameplay alongside a very well told story. Enslaved may not be the best game or even the biggest sleeper hit of 2010 (that title belongs to Nier), but it's definitely up there and well worth playing.
Enslaved: Odyssey To The West is yet another adaptation of the classic Chinese tale, Journey To The West. Nice to know that the source material is getting some attention, even if a decent chunk of the tributes are loosely based off of them - the most famous being the Dragon Ball franchise, taking the concept of a staff wielding monkey boy and having him journey to the west. Enslaved does about the same thing, only it takes place after the apocalypse. Yes, the apocalypse... though unlike Darksiders, Ninja Theory remembered that when mankind dwindles down to a much lower number than they're at now, nature takes over... oh, and so do mechs, apparently... I mean, the mechs were sort of the ones who did cause this apocalypse after all, taking a page out of the Terminator book in which technology screws us over, though unlike Terminator (well, so far - the fourth movie sort of left itself open for a sequel - not that it really matters, only the first two were good), the war has been done for quite some time, and technology won. Out of this comes slavery, though if I was to explain the reason behind it, I'd spoil the ending!
So how does any of that tie in with our heroes, Monkey and Trip? Well, the fact that both were enslaved, though they end up escaping (level 1: complete), and because Trip wants to be able to get home from where they land after a crash landing without mechs killing her, she forces Monkey to become her bodyguard with a headband that kills him, should he wander too far away from her (and no, it's not marriage). Throughout their journey, Monkey and Trip become attached to each other. Even though he wants the headband off throughout the journey, when he DOES get the opportunity, he refuses because he ends up liking her. There aren't any more characters, which gives you time to appreciate the small cast over the course of the game. It also gives them ample time to develop in just the right way. The old adage "less is more" definitely applies here, because it's actually quite a simple concept and there isn't much in the way of events, but the development is just something else! The story will keep you hooked because you'll really want to see who is behind all of this (spoiler: it's not Skynet), and you'll also want to see just where the relationship between Monkey and Trip goes. It's excellent storytelling like this that makes me think that games can be more than just the mediocre Shot In The Face 12 and Bitch Slap 7 types.
Unfortunately, there are a few gameplay related issues that will probably disappoint or even annoy you at times. First thing's first - the controls can feel rather fidgety or stiff. Most of the time, they'll obey you, but sometimes, Monkey will either go off on a completely different direction forcing you to release the left analogue stick and pushing that direction again to get him moving the right way, or he'll flat out refuse to jump up that platform. Oh, and it's not made too obvious where he'll end up - there's an object that Monkey could do a long jump over towards, but no, let's just drop down instead. It would've made more sense to just hang off the ledge first and then press the circle button to let go, not press X to try and get to that not so far off seeming ledge only to drop down.
That leads me to another problem I have with this game - the platforming practically does itself for you! Yeah, I had a problem with Wet being inconsistent with its platforming, but at least you did it yourself, while Enslaved practically holds you by the hand. You'll be jumping across chasms to get somewhere, or hanging on some indents while scaling buildings. That's asking to hold you by the hand, because if you had preset lengths and heights, you'll probably die a lot, but because it does 99% of the work for you (oh don't worry, the last couple of levels have some cheap tricks in the form of fire coming out of exhausts), it never, ever feels satisfying. Prince Of Persia 08 did the same thing, but you had to pay attention sometimes, because failing to press a button at certain points means the prince will be taking a one way trip to hell - Monkey, however, doesn't die in these sections... ever (except against fire in the last two levels). Ninja Theory must've really painted themselves into a corner here...
Funny how these lead onto one another... Anyway, the final problem is that the game never truly feels challenging. I've already explained why platforming is like that, and the puzzles at least required some thought to go through (not quite Zelda/Darksiders tough, but credit is to be given where it's due), so let's explain why combat also falls into this. I understand that this is more of a story driven game and that the game would rather tell a story than overwhelm you with enemies stronger than god himself, but after going through all 14 chapters, the enemies never really get tougher; just in more numbers. Maybe one or two instances are hard at first, but give yourself about 5 minutes in each situation, and you'll be able to take them down with no problem. In saying that, the few bosses you do encounter manage to fill this void. Their tactics are simple enough, though fighting them actually requires a decent amount of skill, especially the rhino boss. So really, it's just the bosses and puzzles that are challenging, and they don't occur nearly as often as the regular enemy fights or platforming...
It's such a shame that the enemies aren't anything to write home about, because the combat engine is actually pretty good. Oh it's very simple - you're either hammering on the square button or the triangle button, but it's a good way to do it. Not every hack and slash game needs to be as combo heavy as Ninja Gaiden, and despite a lack of challenge, Enslaved proves this time and time again with battles that are fun and refreshingly addictive (don't think I have no problems just because I said that; I just like games to give me an increasing amount of challenge, preferably in increments). I almost always looked forward to the next fight, just so that I could really let loose.
Amongst physical combat, there's also the ability to shoot plasma at your enemies. You get two different sorts – stun, and regular. One stuns, the other inflicts damage, and this helps when dealing with either shielded or charging enemies, especially from a distance... because getting hit will alter the camera angle just enough so that if you try to aim again, you'll get hit again. It's just nice to know that you have more up your arsenal, in case going head to head in a group nets you a few too many deaths.
In fact, if you're dying a few too many times for whatever reason (maybe you're getting surrounded?), you could always upgrade yourself. You can either strengthen up your shield, make your plasma blasts stronger, gain a few physical abilities and give yourself more health. This is very important for hard mode, because even though there are some health packs lying around, you never know when the bosses are doing more damage than you can take, and you may want to be better equipped than just a combo, a strong attack, a spreading attack, a stunning attack and plasma shots with minimal ammo.
As I've briefly mentioned, there are puzzles. From having to raise/lower bridges so you can proceed to turning machinery around so you can get a submarine through, there's definitely something to keep you thinking while taking down enemies on the way over. Granted that they're far from the trickiest puzzles you'll ever encounter in video gaming, eh, at least they give you some challenge for a little while, and doing something other than fighting and criminally easy platforming is worth praising when its done right. Some would say that they get tedious upon repeated plays, but eh, it's something extra to do, and its done well enough, so I have no problems here.
Then there's Trip... Remember, this is an escort mission, so you'll need to keep your comrade alive. This doesn't sound good; I'm still traumatised by how annoying Ashley was in Resident Evil 4, always getting in the way! Thankfully, Trip is more like Sheva from Resident Evil 5, in which she was, umm, useful. In a pinch, she'll stun enemies with EMPs (but situations that'll call for it are rare, mostly because you'll be to her rescue quick as quick can be), distract enemies with a hologram while you run to either run from or to enemies without dying, and do all the technological work (just by the way, Monkey was raised in the wild, so he doesn't know anything about technology). Because of all of this, she makes for a great companion, even if she can't really fight or jump as far as Monkey, but that's okay, because he has all the bases covered and she never gets in the way anyway... yeah, I'm still not over Ashley being a pain in the ass to escort...
The graphics are... mixed. There are a fair amount of minor little imperfections, like having to wait for textures to become crispy (a problem that plagued the 360 version of The Last Remnant), having to deal with questionable lip syncing, some framerate inconsistencies here and there, and occasionally, bodies going through scenery (but ONLY during a takedown, thankfully). But let's look at the big picture – when it looks crispy, it looks crispy. The textures, in combination with the colors (especially the use of the color green) make the environments look very detailed and almost realistic, given that it's supposed to be post-apocalyptic. The character models also look realistic, with the right proportions and everything (might disappoint some of you that Trip doesn't have DD sized boobies, but I'd say she still looks nice), and the mechs look pretty menacing. It's definitely a pretty looking game with its issues.
The soundtrack is pretty good. It manages to set and amplify the right moods for each situation, pumping you up a bit for battle, or making you emotional during those moments where some emotion would make you look human. It's not catchy or anything, but it provides the correct ambiance to make something of itself. The voice acting is where it's at – there aren't many characters to voice, but what we got is just excellent, managing to convey the correct emotions at the exact intensity as what real life people would, and it's just what makes the story that much more compelling!
Enslaved: Odyssey To The West is a tricky game to actually rate. It's not all that challenging, the platforming is practically done for you, and the controls are a little uncooperative. If these were problems in any other game, it'd be maybe above average at best. Then you have to consider the excellent story and, challenge aside, proof that less truly is more. I'll most certainly recommend this to people who don't care about how challenging a game is and would rather experience a well written story, but if you want a hard game, then you're better off playing... I don't know, Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow, because that is a pretty challenging game.
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