It’s not often that a developer will go all out. Ninja Theory are definitely ones to do this, with Heavenly Sword paving the way for PS3 gaming showing off the impressive hardware and throwing in an enthralling story to boot. It was just a shame that it lacked in the gameplay department. It felt more like a great story but with tedious quick time events thrown in to make it seem like a game. Shenmue did it right, Heavenly Sword unfortunately did it wrong. But it’s hard to knock the creative drive of Ninja Theory who attempts to get every little detail right, especially in character expressions, so the little nuances add to the emotion. Luckily for us they got it bang on with Enslaved mixing a fantastic story that pulls the player in while throwing in some exciting gameplay.
Enslaved is loosely based on the chinese folklore tale Journey To The West, a story of a monk who travels across China into India to find some mythical scrolls with the help of some disgraced gods seeking redemption. The only real similarities here, however, are the character names and some of their traits. The story follows Monkey who, after escaping from a slaver ship, teams up rather unwittingly with Trip, who forces a headband on Monkey with the sole purpose of getting him to co-operate in getting her home. This headband allows Trip to give Monkey commands and, if she dies, he dies. Together, they venture through a post-apocalyptic wasteland where mechs roam the land looking for humans to kill.
The dynamic between the two characters is definitely one of the games strong points. It’s a pairing that, over time, begins to evolve into something more than just one using the other for personal gain and, supported by a fantastic script and great voice acting, creates a relationship which has a real emotional pay off by the end. Whereas Trip is in control of Monkey, she still needs him to help her survive, which brings up a number of issues and their situation of being figuratively stuck together really allows their relationship to blossom. When the third character of the game, Pigsy, is introduced, you get a real dynamic and a cast of characters it’s hard not to love. The characters feel real despite their unusual nature. Their relationship feels real and you really get emotionally involved in these characters which, from just glancing at trailers or demos, you wouldn’t think possible.
In terms of gameplay, Enslaved swaps between slick platforming and combat, sometimes almost seamlessly. The platforming is where the most fun is to be had. It feels how the remade Prince of Persia should’ve been, if it weren’t terribly boring. Moving around the environment, from platform to platform, pole to handhold, is so slick that just watching Monkey clamber about the environment is great. There are no cheap pitfalls, infact Monkey will only jump to something if there is something there. This lack of challenge may upset some people but it’s just great to fluidly move about the environment with the agility of…well…of a monkey. It’s just exciting to feel so acrobatic with no cheap deaths. There are certain things blocking the way and certain jumps need to be well timed just in case you wanted more challenge.
This precision can sometimes lead to fussiness, however. For certain jumps, you need to be placed in a specific spot to make it or Monkey will simply stumble towards the edge. It’s rather annoying if you’ve had a fluid motion going to just lose it because you weren’t positioned correctly. Also, there are occasionally problems with climbing back down things in that half way down you might suddenly start climbing up, which caused me great annoyance in the final boss battle.
The combat is a bit all over the place. It is a mixture of hand to hand and ranged, with Monkey’s staff not only being able to whack the ever loving oil out of the mechs but also shoot bolts of plasma at them. Hand to hand combos rely mainly on button mashing although there is an element of strategy in figuring out when to stun enemies. There’s also the chance to exploit flaws in certain mechs which, when activated, can turn them into a bomb or let off an EMP blast upon destruction, helping you defeat those around you. There are major problems in that once an attack animation has started it’s impossible to suddenly block so many cheap hits (especially from the larger mechs later in the game) from easily getting through. Switching between ranged and hand to hand is very easy and feels very fluid, and that’s where the real fun of combat comes in.
Having Trip as a permanent part would feel like a burden, as Elika did in the previously mentioned Prince of Persia, but Ninja Theory have made it so she is as burdenless as possible. Not once did she die during my play through. She doesn’t engage in combat, so stays out of the way most of the time, only letting off an EMP so Monkey can get to her rescue. She’s incredibly useful for co-op puzzles, which don’t feel too difficult but are enough of a challenge to keep the player interested, and her mechanical dragonfly is extremely useful for finding routes through levels. Most of her movements, such as her decoy move which keeps fire off of Monkey, are done through a simple selection wheel. Where a permanent co-op partner would normally be a hinderance, Ninja Theory has made it so that you’re glad she’s around. You do not have to hold Trip’s hand very often which allows you to explore at will.
I wouldn’t do the game justice if I didn’t talk about Cloud, Monkey’s floating device that allows him to move over territory and water much faster than normal. While it’s useful for getting across water, it also leads to some cool chase sequences which really ramp up the tension, although it is disappointing there are only two.
The art direction is a refreshing change from the usually post-apocalyptic palette of brown and grey (I’m looking at you Fallout!). Instead you get lush green landscapes, with ivy and moss covering the tall skyscrapers and rusty reds covering the unused machinery. It’s extremely bright and vivid and gives a sense of life to a place full of death. The character design is equally fantastic, with simple facial expressions saying more than words could. The sound design is equally top notch with a superb soundtrack that knows when to ramp up tension and when to kick up the emotion. Voice acting, as mentioned before, is superb with Andy Serkis as Monkey really bringing life to the character. And that’s not forgetting Trip and Pigsy whose tremendous voice actors make them believable, with Pigsy’s comic timing being spot-on.
Enslaved feels very much like the odyssey it professes in its subtitle. The ten hour epic takes you through some wonderful landscapes as well as the emotional journey of the characters, pushed forwards by a terrific script and great voice acting. It is most definitely flawed but it’s not a game you’re going to forget easily.