Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Review
If Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was a movie instead of a video game, it would be a perfect world.
I remember the day I purchased my Playstation 3: My friends, my family, and even the sales clerk who worked on commission were laughing their asses off as I forked over $600 for a console with no more than three games worth purchasing.
But there was one spectacularly shining moment that truly made all of the Playstation naysayers turn green with envy: The release of Ninja Theory’s Playstation 3 exclusive: Heavenly Sword. Heavenly Sword was like an expensive confectionery: it was short-lived, but it was sweet and memorable and worth the purchase. The graphics were mind-blowing, the cutscenes were masterful, the combat was fulfilling, and the story… ohhhhh, the story… it was fan-fucking-tastic, and it is still one of the most engrossing video game stories of all time.
But Heavenly Sword was lambasted by the critics and the Xbox-jockies solely on the grounds of being a 6-hour long game, and with the low installation base of the Playstation 3 at the time, Heavenly Sword, unfortunately, never became a financial success. Which was a terrible shame for such a satisfying game, and that is why Ninja Theory declared that their next project would no longer be exclusive to the Playstation 3. Playstation fanboys were PISSED, but just as long as the PS3 got Ninja Theory’s next game I was happy as a pig in shit.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was released in October 2010 to good reviews, but four months later, Enslaved had only sold approximately 460,000 copies world wide, truly a disappointing figure.
But it’s not like I helped that number, since I didn’t buy Enslaved until about two weeks ago. Yeah, as much as I loved Heavenly Sword I just never felt the same ‘draw’ to Enslaved. I mean, shit, the Playstation 3 HAS GAMES NOW!! I’ve been playing games like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Splatterhouse, 3D Dot Game Heroes, Dead Nation, Yakuza 3, and lots of other great titles that have been catching more of my attention than Enslaved did. But after recently replaying a few of my favorite levels of Heavenly Sword (mostly the ones with the bat-shit loco, slow-mo crossbow sharpshooter, Kai), I was recaptivated by Ninja Theory’s magic and decided to give Enslaved: Odyssey to the West an honest looking into.
Plus, it was for sale on Amazon.com for about $20, so I had little to no excuse NOT to give it a chance to win over my heart, mind, and thumbs.
And it did just that.
Written by Alex Garland (the novelist who wrote The Beach, as well as the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine) Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a re-imagining of the Chinese epic novel “Journey to the West”, in which the main character, Sun Wukong, The Monkey King, journeys Westward to retrieve Buddhist sutras from India. However, outside of some similar characters from the Chinese novel, the main plot of Enslaved takes a bit of a sidetrack:
It’s been 150 years since mankind was nearly wiped out by a great war, and the remainder of humanity is being hunted to extinction by the war machines left over from the aforementioned war. There are estimated to be about 50,000 people left on the continent of North America, with the majority of the rest exterminated and thousands more enslaved within a mysterious Pyramid far to the West.
Monkey, an enormous brute of a man (voiced by the talented Andy Serkis of The Lord of the Rings movies and Heavenly Sword) wakes up within a holding cell aboard a flying slave ship traveling westward towards the Pyramid. As he attempts break free from his spherical cell, he sees a young red-headed woman escaping the now crashing slave ship. Monkey’s cell is damaged, allowing his escape, and he races to the few remaining escape pods. As he reaches the last available escape pod, he sees that it’s occupied by the same red-headed girl he had seen earlier. The girl, afraid of the enormous and intimidating man (who is pounding violently on the door of the pod to be let in) ejects the pod with Monkey holding on for dear life from the outside. As the escape pod rockets away from the crashing ship, it crash lands in a lush, post-apocalyptic New York City.
That’s right, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West begins in a post-apocalyptic… Garden of Eden. Instead of the deserts and bleak wastelands of other post-apocalyptic movies and games, Mother Nature has reclaimed the earth, turning the ancient ruins of our modern society into lush, green forests.
Meanwhile, Monkey wakes up a short distance from the crash site of the escape pod with a massive headache. The girl from the space ship is sitting nervously on a log, and Monkey recognizes her. Pissed about nearly being killed during the ejection, he threatens to tear the girl’s head off, until she commands him to stop, which paralyzes Monkey with pain. The girl, Trip, is a hacker, and, while Monkey was unconscious, she installed a slave headband from the ship onto him. The horror of the situation dawns on Monkey as Trip tells him that if he doesn’t follow her commands, the headband will cause him intense pain. Even worse, if Trip dies, Monkey will die with her.
But Trip’s actions are not entirely spontaneous, and she tells Monkey that she needs him in order to survive a 300 mile journey back to her home in the West. This begins an uneasy alliance between the two – one built not on trust or loyalty, but solely out of need. Monkey, realizing he doesn’t have a choice in the matter, escorts Trip through the dangerous world of killer robots and structural instabilities.
It threw me for a loop that Monkey would be so cooperative to Trip’s demands and so quickly, but I guess if I had a fucking BOMB strapped to my head and she had the detonator, I would probably let her tie a collar around my neck and walk me like a dog without giving so much as a whimper.
I can’t give away any spoilers, but THE STORY IS MASTERFUL, though sadly somewhat inconclusive at the end. But to fully appreciate Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, you have to treat this game like a song: You don’t listen to a song to hear the last note at the end, the purpose is to enjoy the song as a WHOLE, and that’s exactly why Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is so satisfying. The transformations that Monkey and Trip go during the full course of their journey are inspirational, and while it seems like the end goal of the entire story gets derailed once or twice, you can’t help but sit and watch as an unseemingly strong AND BELIEVABLE relationship builds between the Brain and the Braun, the Beauty and the Beast.
Without giving away spoilers, I did feel slightly cheated by the abrupt ending, but since that particular ending is still residing heavily in my own mind several days after playing, I can’t help but appreciate it as I ponder it. The ‘evil’ that Trip and Monkey were out to defeat was really a misguided act of compassion which makes you wonder if the final scene was, as Trip asks, “the right move” or not, and the fact that I’m still thinking about the moral implications of a video game should be some sign that it is a well-told and thought provoking story.
The gameplay in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is, like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, bountiful in its diverse features. First and foremost, there is the basic hand-to-hand combat, followed by the puzzle-solving, interactions between Monkey and Trip, a few minor ‘shooter’ segments, some fun ‘cloud surfing’, and finally lots and lots of climbing. However, out of all of these gameplay features, the only aspects that actually feel fulfilling are the puzzle-solving and the interactions between Trip and Monkey.
The hand-to-hand combat, in comparison to Devil May Cry, God of War, and even the predecessor, Heavenly Sword, is virtually featureless and quickly dissolves into a stale button masher. Your basic combat revolves around utilizing quick and heavy attacks, much like God of War and Dante’s Inferno, but you are severely limited to the number of combination attacks you can execute. Despite my frantic usage of different button combinations, virtually all of your attacks result in the same 3-5 attack combination. You are, however, allotted a crowd-control action, where Monkey’s staff glows blue and Monkey does a 360-degree spin that knocks back swarms of enemies. You can also upgrade Monkey to have a sort of overdrive attack where his staff glows fiery orange, and, by pressing the right 2-button combination, Monkey will automatically unleash a barrage of flashy attacks. The problem being is that this is one of the very rare times when Monkey’s pummeling has any variety. There are no upgrades to unlock additional combos or move sets like Heavenly Sword, which is as disappointing as hell and turns combat into a boring-ass experience.
The shooter segments I mentioned are sort of interesting. By pressing the left trigger button, Monkey will aim his staff and shoot at enemies in a Resident Evil 4, over-the-shoulder POV. Depending on how you upgrade these attacks during the course of the game determines how useful this particular feature will be to you in the heat of combat, but I suggest increasing the damage of individual blasts one of your top priorities. Ammunition comes in two flavors: Blast and Stun. A blast is your basic offensive projectile attack, while stun ammunition not only momentarily stuns your robotic enemies, but it can also strip them of their shields. There are segments in the game where you are required to do a Stun/Blast combo to first strip a distant enemy’s shield, and then blow him back to the scrap yard, which makes for some fast and frantic gameplay in comparison to the hand-to-hand combat.
You might be wondering what the hell I mean by ‘cloud surfing’. What I mean is that there are segments where Monkey must ride atop a glowing hover disk (which he calls his ‘cloud’) in order to advance in the game. Whether you are using your cloud to solve puzzles, outrun ‘dogs’ (giant 4-legged mechanical beasts), or racing to save Trip from being killed, the cloud surfing parts of the game are a welcome addition. There are three scenarios when you will have the ability to cloud surf:
- Transversing over water to solve puzzles
- Boss fights against giant 4-legged mechanical beasts
- Saving Trip from a mechanic beast
Luckily the usage of each scenario isn’t used more than twice, which (while feeling slightly repetitive) doesn’t make me throw down the controller and scream: “This shit AGAIN?!” In fact, if each scenario was only used once, I probably would have been pissed because I enjoyed these parts of the game the most, and I would have wanted to have played it more than once anyways. So, overall, the cloud surfing is a comfortable addition to Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
Speaking of overstaying its welcome, there’s the hours and hours of climbing that you are required to do. You have to realize that I’m climbed out. I’ve played Assassin’s Creed, both Uncharted games, and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and ALL of them require that you do more rock climbing than a Mount Everest expedition. But there is one thing that Enslaved: Odyssey to the West has above all of the other climbing games: The climbing itself is RIDICULOUSLY EASY.
How easy? You can make spastic half-circle movements with your left joystick while tapping the jump button as though you are intentionally trying to wear out your controller, AND YOU WILL NEVER FALL AND DIE. I am not kidding when I tell you that you cannot possibly die on the climbing segments of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Ever. It’s virtually impossible to die while climbing because the precision is so loose in comparison to other games like Uncharted or Castlevania: Lords of Shadow that you wonder if Enslaved: Odyssey to the West wasn’t some sort of video game adaptation of the latest Disney/Pixar movie, rated “E” for “Early Childhood easy-peasy, namby-pamby bullshit”.
Probably the one thing that is actually fulfilling (and mirroring my feelings on the story of Enslaved) is the interaction between Monkey and Trip.
One thing that honestly kept me away from Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was the misguided impression that Enslaved would be a long, drawn out “escorting” sort of game.
You know the kind of game I’m talking about when I say “escorting”. We’ve all played games where you have to defend someone or something from a never-ending barrage of relentless enemy attacks. And, within the first 20 minutes of the person/thing you are escorting being killed or blowing up in your face, you wish that there was an option in the game where you could tell the enemies that you want to switch sides because the hatred that the enemies harbor towards the person/item being escorted shadows in comparison to the venomous rage and contempt that has possessed you. And after your head stops spinning and you mop up the pea soup from the walls and floor, you decide to give the game another shot.
Rinse and repeat.
But (luckily) Enslaved: Odyssey to the West actually isn’t that sort of game. The single worst attribute of an escort mission in any game is the helplessness (actually WORTHLESSNESS) of the person/thing that you are trying to protect. In most games the protectee fails to follow the natural instinct of every animal when encountering a danger: Fight, Hide, or Flee; leading a group of enemies to openly throttle the shit out of him/her/it while the protectee stands idly by as though waiting patiently for a bus.
Against my fears, I NEVER ONCE FELT AS THOUGH TRIP WAS USELESS. In fact, the whole point of Trip’s existence is to actually make Monkey’s life easier. For the majority of the game, you control Monkey, and Trip just follows, but there are many parts where Monkey (the slave) is required to order Trip (the master) to perform an action, such as use levers to solve puzzles that actually require two people to solve.
But, more interestingly, Monkey and Trip have to work as a team to fight enemies. Both Trip and Monkey possess the abilities to divert enemy attention and draw enemy fire in order for the other to either progress or seek cover. For example, if there are dozens of turrets scanning a bridge with little cover from the barrage of bullets, Monkey (you) can order Trip to activate a hologram from her wrist console to divert fire while Monkey (you) dashes to safety. Once reaching adequate cover from the turrets, Monkey can divert the fire by shouting and waving his arms in the air like a kindergartner playing keep away, while Trip races to safety.
A short ways into the game, Trip will acquire a Dragonspy robot. This dragonfly-like flying camera syncs into Monkey’s mechanical slave-crown in order to reveal positions of enemies, mines, structural defects, and other important information as the game plays out. HOWEVER, you never have direct control of the dragonspy, and instead upon entering EVERY new area, Trip does a preliminary sweep of the surroundings to check for obstacles. What could have been an interesting gadget to enhance the gameplay quickly becomes a redundant requirement. Had the dragonspy camera been controllable, it could have possibly been an interesting gadget along the lines of the x-ray vision from the game Batman: Arkham Asylum.
There are two or three instances where you must protect Trip from encroaching hordes of enemies by using a machine gun turret, but they were never ‘overwhelming’, and (to me, atleast) they were very forgiving. If a killbot reaches the fragile Trip, she has the ability to discharge an electro-magnetic pulse, which will momentarily stun the enemies around her in order for you to pick them off, at a distance, with the inaccuracies of the minigun from the movie Predator. You can see the OBVIOUS danger if this were a real life situation, but until ‘real life’ incorporates killer robot dogs, we’ll just let this one slide…
The camera has its issues just as most other games I’ve played recently, so I stopped caring about critiquing game cameras. Either I’m becoming callous to absolutely shitty cameras, or, after playing dozens of new games that I had to fight with the camera on, maybe I’m realizing it’s not the game that is fucking up so bad, but maybe it’s ME?
Without a doubt the art direction for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is phenomenal.
When I had first heard of Enslaved being a post-apocalyptic game I was expecting a Mad Max/Terminator Salvation/Fallout/Borderlands/Book of Eli typical barren wasteland setting but was pleasantly surprised that Mother Nature is one tough bitch.
You’ll never see a more vibrant-looking New York than in Enslaved; every crumbling building has become massive monoliths whose only inhabitants are all breeds of fauna that have overrun the great city over the past 150 years. While it’s not entirely plausible, given that New York’s climate isn’t that of the Brazilian rain forest, every scene is absolute eye-candy. Even the Hudson is a sparkling crystal blue that a person only ever sees on the shores of the most pristine of tropical shores, so it’s definitely a strictly fantasy setting.
The design of the killbots and of the robot ships are, surprisingly, organic in appearance and functionality: leeches, gorillas, rhinos, scorpions, and so on. While art may imitate life, robots apparently imitate zoo animals. But it does add a unique flair in comparison to endless hordes of Transformers and Terminator endoskeletons marching and shooting every person in sight.
In actuality, Enslaved, with all of its pristine beauty and animal-like robots, is very much a visual representation of Mankind’s struggle against nature.
As for the human side of the game, everything that the people use and create are all remnants of our modern world. Buildings are made of scraps of metal and adobe, and even the clothing is well worn (though surprisingly clean, thanks to those countless underground laundry detergent storage bunkers…). However, it is within Trip’s village that you can get some appreciation for the scavenger architecture style.
After your escape from New York (see what I did there?) you head west to Trip’s village, and from there to Pigsy’s scrapyard, into the massive innards of a mammoth Leviathan mech, and finally into the desert to find Pyramid. The progression from an amazingly lush and colorful environment to an increasingly bleak and barren wasteland sneaks up on you, but it’s still noticeable that you start to pine for the more visually appealing settings.
Despite how beautiful the artwork and the screenshots are, I have issues with the actual programming-side to the pretty pictures. There are some errors that crop up: Characters “pop-in” a lot, the framerate can get choppy even without dozens of enemies blowing up infront of the camera, and a few of the textures look “jaggy” compared to some of the more modern games. It’s nothing that will grind your gaming to a halt, but it does throw you out of the experience a little too often.
Tim Burton has a hard-on for Johnny Depp, and Ninja Theory has a boner for actor Andy Serkis (Gollum of The Lord of the Rings movies to most of you who never watched The Prestige, or Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll).
However, the pairing of accomplished actor Andy Serkis with video games is never a bad thing because Serkis was one of the pioneers of mocap (motion-capture) acting largely due to his roles playing the CGI Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, as King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong, and as the villain of Ninja Theory’s previous game, Heavenly Sword. And while Andy Serkis was likely not the voice of Kong (ha ha), he lends his voice once again to his digital avatar, Monkey, in Enslaved. And to be honest, while I had the nagging feeling in the back of my head the entire game that Monkey was voiced by Andy Serkis, AND Monkey’s facial features were lifted from Serkis’s, it was never made obvious until the very end of the game. But regardless, Serkis delivers yet another great, believable performance as the brutish and burly, yet compassionate Monkey.
In fact, while there were only a total of about THREE human characters in Enslaved, I was really impressed by the voice acting as a whole.
Trip is voiced by Lindsay Shaw, an up and coming actress who poured a great deal of emotion into the character of a 19 year old hackeress. Of all of the characters being voiced, Trip is the one that goes through an emotional gauntlet of fear, sorrow, helplessness, hate, and happiness, and rarely stumbles. Meanwhile, Richard Ridings (Heavenly Sword, Game of Thrones on HBO) does an amazing job of creating a distinct personality to the perverted but relatively good-natured Pigsy. Pigsy’s voice is gruff and deep but there’s a a carefree and humorous angle to himself. And despite his overly ‘piggish’ appearance and some pig-like snorting when laughing, neither the script or Ridings, himself, allow Pigsy to fall into the role of over ‘pig-ifying’ the character by making every verse a play on typical pig-related noises or never-ending pig puns.
An interesting correlation of the music is that there are distinct and diverse ‘themes’ that revolve around the characters themselves:
In Monkey’s fighting and chase portions of the game, the music is comprised of baritone brass, heavy drums, and metallic crashes to provide an intense, heavy and feral sense of urgency in a primal/mechanical world. However, just as the story presents another side to Monkey, so does the music. The music used during the exploratory cloud surfing segments offers a much more lighthearted theme that, while retaining a primal theme that is synonymous with the brutish loner, Monkey, it reflects a sense of adventure and freedom.
“Cloud Surfing” – Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Original Soundtrack
“Catch the Dragonspy” – Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Original Soundtrack
I enjoyed the soundtrack to Enslaved more than, say, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow because it just felt much more polished in comparison, and closer to a big budget Hollywood movie soundtrack than most other game soundtracks I’ve heard recently.
In all honesty, replayability in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West depends largely on the preferences of the gamer, him or herself. Gamers who enjoy adventures with great stories can find a lot to like about Enslaved, and may wish to revisit parts of the game to relive the more memorable scenes from the outstanding story. However, if the pathetic hand-to-hand combat of Enslaved turned you off, a second playthrough will likely not be worth your time and effort unless you are whoring trophies or achievements. There are some great moments during Enslaved worth replaying, such as the battles between the Dogs and the Rhino, but, unlike Heavenly Sword’s excellent chapter replay system, Enslaved requires that you play the entire chapter from the beginning, so you can’t just skip directly to a boss battle or to the cloud surfing.
For those who are DLC (downloadable content) lovers, for $9.99 you can download an expansion pack to the original Enslaved game featuring the third-wheel of the story, Pigsy, the lewd fat cyborg character that I honestly hated in the main game.
However, in the expansion pack, titled “Pigsy’s Perfect 10”, I saw a more likable side of Pigsy that I was deprived of during the course of the main game. In addition, the gameplay with is so vastly different from the gameplay with Monkey that it feels like a well thought out addition to Enslaved, rather than a lazy rehash of identical game elements. “Pigsy’s Perfect 10” lets you play as Pigsy, and (because of his size) oddly relies on stealth and sniping enemies from a distance rather than charging in balls-to-the-wall and beating everything to death with a glowing stick. The only downside is that “Pigsy’s Perfect 10” is that it is significantly harder because one wrong move and every killbot in a mile radius will butcher the portly Pigsy into bacon. Still, it’s a very worthy addition to the main game and worth the purchase for both gamers who enjoyed Enslaved’s story, and for those who want more gameplay variety.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a story worth being told. The few characters in Enslaved are even more memorable than the cast of Heavenly Sword, and that’s mostly because the story solely focused on Monkey, Trip, and Pigsy and their journey Westward. The characters are all fully flushed out by the end, and each character evolves, often in more ways than one, making for a compelling tale that is more worthy of a Hollywood film.
However, thanks to some tedious and trite hand-to-hand combat, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West would have honestly been a better movie than a game. For what little options the hand-to-hand combat has to offer, it is solid, but it can’t excuse its limitations. The second strike against Enslaved is the brainless, no-skill-required climbing that will take about 40% of the game as a whole, but some people might actually LIKE that in comparison to dying hundreds of times on a single obscure jump.
But there is no strike three against Enslaved: Odyssey to the West’s gameplay, because with the fighting and climbing faults, there is diversity thanks to some excellent puzzles, the cloud surfing, and interesting interactions between Monkey and Trip.
If you can find a new copy of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for less than $30 (USD) I would wholeheartedly recommend that you pick it up, because despite some of its problems with the gameplay, no one should deprive themselves of this excellent adventure with Trip and Monkey.
With the games Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West under Ninja Theory’s belt, and the Devil May Cry remake (cleverly titled “dmc”, all lowercase because it’s that cool…) as their next project, I have no doubt that Ninja Theory will deliver a great story to the Devil May Cry universe, with great graphics, deep character development, and probably Andy Serkis as Dante… However, after playing Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, I am deathly afraid of what they may do to Devil May Cry’s legendary gameplay.