I love games like Ninja Theory's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. They fly in under the radar, then knock me out and draw me in with a whiz-bang demo, before surprising me with a refreshing, original, and well-written story. It's a discovery and unexpected pleasure like Enslaved that keep me excited about this hobby and art form.
Of course, Enslaved hasn't been entirely off the map. The involvement of actor Andy Serkis and screenwriter writer Alex Garland certainly pique one's interest. By fault or design, though, the game has largely managed to avoid the pre-release overkill that dooms so many titles to post-release disappointment.
A creative riff on an old Chinese folk tale, Enslaved is set in a post-apocalyptic future that is not a gray and brown wasteland but a verdant—though dangerous—riot of lush, green vegetation and colorful scenery, with recognizable architecture chillingly silent under the overgrown landscape. You play Monkey, a hulking loner recently held captive aboard a slave ship until freed by a young woman named Trip. Replacing one form of captivity with another, Trip secures Monkey's continued help and cooperation via a slaver's headband. She demands he help her find a way home and together they must survive a trek filled with danger, from bloodthirsty mechs to fields thick of mines.
Thanks to the captivating story, spot-on dialogue and remarkable, expressive facial animations, the relationship between Monkey and Trip is one of the most interesting and textured pairings in any recent offering. By largely avoiding cliché their companionship actually develops as a believable and even moving arc throughout the game.
Monkey brings the brawn and the weapons, Trip handles the tech, and while the goal is to keep Trip alive and moving forward, she is not a helpless waif for Monkey to escort. A combination of environmental puzzles, frustration-free platforming, and action-adventure combat moves the game along at a steady clip. The game saves are generous and the cut scenes are worth enjoying more than once.
Enslaved's combat and enemies are probably the weakest—though by no means poor—elements of the game. Monkey's staff can be upgraded with additional powers and every so often there are new toys to play with, but the enemy mechs and their kin are more distinguished by varying quantities than quality. Happily, boss battles rely less on dexterity than strategy and Trip's contributions are far more interesting than in a supposed “buddy” game like Army of Two. As mentioned, the platforming is forgiving but no less thrilling for its lack of frustrating timing issues. The game is very linear; a second playthrough is probably in order only for completionists, though by the end of the game's dozen or so hours I was still anxious to spend time with Monkey and Trip.
Enslaved is a great-looking game, with a fresh, artistic vision of the future that is a welcome relief from Borderlands and Fallout and their many imitators. Character animations are generally outstanding, but the nuanced and incredibly expressive facial cues really steal the show. I don't know if I've seen game characters so able to telegraph subtle shifts in feeling or mood through small changes in their eyes. It's a shame that lip-synching continues to lag behind in almost every game, including this one.
Voice acting is professional and equal to the task of delivering the capable dialogue. Let's recognize Ninja Theory for investing in story: it's definitely one of the stars of this show. The music is exciting and epic.
Though it began as a concept for a film, draws from somewhat obscure source material, and has lacked the mega-hype marketing campaign that shoves far less accomplished games into our systems, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West deserves attention and rewards the player with a great story, entertaining characters, and spectacular production values. Not every aspect of the game is a masterpiece but Enslaved surprised me in a very good way and most important, made me care about what happened next.
Want to see more companion-based gameplay in the future? Tweet us some unlikely pairings you think would make for a fun experience @Gamers_Hell