Hello all! Last week brought us a trilogy of SNES games based on a trilogy of classic films. The games take some liberties with the source material (at least two), but that’s out of necessity.
This week’s piece is about a game that’s also an adaptation, albeit one based on a novel from hundreds of years ago.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a loose retelling of the ancient, influential Chinese work, Journey to the West. It’s been (again, loosely) adapted over the years into things like Dragon Ball, a prominent example. Developed by Ninja Theory (Heavenly Sword, DmC: Devil May Cry) Enslaved is set in the far future, with players cast as Monkey, a man held as a slave by mechs. A ship on which he was held prisoner crashes, and when he awakens, he finds a woman named Trip has placed a headband on him which will kill him if Trip dies—and also forces him to follow her orders. She explains to Monkey that she needs to return to her village, hundreds of miles away, and she needs Monkey to help her. Starting in the overgrown, dilapidated ruins of New York City, the two begin journeying through mech-infested lands to reunite Trip with her father.
Enslaved plays great, if simply. As Monkey, you fight a small variety of mostly humanoid-shaped mechs with a staff that can also shoot projectiles, giving you long and short-range options for combat. Close-range mainly involves bashing an attack button to make Monkey do a basic combo attack. Sometimes you have to block using an energy shield that can only take a few hits before needing a recharge. Long range combat is mostly just shooting at mechs a few times, sometimes stunning them so you can move in closer. There’s a couple of wrinkles to the combat—namely, you have to protect Trip throughout; she can’t fight, but she can deploy a short-range EMP blast that briefly disables mechs, giving you time to reach her. I actually love that she can do this; it’s a nice change of pace from other games’ insta-fail escort missions. Considering this game is, essentially, a giant escort mission, making it less irritating goes a long way in keeping the game enjoyable. Trip can create a hologram that distracts enemies as well. It’s cool, but I never found myself using it much—mostly for fun rather than a tactical advantage.
Combat only makes up roughly half the game, with the other half devoted to traversing the environment. Monkey is incredibly athletic; you jump across platforms and climb across pits and canyons via clear, easy to spot handholds; it’s nearly exactly like what you would see in Uncharted, with slightly less focus on explosive set pieces and more emphasis on quieter moments. The Cloud is a lot of fun, too—Monkey can deploy a kind of hoverboard that lets him surf along land and water at high speed. It’s fun, plain and simple. You also need to find ways for Trip to traverse these environments, through some light puzzle-solving. Explore enough, and you’ll find holographic projections of masks that hint at the overall state of the game’s world.
If I sound a little muted about the gameplay itself, that’s because a lot of it feels very basic. The game controls spectacularly, as Ninja Theory games tend to, but this one felt a tad thin—comapred to NT’s other works—in terms of things to actually do in combat. You generally run up to a mech and bash them with the same combo you used last time. Shooting is...well, shooting. Aim, fire. And the climbing and jumping is, again, just like Uncharted—sometimes cool, sometimes a major, unending drag, where everything you do feels pre-scripted (because it is). This would be an unending slog if the game controlled terribly, but thankfully it doesn’t. Still, sometimes the game can feel like it’s on autopilot.
The gameplay isn’t why I like Enslaved, though. For one, the game has a distinct sense of world. Though often falling prey to the kind of overly “game-y” level design, Enslaved takes place in a unique setting; there’s a moment in the beginning of the game, where Monkey is looking at the wing of his crash-landing prison ship. The wing is taken out by the torch-holding arm of the Statue of Liberty. For me, this was an “oh” moment; a moment where I suddenly became interested in this world and what was going on. Finding my first mask hologram and seeing a kind of flashback was intriguing enough to want to get to the bottom of this mystery; there’s a larger plot at play than what you initially see, and the conclusion does make you think (even if it’s a bit off the rails). The world is also colorful and vibrant, with lots of lush greens and clear blue skies, and it was a welcome change of pace from the gritty browns we were seeing at the time.
Enslaved, for me, is also about the quieter moments. Bashing robots is cool, but the game smartly puts the dynamic between Monkey and Trip front-and center, and it’s the best part of the game. Hell, it’s the entire point. Monkey is a character forced into protecting Trip on her journey, and he’s not happy about it, naturally. The pair spend a great deal of the game partnering up out of necessity (from Trip’s point of view) and coercion (Monkey’s point of view), and so, they argue a lot. Their personalities develop over the game; Monkey is shown to be not quite the macho angry man his shirtless appearance would have you believe, while Trip is kind of a scattered, lost character who gets stronger over the game; she becomes less of a hindrance and more of a companion. Without spoiling the ending, she’s the strong one when she needs to be in the game’s final moment. Monkey and Trip also go from hating each other to working together to friendship to possibly more over the course of the roughly eight-hour journey, and their personality growth is conveyed through excellent dialogue and subtle acting. Mokey is also mo-capped by Andy Serkis, and he’s terrific as always.
Enslaved is another example of why “the gameplay is all that matters” isn’t really a valid argument anymore. Taken at pure gameplay value, Enslaved is basic and sometimes flat; despite certainly playing well, with solid controls, there’s not much to it. But like any great game, Enslaved is a complete package, and deserves to be looked at as such. When I think about Enslaved, I think less about playing it and more about the total experience of it. I think about the terrific voice acting, the world, the plot, the themes. I mean, saying “well, the gameplay is boring, so the whole thing sucks,” is kind of short-sighted, no? Something like, say, Firewatch involves almost nothing but walking and looking at a map, yet I was never bored during that game (it’s a favorite of mine, in fact). That’s because games nowadays are more than the amount of guns and combos present.
It’s a great example of how characters and story can push an otherwise good-if-unimpressive game to lofty heights. It’s a great example of why games are not better without characters and story. And it’s a game you should play, because it’s still unique, and it’s a good journey.
Thanks always for reading this possibly too-long series of goofy, rambling articles. I have Twitter and I like talking to people, so follow me!
Next time, I play a fighting game I bought just for one character—and found a whole game that became one of my favorites. (It’s the GameCube version, and that just gave it away!)