(Xbox 360 Review) Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Genre: Action
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

Based on the 400-plus-year-old Chinese tale Journey to the West, Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a tale of survival and compassion that, unlike its inspiration, forgoes enlightenment for uncertainty. Set in a post-apocalyptic America, 150 years have passed since war has left man dispersed and desperate. Robots that had been used in the last battles still monitor a landscape dotted by debris and overrun with vegetation, killing the few unfortunate stragglers who had managed to avoid the slavers. It’s because of these slavers that Monkey and Trip, our heroes, cross paths.

Well, heroes might not be the best term. After an exciting opener, you, as Monkey, find yourself face to face with the young red-haired female that had sent the slave ship crashing to the earth just moments before. Unfortunately for him, that second encounter leads to a lot of bruises and a slaver’s headband.

Upon awakening, Monkey learns that he is now under the control of the Nariko-like Trip, a young woman with a penchant for technology and desire to get back home. The 300-mile trip back to her village will require Monkey’s muscle, which she now has thanks to a psionically linked headband that transmits her wishes. Of course, it being a slaver’s headhand and all, there is a slight catch: if Monkey tries to run away, harm her, or let harm come to her, he will die. Without spoiling too much, the trip to the village is filled with memories of what was and many charming moments between the two as they come an understanding, and eventually form a friendship. Monkey doesn’t keep Trip alive just to survive, as he comes to find a purpose in her focus but also benefits from her ability to provide him with several vital aids, including upgrades (through collectable orbs), a means of distraction (using a projector), and health. Trip also needs Monkey for more than his muscle as well because, in addition to not only taking care of the slavers and robots that stand in their way, he also offers her access to otherwise off-limit areas by tossing her over chasms, giving her a boost, and finding alternate routes.

The relationship between the two actually becomes fairly interesting, though never veering too far into the standard romantic trap. While Trip seems to sway a bit too much, never really breaking out as much as her confidence and abilities suggest. The moments when Monkey responds awkwardly or finds himself at a loss when they talk are nice, and go a long way in helping him shed his generic brute image. Their aims make for an interesting dynamic too, as she is always focused on progress and on the go while he’s trying to get her to stay put and behind cover. As interesting a duo as they make, their storyline seem to unfortunately get lost amongst the mech smashing and questionable ending.

Speaking of which, the ending’s abrupt shift in tone will leave some satisfied and others stupefied. While some elements are explained in small moments throughout the game, nicely rewarding attentive players, there is so much that seems to have been left by the wayside that there is only, at best, some resolution. Then again, Enslaved is all about the journey. After all, this isn’t just about a story about two strangers working through their troubles but an exciting adventure featuring tons of platforming and staff-to-robot face combat.

Towards the end of the game, I came to realize that Ninja Theory wasn’t particularly interested in me dying. Sure there were some tough parts, even a few that were a little grating, but by and large the game tended to (very obviously) funnel me towards where I needed to go and give me what I needed to get things done. Platforming is made near seamless with highlighted objects—pipes, ledges, etc.—marking where to go and what to grab for. The levels are linear, though cleverly disguised to be less so, with the odd alternate route offering a slight detour to help better the illusion. There are times when a quick shift of the camera or the awkward positioning of Monkey—he has to be at the end of a ledge but not on it to jump off, otherwise he’ll tumble for a second—makes hopping and shuffling around difficult, but platforming generally looks great and feels effortless. There is also some danger, primarily in the form of environmental hazards, such as bursting flames or moving gears, which provide light challenges that rarely result in death. Despite the fact that platforming never feels deadly, especially since you’re blocked from accidentally running or jumping off any of the ledges or platforms, it still manages to be exciting.

Combat follows a similar approach in that death isn’t common, though far more frequent than with platforming, but still exciting. By using a staff that doubles as a laser blaster, and at times a hoverboard known as a cloud, Monkey will launch into a variety of cinematic combos. The move list isn’t terribly long, but what I found myself enjoying was the rhythm and timing required to effectively counter after blocking and evading. Countering is especially helpful because it also deals a stun effect, and those few seconds of respite from one of the horde provides a valuable breather. Or, there are the equally enjoyable moments when a specific type of robot can be used to bring down its cohort; though the impact of the staff hitting metal is always satisfying, and even more so when it’s a close-up slow-motion finisher. Several of the mechs have basic melee attacks while others are of a larger sort, looking and acting like rhinos or the one of the Constructicons, and others have special weapons, such as machine guns and the ability to send out an electrical charge. By using a brutal grab method Monkey can rip off knives, guns, and heads, using the impaled robot as a combustible ram and the overloaded charge to stun all nearby enemies. Working those effectively into my fights became a fairly important part of my strategy as I progressed, especially as the hordes became larger and deadlier.

I also found the pace of combat to be just right. There are a lot of smaller elements that lend to this, such as Monkey’s stride and leap combining nicely with his attack range and a shield that can be used to block but also discourages turtling, as he doesn’t last too long without it. The upgrades also offer a nice touch. I wasn’t able to collect enough orbs to afford all of them, but I was able to max out several categories, allowing my staff to shoot stronger plasma charges, my health to regenerate faster, and my shield to absorb additional damage. The system isn’t near a God of War level of complexity, but it doesn’t need to be – the pace is kept brisk while offering a manageable move list and satisfying fights.

If there’s one area in which the combat does have some problems, it’s with the camera. As with the platforming, the camera can focus on the wrong area, zoom in too closely, or rest at an inappropriate angle. During some fights enemies don’t just obscure the view, they block Monkey out entirely. The lack of a solid targeting system doesn’t help, and neither does the fact that objects remaining solid when in the way.  With that said, it’s often for just a few seconds and more of an annoyance than a serious problem—it’ll cause more grumbling than dying.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
genuinely surprised me. It starts off strong and continues on a journey through a landscape that is like someone dumped a jungle into Fallout 3, complete with lush flora and hints at the life that was. The story is engaging with two characters that offer a bond not found in most games, thanks largely to the direction of Andy Serkis as well as Ninja Theory’s deft touch with facial animations and lip synching. There are times when a fussy camera or odd character might give pause, but in general, Enslave is a well-designed game that offers an engaging story told at a decent clip with some amazing-looking platforming and satisfying combat.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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