We’ve seen plenty of video games adapt films or simply spin off from a film franchise, but it’s a rare thing to see a video game be based on a novel. Not just any novel though: a 420 year old Chinese novel about a Buddhist monk’s pilgrimage to India along with a monkey and a pig. While it might sound like a strange basis for a video game, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a fantastic example of how video games can tell a great story.
150 years into the future, after a global war has ravaged the entire world, Mother Nature has taken back what is rightfully hers while small pockets of civilizations subside on their own ingenuity and whatever they can come across. Mechanic soldiers still roam the land and people are constantly being abducted by slavers to an unknown location.
The game opens with a literal bang as our main character, Monkey, awakens on a slave ship hurtling towards New York City. The ship begins to fall apart as Monkey chases after a young woman towards the escape pods. After clinging to the outside of an escape pod and crashing in the middle of New York, Monkey discovers the young woman, whose name is Trip, has placed a slave headband on him. She’s from a wind farm 300 miles away and she needs Monkey’s help to make it home safely, whether he wants to or not. If she dies, he dies.
That’s the gist of Enslaved’s main story, and where the main narrative lays its focus. This game is about character interaction and development throughout the course of an eight to ten hour game. Trip and Monkey are two very different people, but they both need each other and compliment each other in different ways.
Monkey is a beefy, gruff and agile survivalist who’s had to raise himself in a harsh and dangerous world, but at heart he’s a good man. Trip is seemingly Monkey’s polar opposite, trying to remain positive even in the face of danger, but she’s in no way emotionally ready for the journey ahead of them.
There’s a great scene early in the game where the pair comes across a group of mechanical dragonflies that for me sums up where both of them stand at the beginning of the game’s story. While Trip used to play with dragonflies, Monkey was more into squashing them, cementing Trip as one in awe of the blend of nature and technology and Monkey as a firm believer in survival of the fittest.
Learning Trip and Monkey’s respective backstories and their motivations deepen the connection they have with each other and the player’s connection to the characters as their relationship changes from the seemingly simple “master-slave” interaction initially presented. Trip is the one who enslaved Monkey, but Monkey is the one who knows how to survive in the post-apocalyptic environment they have to traverse.
And the post-apocalypse has never looked this good. Whereas other semi-realistic post-apocalyptic games render the world in shades of murky brown and gunmetal grey, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West paints an overgrown New York City with green grass, blue skies and red and yellow flowers. While the graphical fidelity never reaches, say, Uncharted 2 territories, there’s a strong focus on aesthetics in this game, not only in regards to the environments, but also when it comes to the character models and enemy design.
Throughout Enslaved you’ll constantly be fighting robots of various shapes and sizes and all the mechs have a strong organic feel to them. They “bleed” motor oil when Monkey destroys them with his staff, and they appear to feel pain from time to time.
The reason they appear so unsettling stems from the fact that they’re modelled on familiar organisms, like the previously mentioned mechanical dragonflies, and the giant robot dogs that are a constant source of fear and some heart pumping action set-pieces later on in the game. It gives me the feeling of being in a world where animal life has all but been wiped out, only to be replaced by mechanical animals.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is great at remaining ambiguous at the cause of the great war as well as the source of the robots, dolling out small hints in the form of ad boards found throughout New York City. The main story is also one that keeps you guessing, as Trip and Monkey’s journey westward is merely the catalyst for a much greater sequence of events resulting in a damned good ending that really made me think about the story the game had been guiding me through.
Character interaction in video games certainly isn’t new, and Enslaved seems to be somewhat inspired by Prince of Persia, not only when it comes to the game’s platforming elements, but also in the relationship between Monkey and Trip which brought me back to the Prince and Farah in Sands of Time.
Thankfully Enslaved also does the same thing Sands of Time did, and keep the two characters interacting with each other outside of cutscenes, both in terms of physical interaction as well vocal interaction. The two talk to each other, get to know each other, even argue with each other as you make your way towards Trip’s wind farm community.
Making characters relatable is no easy feat, but it’s helped along by Alex Garland’s strong writing and a stellar voice performance from Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw. Serkis also provided motion capture for the game, as well as serving as the game’s dramatic director.
It shows that a lot of work has gone into make the characters appear, sound and move like real human beings. Unfortunately the game suffers from some of the same problem plaguing all Unreal powered games in that everything looks really great when viewed from far away, but looks like it’s been coated with a light layer of starch once viewed from up close. Still, the facial animations are amazing and I found myself really taken in by how real the characters felt.
Now that I’ve gushed on about character interaction and story elements for a page and a half, let’s talk gameplay. A usual platforming scenario in Enslaved unfolds thusly:
You’re given a set objective a distance away and it’s up to you to figure out how to get there. Sounds simple enough, but the road getting there is a set linear path, so if you’re one of those who’ve been griping on about games these days holding the player’s hand like an obsessive compulsive nanny, Enslaved’s platforming gameplay will most likely annoy you.
Monkey can climb; swing and jump like the best of them, but you’re always shown where you’re supposed to go next, somewhat defeating the purpose of having such a huge and inviting world. The post-apocalyptic world of Enslaved is begging to be explored in a much less linear game, but seeing as this is a story driven game it’s forgivable, but not unnoticeable.
Platforming can still turn into a really harrowing experience from time to time, especially when whatever you’re climbing on starts falling apart; when walkways collapse and handholds crumble, forcing you to find a new path towards your goal.
This is all thanks to the camera and music, which knows how to ramp up tension in the various situations you’ll find yourself in. While I hate to use this term about a game, it really feels cinematic in the way the game manages to ramp up tension significantly by adding several layers to the musical score. There were times where I sat with the controller in a vice grip as events played out in front of me.
One of these situations would obviously be the combat, which is another fairly meaty portion of the game. While you can, and often will, sneak around the mechs found throughout the game, you’ll most likely be facing them head on. Monkey is quite the fighter, using his collapsible staff to dish out damage and literally rip mechs apart.
Combat feels both impactful and quite brutal, but not very deep or tactile. You’re rarely employing any kind of strategy, except maybe when choosing which mech to destroy first, and most combat situations can be solved by randomly pressing buttons and chaining strikes together.
Your basic light and heavy attacks can be strung together in various combos with the odd evade attack or counter attack being made available through the game’s upgrade system. In essence, combat is good, but not the main focus of the game. Luckily it doesn’t feel tacked on and out of place. This post-apocalypse is a harsh environment, and sometimes you need to let your fists and your staff do the talking.
Actually getting to the fights involves platforming as well as some tactile co-operation between Trip and Monkey. Trip can distract turrets and gun mechs while Monkey sneak up behind them, and Monkey can in turn distract them so Trip can activate switches or open doors. Essentially, the game gives you a button that says “hey”, so you’ve just got to use it.
In a nutshell, Enslaved: Odyssey is a solid action adventure game with some really great writing and characterisation that needs more fans. It’s been flying almost completely under the radar and was probably overshadowed by the release of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow on the same date. While the actual platforming and combat might not be too deep, it’s still a wonderful experience to play through.
Enslaved represents the other part of the gaming spectrum: interactive storytelling. A lot of things will still remain ambiguous once the game ends and the game itself does some really interesting things with the fourth wall throughout the main narrative.
There are some truly epic moments to be found within this game which I won’t ruin by going into them here, but Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is definitely worth both your time and your cash.
- 8 / 10
Final Thoughts: No quick-time events? Sold!