I’m writing this review, or analysis of sorts, just after this year’s D.I.C.E. summit. Wherein, the Interactive Achievement Awards were doled out to, what the high-brow portions of the gaming industry consider, the best games of 2010. Enslaved, a game that looks familiar to anyone who’s played a third-person action/adventure, some form of recognition means a great deal. The game had notably lackluster sales and there is question if the developer, Ninja Theory, will be able to revisit the personalities found in such an ambitious game. Ambition only gets us so far. One could argue, the reason why Enslaved was a bridesmaid and never a bride would be, because for every groundbreaking nuance explored -- the game falters where lesser-quality tales tend to execute.
As bullet points on the back of boxes go, there is a lot going against Enslaved. It has no co-op -- local or online. The game doesn’t feature a shoe-horned multiplayer mode of any kind, making it a single player only game. Imagine that? Playing a game for its story, all by your lonesome. This may not seem like a big deal to you. It didn’t to me. Single player games of this magnitude are difficult to make, given the recent shifts in the games industry. Games like Enslaved, get traded in, passed on to friends. This use to be a good thing. Having a friend call you up and say, “You need to play this game. Oh, you don’t have it? I’ll let you borrow mine.” Is a compliment that comes at a detriment to a game that more-than-likely had millions of dollars poured into its development.
Where did the money go? Enslaved is a ‘re-imagined’ tale from the book, Journey To The West. The book is a very old and traditional work that has been translated and retold through several mediums [See also: Dragon Ball]. Let’s not belay the fact that book-to-game translation [on this scale] is uncharted territory. I have no idea how the talented minds at Ninja Theory pitched this idea to Namco, but I’m guessing it was something like this. “We’ve all played God of War right? Well how about we put a better story, more likable characters, and make the world prettier to look at?” From the looks of Enslaved, at first glance, this may be the first post-apocalyptic game that features -- get this, trees.
Having Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw provide voice work and motion capturing is a small touch that makes all the difference in a game aiming to improving the little things. As you control Monkey and witness the step-by-step evolution he has with his captor, Trip, we see an odd goal accomplished. Character development. When Monkey throws Trip across a gap, there’s a little satisfactory tune that plays. It gets a little annoying around the fourth or fifth time you do it, but this game isn’t so much about words -- as it is how you behave. When we play as a Kratos, John Marston or even a Shepard, we see a character as they are. Good or evil, this is most video game characters are generally presented, broadly. Monkey has every right to make dunderhead decisions. We get an inkling to his frustration, but never if he’s a good-or-bad guy.
Humanizing characters like Trip, Monkey, and eventually Pigsy, comes at a great cost. The Unreal graphics engine has been showing its age since the inception of this console generation. The vistas are immaculate, but once the player zooms in, you get a glimpse as to where the money didn’t go. You get a peek behind the development curtain to how Ninja Theory had to cut corners when giving the player something truly unique. When texture pop-in [and pop-out] weren’t jarring the eye, the controls for Monkey felt either too strict or unrefined.
Whenever the pace hastens in Enslaved. The adventure and horn-filled soundtrack picks up tempo, character voices indicate urgency. You care, because Ninja Theory did an amazing job making you care. Unfortunately, you get the sense the developers presented Namco with this vast world to explore and Namco presented them with the actual budget. In doing so, Monkey, on his own accord, can’t die. If you try and jump off a ledge, you hit an invisible wall. There is no jump button. Very reminiscent of Psychonauts and Beyond Good & Evil, in this regard of a game that didn’t get the gaming portions perfect, but the story execution over-shadows these flaws. Well, for the most part.
There is also issues with the combat. Enslaved has an amazing levelling up system that enables the player to pick and choose if they’ll level up their shields, combat, health or staff. Though you are given a decent [not crazy] amount of options, only a handful are generally useful when in combat with multiple enemies. By the way, get use to seeing three to four types of enemies throughout your six to eight our romp through the ruins of post-apocalyptic America. With such a great story, its also really odd that the little tech orbs you collect to level up aren’t really explained. How do they relate to this world you inhabit? I guess they are just there like the Sonic rings or Mario coins.
Its hard to not recommend Enslaved. Everyone should play it. Scratch that, everyone should buy it. But then there’s that voice in the back of my head saying, “buy what you want to support!” Enslaved isn’t the best game by a long shot. The controls are a mess. You’re treated to a ‘walled garden’ approach to game design and architecture -- where there is an obvious linear path to follow, with few branching portions to explore [not as bad as Final Fantasy XIII]. You see such a rich world in which you can only interact with a fraction. Though open world and linear are terms thrown around to express positives and drawbacks, in Enslaved, such design decisions are pronounced.
It’s actually a good thing that Enslaved is linear. If you go too far, Trip’s headband will cripple and possibly kill you. However, it seems odd later in the story as Monkey and Trip develop a bond, why would she still kill Monkey if he ventures off-path? Doesn’t she trust him at this point? Furthermore, had Enslaved been open world, like so many games in this generation there are a number of headaches that could have further crippled the game. Boring side quests and out-of-character activities would have distracted from the game’s main goal, telling the player a concise story. This is why Enslaved excels over a God of War or a Red Dead Redemption. Well, here’s hoping Ninja Theory get another crack at. Enslaved, welcome to the fine club of under-appreciated games. There’s a seat next to Ico you can take.
I give Enslaved …
The highly regarded “Monkey King Smoking A Cigarette On His Flying Cloud” award.