By Terry Randolph
A brilliant, captivating story that’s marred by a rushed ending and mediocre gameplay
Developer: Ninja Theory Publisher: Namco Systems: Xbox360, Playstation 3
Release Date: October 5, 2010 MSRP: $19.99
When the game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was being advertised, I remember how enamored I was with it. The game looked stunning visually, especially because the vibrant colors stood out from the “Grayscale” of shooters. The main characters seemed personable and real, their facial expressions subtle but emotive. We were following the story of two people on a journey in an apocalyptic world ruled by mechs. This was a story of a man “enslaved” by a girl who wanted to make sure she would get home; it was an interesting take on the damsel-in-distress trope we have gotten used to. What really sold me on this game were two things; the organic feel the a character driven story and that it was ambitious in allowing the storytelling to make the game. However, a part of me felt it was a risk to pay full price for it. I waited six months for the game to go on sale, and bought it when it was.
Soon as I got it, I immediately jumped into the game and played several levels of the game, and enjoyed it. However, it did not leave enough of an impact on me, and it was shelved for a couple years for another game. Two years later, I finally got a chance to get through the game. While the story, artwork and acting are both beautiful and polarizing, probably some of the best I have seen in a long time, the experience is marred by a rushed ending and clumsy controls.
The game’s story revolves around the characters Monkey and Trip; after getting on an escape pod to survive a crashing ship, Monkey wakes up to find he has a headband on his head. Trip, the girl, explains the headband is a way to ensure he will help her traverse the 300 miles that separates her from home. If she dies, or he tries to run away, he will die. She knew what the headband would do, but did it to protect herself. Monkey makes sure Trip knows once the headband’s off he will “snap her neck”. It is an interesting twist to the start of a typical escort mission, and and pays off for how the rest of the story goes.
Not to mention, the game is a loose adaptation of the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng-‘en. The main character, Monkey, is bound to Trip through a headband on his head like Sun Wukong is to Xuanzang by a magic gold ring. Like Xuanzang, Trip has control of how the headband affects Monkey depending on his actions. She could even kill him. Pigsy, a character you meet later into the game is exactly Zhu Bajie; a man with an insatiable appetite for sex and food. He also has a hard time with Monkey due to his interest in Trip, trying to get him killed at least once or twice. The journey merely serves as a background for these characters who drive the story. All of the cast feel like real people; their expressions are subtle but emotive, their words ambiguous but personal and most of all natural.
These characters and their dialogue are the driving force to try the game out; it places an importance on performance than on exposition spews. Most of the game had me floored by how invested I was into this journey; I hardly wanted to get out of my seat and wanted to continue the game while wanting to stop to keep it going. Few games can do that to me, and ultimately I felt surprised that Enslaved: Odyssey to the West could do that. I loved watching the changes happening in the relationship between Monkey and Trip through their gestures and facial expressions. The actors for the roles were motion-captured for the game, and the risk was worth it. Couple that with some top-notch voice acting that hits the right tones and beats and anyone can see the dedication the creators put into the game. Kudos to Andy Serkis, Lindsey Shaw and Richard Ridings for bringing their A+ game to the recordings. Ninja Theory was at the top of their game in their approach to storytelling in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West…
…for the most part. One of the major gripes I have with the game is that the ending comes off rushed and leaves a bad aftertaste. There is so much build-up to the climax that when the game ends it might leave you saying “Is that it?” On one hand, it matches the moral ambiguity presented throughout the game, yet at the same time it feels ambiguous for the sake of being ambiguous. It comes off a bit as being lazy and shows Ninja Theory was setting up for a sequel to explore the ramifications of the ending. It is sad and frustrating that they decided to go that route because it left a little too big of an open ending. I am ok with open endings so long as it makes sense with the rising actions of the game and provide some sort of conclusion. To me Enslaved: Odyssey to the West’s ending falls a little short.
The art direction is striking; gone is popular “grayscale” and in comes a vibrant, warm color scheme amidst a world harsh and cold. Rubble, roads and cars mesh with the beautiful green of nature, serving as both a reminder of what the world was like and how it was now. The balance of the clashing tones is handled supremely well in the presentation, setting up some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen in games. Sometimes I would find myself taking a break from continuing the story and admiring the view of the scenery at hand. The only other game I can remember doing that to was The Last of Us.
I wish the same could be said about the gameplay or combat; it is very messy and inconsistent. The reaction of Monkey to the buttons I used felt delayed at times, and it lead to several times of dying by being surrounded by enemies. Platforming was a lot of fun due to the parkour feel to it, but a lot of the puzzles felt easy and left little challenge. Combat was easy and flowed really well to serve the story it also did damage by being a button masher at the core. Most of the time I either used a chain of moves to defeat enemies or button mashed save for a few times of having to use my shield. Boss fights added a nice momentary variation of combat to the game, but moments later became repetitive in how to beat the bosses. While I can understand the choice to keep the combat simple was to allow the emphasis to be one the characters and story, it just was not executed well enough to do so.
Overall, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a game that gets eclipsed by its ambition; a great, compelling story with strong lead performances held back by mediocre gameplay mechanics. The game shows Ninja Theory’s desire to stand out amongst the many third-party developers, and for the most part it succeeds. The game is definitely worth trying out for the story.
+Compelling characters that feel real thanks to some nuanced motion-captured performances by Andy Serkis, Lindsey Shaw and Richard Ridings
+ The art direction is gorgeous; hues of greens, blues and red bring a feeling of warmth and vibrancy to a cold and dark world
– A weak ending that feels unsatisfying after playing through the game; it was a deliberate setup for a sequel that leaves a bad aftertaste
– Problematic controls and repetitive combat that can be at times frustrating.