Back in the first few months following the launch of Sony’s PS3, a game called Heavenly Sword caught my attention. Its combination of Hollywood talent, top-notch animation and the action adventure genre has kept it high on my “if I had a PS3”-list for about three years now. So when I found out that Heavenly Sword developer Ninja Theory was developing their next game for Xbox360 as well, I was immediately intrigued. At Gamescom in Cologne, I got a hands-on preview of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and came away thinking this could be a gem in the making. This past Friday saw the release of the game and this is my review of it, having played all the way through the game’s 14 chapters.
Enslaved follows a similar approach in merging high production values with action adventure, but has a very different theme. Enslaved takes place in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi environment and sees its main character Monkey (a strange mix of Riddick, Prince of Persia and street fighter’s Guile) pair up with female co-star Trip as they both try to escape a slave ship. The escape from slavery doesn’t last long for Monkey, because when he regains consciousness he finds himself bound to Trip as she has attached a device to his head that makes him do her bidding. Her agenda is simple: to have Monkey help her get back to her home, keeping her safe from Mech combat robots every step of the way.
Gameplay consists of jumping, climbing, and combat, which is neatly divided into equal chunks. Combat can be done hand-to-hand, but your weapon of choice (a futuristic stick) also fires stun ammo and explosive rounds. The mix of gameplay styles makes for very smooth changes of pace, keeping the flow of the game both dynamic and interesting. It’s also good to point out that despite the different styles, there is a good balance between them and nothing feels needlessly tacked on. The only scenes I experienced some frustration with were two chase sequences, which can result in a fair share of sudden deaths. Neither chase (if done correctly) takes more than a minute, but be prepared to spend five or ten times that amount of time before you get it right. Part of it may be the overly sensitive controls, which can sometimes also be experienced during combat but aren’t as bothersome then.
Ironically, when not in a chase or combat sequence, the game’s controls are quite forgiving, making it impossible to fall down after missing a jump. At some moments, this makes you feel the game could be too forgiving, but the flow of jumps and combat being strung together more than makes up for it. Presentation is key here, and perhaps freedom of movement was sacrificed to make it possible. To good effect though, since the game plays like an interactive rollercoaster of a story, and never stops to entertain. The story and characters are well-developed, and the production values are excellent. And while Ninja Theory’s previous game was critized for being too short, Enslaved clocks in at about 8 to 10 hours which is about average for a game in this genre.
Aside from the solid gameplay and story development, the game also offers excellent visual presentation and voice acting. I couldn’t help thinking that I wasn’t as blown away as I was by Heavenly Sword at the time, but perhaps that was just a title that was ahead of its time because in no way does Enslaved underperform in this regard. The post-apocalyptic picture the game paints is gorgeous, from its cities to its wastelands to its remote villages, and the excellent music and animation add to the experience as well.
All in all, I had a great time playing Enslaved. Its pacing, presentation and story development, paired with solid gameplay dynamics, made time fly by as I played through the adventure. It’s hard to pinpoint why it doesn’t feel like an all-time classic, but perhaps it can be found in the minor control issues and the fact that the game never truly innovates. But though everything may have been done before, it’s all done extremely well here. Game of the year? Perhaps not, but it’s in my top 5 and definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in the action adventure genre.