Ninja Theory, ambitious developer behind the action game ‘Heavenly Sword,’ creates a post-apocalyptic world loosely based on the famous Chinese story “Journey to the West” with wonderful effervescence. Given the joy I found in their previous title, another new intellectual property from them excited me in two ways: the promise of overwhelming environments and a respectable story. While those two qualities are present (to a lesser degree), it won’t take long to notice they serve as being remedial towards what is otherwise a gameplay routine that periodically thrills but never continually stimulates.
After narrowly escaping captivity from slavers known only as Pyramid, your playable character, named Monkey, is knocked unconscious. Upon waking, he finds out that Trip, another escapee, has retrofitted a slave headband on him. Her instructions are simple: get her back home and she’ll remove it. Also, if she dies for any reason, he’ll suffer the same fate. With no other option, Monkey is forced to venture with Trip through the ravaged avenues of a decayed New York City.
Enslaved’s story arc is marginally hindered by odd shifts in the pacing and tone during the latter half of the game. What starts out as a story about an adroit duo of brawn and brains overcoming odds together as a team begins to waver as time progresses. When the team takes on a third member whose job is to essentially act as a cipher, save for the final chapter and being an annoyance for the story to briefly pry in a forced love bit, the tone momentarily feels much more humorous and light-hearted. Despite these moments containing some good laughs, this short-term shift impairs character motivations and the second act’s flow.
Despite structural faults, the characters and storytelling turn this into something more than the typical adventure tale. In cut scenes and discussions during gameplay, it’s easy to notice the growth of both main characters change from recalcitrant to trusting as time goes on. The writers are able to take advantage of the game’s decent length to make character development feel more subtle. This progress is additionally bolstered by the sensitive cinematic direction headed—once again—by Andy Serkis. These details are what make the story. Even though almost half of the chapters are just scenarios of getting to ‘X’ item with enough plot progression sprinkled in between, everything happening around these individuals will—slowly but surely—sweep you away.
Though not immaculate, Enslaved’s visuals are some of the most vibrant seen in the post-apocalyptic setting. The striking amount of lush green and incarnadine overgrowth engulfing so many worn-down structures is something else to behold for the first time. Although each varied locale displays an impressive color palette in comparison to just about every other title using this backdrop (or the Unreal Engine, for that matter), level designs don’t consistently maintain the awesome sense of scope shown in cut scenes. Restraining camera angles coupled with straightforward platforming sections oftentimes make entire levels feel partitioned into small subsections, rather than a changing whole. Beyond this and suffering some typical proclivities with this game engine, like texture pop-in and slowdowns, sundries of spectacle always hinted at something new around each corner.
Sound design also treks unexpected territory for its backdrop. Rather than harsher tones, melodious cadences are what typify the soundtrack. Even though a list of voice actors dwindled down to three people could raise some eyebrows, there’s obvious talent behind each of them. I’m still a bit hesitant to admire Serkis’ gruff intonation for Monkey, but that may be because of the roles he has filled in years past. Combat noise never strikes as anything beyond basic: mechs of all sizes hiss hydraulics as they either sprint or lumber forward and Monkey’s attacks present the same effect after little experimentation. Overall, there are no major faults, but quality portions in sound are too often drowned out by typical aspects that have come before.
Like Monkey’s staff, combat’s fusion of two separate elements has its own duality, in regards to quality: the uncomplicated melee system forms perfectly with Monkey’s finesse, but shooting feels clunky and stale. While these two components could’ve made due by remaining separate, with brawling taking up the majority, blending both elements happens too often and sours the whole entrée. Since later fights typically consist of an amalgam of melee and ranged mechs, molding tactics against them leads to frustration because of an uncoordinated camera. Whenever crossing the next plane for the camera to move, the ungraceful ‘directional inversion’ can cause Monkey to either run or take aim in an unintended direction. These problems coupled by how often I was hurt or killed by enemies off-screen left me wondering if the game made more mistakes then I did.
As equal portions platforming and combat, players are certainly not enslaved to monotony. Respites from fighting typically mean Monkey’s either climbing by himself or lugging Trip to the next area. These climbing sections are relegated down a linear path of highlighted blocks, tree branches, and more. As mentioned in the visual portion above, this restrained method causes path finding of primary and secondary routes to just feel given to you. While this might make some point the finger at other adventure games like Uncharted, at least in those cases all climbable objects have subtler visual cues (like color or Drake’s reaching animation). There’s also this strange specificity of demanding the player to be spot-on when jumping to the next highlighted object. A mere step away from the supposed next place to drop down—or attempting to climb sections that look deceivably scalable—results in Monkey doing a quick animation of falling forward and whipping back. Were these problems with overbearing invisible walls happening at random, this would go unnoticed; but in Enslaved’s case, the incessant constriction in platforming and exploration can’t help but lead anyone to believe autonomy is being treated as an antagonist.
Conceptually, Enslaved tends to play out as one extended escort mission. The typical reaction to that by players is worry. Fortunately, Trip’s a capable companion. By collecting various items throughout the game, such as vials and floating Tech Orbs, she is able to render services by healing or upgrading Monkey’s offensive and defensive abilities. She’s also capable of directly assisting in combat by using her decoy to draw attention of nearby enemies or an EMP pulse to temporarily disable mechs attacking her. Adrenaline-infused chase scenes with Monkey’s electromagnetic hover board, dubbed “Cloud,” to save her are probably the most exciting facet of the gameplay. Instead of the typical burden chaperoning tends to be, Enslaved’s structure makes good use of Trip to dramatically improve the pacing. The only two minor mishaps I noticed were inconsistent responses by her during puzzle sections and sloppier Cloud movements during chase scenes, in comparison to how fluid it acts in open areas.
The improvement in length and replay value from the ephemeral Heavenly Sword is a praise I can’t state enough. On top of the nine to ten hour adventure offered, masks (explained in the ending) and previously mentioned Tech Orbs are employed to bolster replay value. While this does air closer towards being “completionist filler,” there’s gratification for any player to breeze through earlier levels with an upgraded character.
Enslaved is certainly a flawed title, but it also offers an astounding feat in characterization for videogames. Through subtle storytelling, it becomes mesmerizing to see Monkey’s laggard growth from protecting Trip so he could stay alive to safeguarding her because of their deep companionship. Even more impressive is how this chemistry is simultaneously understood by both the characters and players. While gameplay pacing and variability has its bright moments, an unrefined rudimentary setup and a reduced sense of discovery to several locales are noticed too often. A motley gameplay formula can’t discount these particular—and other—grievances, but animated individuals and dazzling locations still make for a worthwhile odyssey.
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