Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is an action adventure game that takes its storyline from the Chinese tale of Monkey. Co-written and directed by Alex Garland of 28 Days Later fame and starring a lead performance voiced by Andy Serkis, its not surprising that some of the game’s best qualities are entirely non-interactive. Enslaved features some excellent characterisation and there is an engaging chemistry between the two leads Monkey and Trip.
Enslaved is set in a post-apocalyptic future where Earth has been obliterated by an army of robots called Slavers. We are introduced to Monkey as he and a girl named Trip escape from one of the Slaver’s ships and crashland in a decimated New York City via an escape pod. There, Monkey awakens to find that Trip has placed a headband on him that forcibly bonds the two of them together. “If you die, I die”. Trip instructs Monkey to give her safe passage back to her village at which point she promises to set him free.
And so Monkey and Trip embark on a video game road trip through a literal American wasteland. Developers Ninja Theory have created a brightly light and colourful world for them to travel through. Although full of ruined highways and crumbling buildings, this futuristic world has also been overrun by lush vegetation that gives the environment plenty of colour and diversity.
For the first five or six hours of the game, Enslaved really let Monkey and Trip banter back and forth and develop their relationship with one another. Their only encounters during the game’s early chapters are with Slaver robots, none of which can talk. Monkey is a surly powerhouse who has a heart of gold underneath his tattooed and scarred exterior. Trip is a headstrong and intelligent tech head who eventually grows fond of Monkey. Its not exactly Gone With The Wind but Ninja Theory and Garland have definitely succeeded in creating a compelling dynamic that helps draw the player into the story.
The gameplay is a grab bag of platforming, combat and shooting. These are implemented with varying degrees of success. The melee combat is probably the game’s weakest play mechanic. There are only a couple of basic combinations and a dodge roll that Monkey can use when fighting with his staff and the Slavers don’t really do much more than charge at Monkey in a bee-line.
Enslaved does mix this up though by having some puzzle sections that involve Trip and Monkey taking turns providing distractions or coverfire while the other attempts to access a switch or take out a gun turret. I found these sections to be a bit more involving.
The game’s platforming segments are a completely on-the-rails experience where the player simply connects the waypoints for Monkey to jump or climb to. The developer has actually made it close to impossible to actually perish in these sections and instead it serves an opportunity to show off some cool animations of a nimble Monkey swinging and pouncing through the environment. I enjoyed this for what it was.
Although there isn’t a huge range of enemies, I also enjoyed the art design immensely. The larger robots often take the form of mechanical animals such as rhinos and dogs both in appearance and behaviour. Their appearance and exaggerated movements reminded of some of the larger Jim Henson puppets in Labyrinth.
The only sour note I really felt with this game was with the ending. While I shrugged off the occasionally repetetive passage of gameplay or slightly wobbly framerate as it wasn’t enough to dent the game’s overall charm, I was admittedly left flummoxed by the game’s completely non-interactive epilogue. In an instant, the game’s enviroment changes completely, there is a obtuse denouement provided by a previously unseen villain and then it all ends on a philosophical question posed to the player as the credits begin to roll. I don’t really know what I wanted out of the ending to this game but it certainly wasn’t that.
Shonky ending aside, this game remains one of the most pleasant discoveries of the year. I know it certainly wasn’t on my radar during its development cycle. Here’s hoping it does well enough to warrant a follow up and maybe then Ninja Theory and Garland can do something to provide Monkey and Trip a more deserving conclusion to their tale.