- Some of the best character development and dialog this year
- Gameplay, combat and platforming are all lacking
- The 7-hour campaign is short lived and not interesting enough to want to play through
- Stagnant plot, no real reason for players to keep playing after an hour
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, is the sad tale of a man with no purpose. Monkey, our beefy-armed, gigantic-handed protagonist, is a nomad living off of a barren world 200 years after the earth’s apocalypse. It’s only by a random twist of fate that he is captured by slavers and manages to escape with the accidental help of a young woman, Trip. She, of course, leaves him to die at every turn of the introductory level, thus displaying the start of a beautiful friendship. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything, it seems, but that’s besides the point.
Thanks to Monkey’s incredible agility and strength, he can maneuver the giant airship on a slow crash course to it’s, and his, doom. With no time to spare, Monkey escapes, only to wake up with a slaver headband keeping his spiky hair upright, and Trip informing him of his newly-lost freedom. He must take her home. If not by his own volition, she’ll force him to with the headband. If he fights it, he will die. Worse yet, if she dies, so does he. The solemn truce between Monkey and Trip is quickly formed thanks to the almost instant acceptance of the much larger man. But just so she knows, he’ll break her neck once he gets her home.
So begins the symphony of character development, one of the few things developer Ninja Theory gets right. Their previous title, Heavenly Sword, dazzled Playstation 3 owners with great graphics, hundreds of on-screen enemies, giant landscapes and a strong heroine often referred to as she-Kratos. Yet while Heavenly Sword dazzled players while lacking in the gameplay department, Ninja Theory put far too much emphasis on spectacular characters, and not nearly enough time on anything else.
Indeed, the characters in Enslaved are perhaps the best this year, even better than Red Dead Redemption. Monkey is witty, experienced and confident, which contrasts Trip’s naivety, her physical smallness (compared to Monkey, who flings himself a dozen feet one-armed), and her brutally honest attitude. Midway through the game a third character adds more flavor to the mix. Pigsy, a fat, disgusting yet resourceful and cunning ally, overflows with colorful quips and memorable dialog. The three together don’t make the cast of Friends, but some laugh-out-loud moments and the most realistic modern-day dialog in any game this year shows a tremendous step forward for videogame storytelling.
It’s everything else that’s the problem. Gameplay, plot, combat…all suffer. This third-person adventure is a platforming game at heart, requiring players to navigate Monkey across miles of terrain, scaling walls, ravines, abandoned wreckages and the like. Yet far different from several Ubisoft titles (like Prince of Persia or Assassin’s Creed) or the Uncharted franchise, all platforming is sequenced. There’s always only one way up, and every step of the way has visual cues for players to see. At first the strobing latches and cliffs are a relief, but with at least two of the seven gameplay hours devoted solely to traversing the post-apocalyptic world, a little challenge should be in order. Thankfully, Ninja Theory did away with accidental deaths by making it impossible to plummet to your doom, though this also leaves many ledges almost impossible to quickly get across because players have to stand at the exact right spot.
Combat is, frankly, dull. Monkey only uses a staff that has attack two combinations. As experience is earned, players can choose to spend more points on special attacks, like a focus attack or counter-attack, but these are all supplementary to the main two combos. Fighting, like platforming, becomes very tiresome very quickly, and only in rare exceptions is it even partially exciting. There’s no heart-pumping or adrenaline rush, just a cold, calculating time-based combat system.
And if you thought great characters make a story, Enslaved is a perfect example of how that is not true. Great characters is only half the equation – the other half is giving them worthwhile scenarios for players (or readers or viewers) to see those characters in action. The plot, first Monkey and Trip’s search for her home, then for revenge, is bitterly simple. The areas they traverse are too much to the point. There are sections spanning three levels where there is literally no development in the plot, just the characters having moved from one location to another. Still climbing, still fighting.
This wouldn’t be so bad were there an actual adversary they faced against. Instead, all battles are against mechs, robotic automatons with no character, just the directive to destroy human life. It isn’t until the very last few minutes of the game that an actual antagonist appears, and by then it’s hard to even care anymore.
Spanning 14 levels, with roughly half an hour of gameplay in each, I was ready to stop just five levels in. At the sixth level, I expected the game to be nearing its end, and at the eight, it became frighteningly clear that I wasn’t even halfway through. I had no real interest in continuing after the first few levels, not because platforming doesn’t appeal to me, but because there is literally zero challenge in Enslaved. Setting the game to the hard difficulty only made it more frustrating because combat took longer. There is no battle of wits, no significant revelations to appreciate, nothing to make the experience stand out. Nothing except for a few expertly written lines of dialog.
That, unfortunately, is what Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is, a voyage of seven hours to hear great dialog but really get nowhere. One stand-out feature can make a game, but that feature is always gameplay, and this title just doesn’t cut it. After the final credits rolled, I was relieved to be done with it. For writers and game makers who struggle with writing good dialog, there is simply no better game out this year to look at than Enslaved. But they’ll have to trudge through the rest of the game to get to it.