Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Normally, when games developers are touting the big Hollywood types that they have involved in the production of their latest game it sets off alarm bells in the gaming press. In the build-up to it's release Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Namco Bandai has taken every opportunity to name-drop its Hollywood involvement. Things are changing however and picking the right people from the film industry can now enhance the game experience beyond what we once expected from flirting with the film industry.
In the case of Enslaved, they may just have picked the right guys to work with. The main names that have been dropped are experienced motion-capture actor Andy Serkis and 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland. Serkis has actually been given co-directing duties by developer Ninja Theory in order to enhance the experience of the game.
To that end Ninja Theory has succeeded where other studios have failed miserably. Enslaved is an impressive testament to how well the film and games industries can work together. Ninja Theory has taken the idea of creating a modern-telling of the classic Chinese story of Monkey and used the resources at their disposal to create an enthralling action adventure game.
As well as borrowing heavily from Hollywood experience and Chinese mythology, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West draws greatly from the example of Naughty Dog's Uncharted series. Another thing brought up during the build up to the release of Enslaved was the immense amount of respect that the team at Ninja Theory have for what Naughty Dog has achieved with the adventures of Nathan Drake.
The story begins with an action-packed sequence as the main playable character Monkey chases after his keeper-to-be Trip as they both try to escape a slave ship bound for the mysterious Pyramid Corporation. Trip initiates some sort of malfunction on board the slave ship which releases Monkey and you need to guide Monkey along the disintegrating ship as they both try to escape.
They make their getaway in an escape pod and the crash knocks Monkey out and when he comes to the technologically gifted Trip has fitted him with a slave headband that links his life to hers. She insists that they work together to survive, promising to free him if he helps her get home.
Here's where the real game begins and the true beauty of the world that Ninja Theory has crafted becomes apparent. The first section of the game involves locating the slave ship crash site to recover Monkey's futuristic motorbike in order to get Trip home. The slave ship just so happens to have crashed in the ruins of what was once Manhattan Island and Monkey and Trip must cross the ghost of New York City to get to the crash.
The ruins of New York have become overgrown with lush vegetation and red flowers, all rendered meticulously in 720p in a graphical style that apes both Uncharted 2 and the intricate cel-shaded graphical style of the recent Prince of Persia reboot.
The meat of the gameplay in Enslaved is a combination of blunt God of War-style combat and well-crafted platforming puzzles. As a player you control Monkey who will battle the games' enemies which are an army of automated robots and turrets called simply Mechs that rule the game's futuristic desert. These Mechs come in several varieties all designed to hunt down and immobilise or kill humans on sight. In fact the influence of Ubisoft's Prince of Persia reboot extends beyond the exquisite graphics to the fluid animation of the climbing puzzles.
The fluidity of the animation is also down to the extensive motion capture experience of Andy Serkis. The man who brought Gollum to life also co-directed the mo-cap sessions bringing Monkey and Trip to life via some of the most impressive animation I?ve witnessed.
The game is also heavily influenced by the dynamics between Monkey and Trip. As the story progresses the two characters relationship grows and changes beyond the simple slave/master relationship that Trip created by fitting Monkey with the slave band at the beginning of the game. It could be argued that Ninja Theory don't make the most of the teamwork dynamic that Monkey and Trip build up together. At the same time they do work the character development very well and you do end up understanding and feeling for the plight of both of them by the end of the game.
Unfortunately it cannot be all glowing praise for Enslaved, no matter how much grace and creativity the game exhibits. It does feel a bit rough around the edges. There are rare occasions where there are missing animations and dialogue. The control system also isn't feeling as tightly honed as it should be. There are a good number of occasions Monkey would spend his time running up against the edges of paths or veering off slightly from the direction that the thumbstick is pressed. These are minor complaints but they are just enough to keep Enslaved from reaching the extreme heights of its influences.
Minor niggles aside, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a game that is sitting on the very edge of exceptional. The visuals are sumptuous, the acting and animation is also top notch and the storytelling makes Monkey and Trip seem much more than the usual two-dimensional characters that populate the majority of narrative-driven videogames today. This is a superb adventure game that, while it is tiny steps off titles like Uncharted 2: Amongst Thieves stands head-and-shoulders above the majority of bland sequels that are becoming all-to-familiar landmarks. As well as creating an impressive adventure game, Ninja Theory has also shown how film industry expertise can be used to good effect to enhance the production values of their game.
Enslaved is a worthy adventure title that overcomes its own minor shortcomings with an excellent narrative and glorious visuals. It may be up against some pretty hefty competition this year but Enslaved is definitely one of the top new intellectual properties that the games industry has seen since Nathan Drake went searching for his ancestoral fortunes.
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