The future: a post-apocalyptic planet where abandoned cities have been bestowed with the breathtaking beauty of untouched and dangerous eco-systems covered in lush vegetation. Amongst the battered ruins of the silent cities, only mechs remain after a distant war they once stood successful in. Humanity is subdued or eradicated, and hope has long since ceased to exist for those who are left. Oh, and you can see Andy Serkis on holiday in Egypt.
This is where we find the main characters of the 2010 Bandai Namco release Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, developed by British studio Ninja Theory. Sadly, despite the action-adventure game receiving a fair share of good reviews, it quickly dwindled into obscurity as the game never managed to reach the sales it deserved.
At first glance, the concept feels familiar, perhaps even exhausted, as we are no strangers to a set up where Earth is taking back the planet due to a severe absence of human love and care, coupled with aggressive robots not feeling very enthusiastic over the prospect of maintaining human aesthetics, and furthermore dead set on defying the poor humans that are left. That is pretty much your regular premise for just about any post-apocalyptic movie or game. Nevertheless, Enslaved does a fantastic job proving that this does not necessarily mean that it is a backdrop that cannot be utilised and turned into a memorable experience.
Enslaved is loosely based on 16th Century Chinese novel Xi You Ji, or in English: Journey to the West. Many of the names in the game are directly taken from the original novel, which loosely follows the adventures of the monk Tripitaka and the Monkey King in their journey to bring enlightenment to the Chinese people. Ninja Theory has borrowed many elements of the novel but distinctly made the game their own, especially the rather surprising ending.
The magical scenery presented in the game serves as a platform for the puzzles that define its main dynamic. The game begins with a slaver ship crashing onto New York, and symbolically destroying the Statue of Liberty’s high held torch (the beacon of hope) as it plummets towards the ground. Aboard the ship is main protagonist Monkey, voiced and motion captured by Andy Serkis, famous for his memorable performance as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.
Monkey is a quiet outsider who has been kidnapped by the slavers that are in control of this new, hostile world. With him on the slaver’s ship is Trip, voiced and motion captioned by Lindsey Shaw, who, unlike Monkey, has a family and is part of a wind-farming community of free people resisting the new world order and trying to survive the unwavering threat of the slavers. Trip has a penchant for technology, and realising that Monkey is her only way of making it back to her tribe, she craftily equips him with a hacked slaver headband, which ironically allows her to gain control over him. If her heart stops beating, he dies.
Together, the two set out on a journey that is swift, intense and sometimes downright breathtaking. Monkey and Trip are polar opposites, and Monkey is, quite rightfully so, not very pleased being forced to follow Trip’s orders, but their relationship soon changes as they have to pull their resources together to survive. The journey takes us through a thriving eco-system that is New York, where we see tarnished American flags outside of a ruined Grand Central Station. Later on, it the story introduces other settings equally as beautiful; Trip’s colourful home of her mountain tribe and its endless amount of bridges (this random guy Mark apparently really likes bridges) stands in sharp contrast to the massive robot cemetery poised by mech fuel, home to the charismatic side character that is Pigsy.
The gameplay is roughly divided into two areas; puzzle solving and combat. Whereas the player is only in control of nimble Monkey, Trip is just as much part of the gameplay as the player has to guide them both through each chapter unharmed. The gameplay is not perfect; it sometimes feel choppy and uneven, and your movement often feels constricted as there is usually only one option of where to exert your next acrobatic. The actual combat flows fairly well but lacks finesse and strategy, at least initially. However, there are a few kicks added into most fights that make them entertaining and sometimes even stressful. The platform puzzles are not exactly providing a challenge, but they remain entertaining as the lavish scenery and set ups of the areas change regularly.
The relationship between the two mismatched characters is one of the game’s main strengths, with the creators proficiently managing to illustrate the deep bond between Monkey and Trip amongst all the mechs and demolished buildings. Trip’s cunning solutions and beautiful tech combined with Monkey’s raw strength and agility makes them a delightful team to be in control of. As the story progresses, so does the relationship between the two and it is a rare thing to behold a strong, emotional bond between a man and a woman in a game without any overt romantic or sexual motive behind their affection. There may be a few lingering gazes that could be interpreted as romantic, and the character Pigsy is certainly seeing sparks (and hearts and fireworks) between the two, but Enslaved stays clear from delving into a romantic sub story that would have taken away from the heart-warming interaction between the two.
Another aspect worth mentioning is that whilst the female protagonist is in need of help, so is our male hero. It is a mutually beneficiary relationship between two people that both have their strengths and weaknesses. It is a nice little touch that the gameplay reflects the strength of their relationship and how it perfectly replicates why it is so compelling and effective. The characters seem real, their expressions and voices are explicitly convincing, and it is difficult not to feel for them both as they experience grief and shock, but also moments of joy. The motion capture and voice over performances from the actors translate extremely well, and the result is positively gripping.
The game only amounts to about ten or so hours of gameplay, but those hours are a sweet, enjoyable experience. The story is involving, the characters unexpectedly convincing, and Enslaved feels like one of few current-gen games that does not aim to be something that it is not; the game sets out to tell a story about two mismatched people and it manages to do so with excellence. And yes, it comes with somewhat bizarre footage of Andy Serkis going to the theatre, leisurely stretching out on a sunchair in front of the sun resort pool before swinging by the pyramids in Egypt. All presented in exclusive glitches in Monkey’s head; in fact, it is surprising how being a slave accompanied with glimpses of Andy Serkis watching a Romeo and Juliet play somehow fails to drive poor Monkey towards complete madness. Especially since some of these glitches also includes tractors and cowboys.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West received positive reception from critics and players albeit sales were significantly low – 730000 copies as of the last report in 2011. Bandai Namco had to rely on AAA titles like Tekken 6 for profits; Jin Kazama and his team grossly outsold Enslaved despite Tekken 6 being released back in 2009. Enslaved did get a DLC called Pigsy’s Perfect 10, featuring 4-5 hours of gameplay as Pigsy, but receptions were lukewarm. A premium version of the game featuring the DLC and new outfits for Trip (not sure why you would want to turn her into a half naked robot) and Monkey was released for PS3 and PC in October 2013, but no information about a possible sequel has followed.
The sad truth is that Enslaved did not manage to span enough interest in an industry that revels in shooters and yet another instalment of your average AAA franchise, but for those of you looking for a few hours of genuinely good story telling and an experience that will stay with you, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West just might be a good investment. The game is available for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.