'Enslaved: Odyssey to the West' Review

Ninja Theory has created a beautiful, but flawed, experience with Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Aspects of the game that at first seem captivating are either drawn out and left unestablished or underdeveloped entirely.

When taking the bad and the good, is Enslaved a game worth putting your efforts into? Read our full review to find out.

What Enslaved does right is wondrous though. The initial chapters are awe inducing and beautiful, and the interactions between main characters, Monkey and Trip, draw you in unlike many games ever could. Discovering the methods of outsmarting and defeating your robotic enemies is fun and challenging. Altogether, that sense of adventure pushes you forward towards what must be a story for the ages. However, these expectations eventually falter and are, ultimately, unfulfilled.

Even the references to Enslaved's namesake, the book Journey to the West, at first tease a greater depth, but are ultimately unrealized. Similarly, combat, the more dramatic portions of the story, and the game's setting and atmosphere all sputter into what is a disappointingly unfulfilling game.

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Enslaved does have a lot of things going for it, the setting is painted perfectly -- with a unique take on a post-apocalypse Earth.

In case you're unfamiliar with the basic Enslaved story, here's a quick summary: The main protagonist Monkey has been captured by Slavers, placed upon a flying Slaver ship and cannot break free. Then another inmate does what he cannot -- she breaks free from her cell and rushes towards the escape pods. The ship begins to slowly explode and Monkey's cell opens. As he pursues the woman, who has unknowingly freed him, he comes to realize she is afraid of him. After a rough plummet from the ship to the Earth, Monkey awakens to find a Slaver's headpiece upon his brow. This woman, Trip, has enslaved him.

These dramatic sequences, where both characters are forced to confront their master/slave relationship, showcase Enslaved at its best. The emotions they invoke draw you into the gameplay in ways simple combat never could. They're unfortunately rare though, and worse, are separated by other sloppy scenes. Having a man and woman as the protagonists, naturally the developers had to introduce some notions of romance into the story. Enslaved will force feed the plot pieces to you intermittently, shouting in your ear that these attractive people obviously yearn for each other.

These elements come in stark contrast to other, more interesting personality traits. Monkey's torn emotions (regarding his isolation from what's left of humanity), and Trip's quiet resilience (despite being separated from everything she has ever known) are intermittently laid aside and both become flirty, naive teenagers. It all feels terribly awkward given the generally serious tone Enslaved has, especially when the character Pigsy is introduced. Pigsy's introduction follows what is, arguably, the most dramatic chapter of Enslaved, with a sequence of fart jokes and grade school, "Well if you don't like her I'm going to ask her out" scenarios that cheapens the story and breaks immersion.

Of course, there is also Enslaved's ending. Much of the game's setting is remarkably mysterious, so the kitchen sink is expected when you reach the climax. What's waiting is a sloppy, confusing showpiece that neither provides closure for Enslaved's wonderful characters or adequately defines the game's setting. That's not to say Enslaved doesn't attempt at providing closure, it's just that what's given is both cumbersome and graceless. Somewhere within Enslaved's closing is a poignant idea - but the presentation and circumstance are unfounded.

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Combat and general gameplay in Enslaved also starts out strong. While direct combat is your typical action game fare, featuring strong or fast strike combinations, the addition of a variety of environment traversal puzzles, combined with action sequences, keeps your blood pumping. Rather than expound on combining these two features, as the game progresses they are further pushed apart. Traversal section, combat section, traversal, combat - it's an unhappy divorce of two systems that work very well together.

The traversal sections of Enslaved are extremely well done though. Early chapters see Monkey and Trip leaping from street signs to crumbling buildings, through trees and over ravines. Later chapters take it up notch, let's just say they implement more moving parts (dangerous moving parts). That feeling of excitement of leaping through a crumbling, nature reclaimed city feels the best though. Those later chapters seem so much more claustrophobic and straightforward. Perhaps that was the intention, taking those freedom filled moments from the early game and tightening them so you feel constrained later, but rather than seem clever, the gameplay gradually feels less inspired instead.

There's really no positive end to the direct combat portions of the game though. Initial fight sequences felt dangerous, as the life bar was low enough where only a few hits will kill Monkey. This forces the player to think strategically and use the environment to their advantage. Then later, after Monkey is buffed by a series of upgrades to health, shields and damage, combat becomes much more straight forward. Armies of exploding robots with ranged attacks and stuns will sweep towards Monkey, but the sense of danger has faded away. Direct combat becomes stale and monotonous; mashing buttons is quick, easy, and just as effective as any alternatives.

Even if it's easy at times, Enslaved looks gorgeous. Animations are super smooth and clipping isn't a noticeable issue. Occasionally the animations are almost too smooth though, as starting an attack combination will prevent a crucial block or dodge. It still looks great, but it comes at the expense of the experience in some regards.

There's been a lot of attention paid to the background settings in each different area. While every level is linear to a fault, you never feel like you're limited to a single path. The environment seems open and explorable, despite that it's actually very linear. Those devastated buildings and giant mech remnants the reach out at the edge of your vision may potentially be explorable later in the story. Even if they aren't, you'll wish you could explore them.

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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West begins its journey as strong as any other game available. The rest of the experience can be summarized in two words: unrealized potential. It's especially damaging considering how great some aspects of the game are, and just how disappointing other moments can be. Overall what Enslaved provides isn't a bad experience, it's just disappointing.

That said, Monkey and Trip are both characters worth seeing and hearing from again. The initial interactions the two have with each other will draw you in, but further cut scenes provide almost random experiences. These moments range from overly emotional situations, lighthearted flirting (a deep-seated disconnect between the two) to fart jokes, but none of them pay-off. If any of these aspects could have been further developed the lack of closure might be appropriately mysterious.

Combat and exploration initially seems inventive and rewarding, but both experiences gradually become repetitive and forced. The combat progression, from small encounters with more environmental traversal to less intensive fights with multiple mechs, feels almost like a reversal in enjoyable complexity. The upgrades, rather than introduce exciting new mechanics, make the player less involved in combat. It's a simple and intuitive combat system, but that's probably why it eventually becomes boring.

Where does this leave Enslaved? Mediocrity. If anything, Enslaved is an enjoyable tour of a desolate post-apocalypse future. There are many things worth seeing along the way, but also many aspects that ruin the intimacy of the game. There's a place for Enslaved as an interesting concept, but in terms of a solid gaming experience there are too many broken opportunities. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West might initially capture some imaginations, but where it takes them and where it leaves them isn't worth the journey.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is available now on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Our Rating:

3 star out of 5 (Good)
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