Sunday, 23 January 2011

Game Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

‘Enslaved’ came with a lot of anticipation. Co-written by the bestselling author Alex Garland, motion-captured/acted and co-directed by Andy Serkis, and based (fairly loosely, I understand) on the Monkey myths of Japan, this seemed like it was going to be a highly unusual take on the usual post-apocalyptic game. If nothing else, the highly verdant world is strikingly different from the typical wind-blown wastes.

Indeed, there is much to praise here. The gameplay itself is fairly straightforward, and will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played any of the ‘Prince of Persia’ games since ‘Sand of Time’, especially the reboot from a couple of years ago. It’s eerily similar in fact. You arrive in an area, there is a quick overview of the terrain, and you bounce around it like the monkey you’re named for, periodically pausing to smack seven bells out of the mechs that threaten you. You even spend a great deal of time collecting glowing orbs, just as with ‘Prince of Persia’. For all its basic familiarity though, it is hugely entertaining – all the good bits of the ‘Prince of Persia’ series with a decent combat system welded to it. The controls are simple and intuitive, and you’ll rarely find yourself failing for any other reason than your own mistakes, aided by the system that simply won’t let you fall – or jump – off ledges unless you’re in the right place, although it must be said that this can be a little jarring as you try to find exactly the right place to launch from. The game is at its best when it presents extended stretches of world for you to navigate around.

Similarly, the combat quickly becomes second nature, again helped by the lack of complications to the system. There are three attacks to start with; three or four more can be learnt by the end of the game, all of them relying on the same two buttons. You can also shoot things with your staff; never as much fun as the close quarters combat, but sometimes essential, always signposted by enormous quantities of ammunition. The occasional boss fight invigorates things, with you systematically wearing down much larger mechs in increasingly impressive fashion. Often, you will have the assistance of your ‘cloud’, a spinning disc that functions like a hoverboard, making for a couple of intense chase scenes. Sometimes, your two companions will chip in to lend a hand, of which more later.

The game is undeniably beautiful, and not just the scenery, which has clearly been lavished with attention. The character models are incredible, especially Andy Serkis as Monkey. Your main companion, Trip, is stunningly rendered, but is a little more generic looking, while the secondary companion Pigsy, introduced late in the game, is…grotesque, really, but it’s very well done. It is really the characters who are at the heart of the game. The plot is vague at best – find your way to a settlement, then fight your way west – but the character relationships are excellent. From Monkey’s brutal introduction, to the very funny scene where Pigsy and Monkey discuss Trip’s affections, by way of a tender scene by a fire, it can be genuinely affecting. It is both the best thing about the game, and the worst. The ending is the sole thing I can really criticise, a truly mystifying attempt at…well, I’m really not quite sure. Something spiritual? Something existential? Whatever it is, it is introduced far too late (literally five minutes prior to the credits at most) and given far too little explanation to really work. Striving for a deeper theme is always admirable, especially in a videogame, where plots tend to be little more detailed than ‘go here, shoot this’. ‘Bioshock’ and its sequel is an excellent example of this trend; ‘Enslaved’, sadly, is not. The ending is simply weird.

Overall, ‘Enslaved’ is a great game. The meshing of subtle yet rewarding gameplay, rich characterisation, and sheer unadulterated fun makes for a highly enjoyable and recommendable experience. It’s not long – maybe ten hours in total, although there’s replay value in collecting everything, of course – but ending aside there’s little to truly criticise. Equally, it’s not a truly outstanding game. For all its good points, it never quite reaches true greatness. It is well worth playing though, and an admirable attempt at something a little different.

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