Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Platform: Xbox 360 (also available on PS3)

Developer: Ninja Theory

Publisher: Namco Bandai

# of Players: 1

ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

Official Site

Score A-

Namco Bandai and developer Ninja Theory seem to be making a clear point with Enslaved: Odyssey to the West that great action games this generation don't all need to be too short or packed with Mature-rated content, non-stop multiplayer modes and "gritty" environments done up in the muted gray or brown palettes too many other titles are saddled with these days. What's here is an absolute and pure fun blast of a game with gorgeous visuals that pop right off the screen, a solid focus on telling a great, emotional single player story and thrilling gameplay that will keep you going from one encounter to the next. While there are a few technical issues, they in absolutely no way stop this from being one of the best games of 2010.

While the source material, Journey to the West has been retold/remixed in books, films, comics and even other video games in the past, Enslaved's take on the classic story manages to be fresh thanks to the interplay between its reluctant (yet beefy) hero, Monkey and his controlling (yet likable) partner Trip. This odd couple makes their way from a prison ship above Earth down into a post apocalyptic wasteland that, for all it's destroyed real estate, is a lush playground for Monkey's agile antics. Trip herself isn't player controlled, but her AI is brilliant and at times, between the games phenomenal cinematic presentation and the interplay between the two characters, it's almost like watching and playing a really amazing animated film. Those overly critical types who think ALL video games are mindless and have no value as a medium can go suck an egg, or they can sit down and watch someone play the game for them, is all I'll say.

The story opens as the pair as escape prisoners from a prison ship. Trip, (a tech-savvy girl from a farming community) initially has no interest in setting Monkey free from his cell or helping him at all. However, after he gets stuck to the front of the last escape pod, she has no choice but to launch and they both get sent crashing to the game's first set piece, a destroyed New York City. Monkey's surviving the crash gives Trip a wild idea and when he finally wakes up, he finds himself wearing a slave headband and Trip in charge. She "simply" wants someone to get her westward to her home and who better than the big lug who managed to live through a massive drop from the sky and the wreck that followed?

I won't reveal any more of the plot in this review, but that's not just because I hate spoilers. Of course, if you know Journey to the West, you'll probably think that you can figure out what's what beforehand. You'd be more than a bit incorrect, however. Enslaved's storytelling (and character interplay) is magnificent to the point that each player needs to see how the tale unfolds as they experience it. It's hard to impress upon you, dear reader (especially in this day and age of TMI internet postings) how well Ninja Theory can spin a tale, but suffice it to say that if you crave a damn fine story in your games, you won't be disappointed.

Equally impressive is the combat in the game. Unlike too many action games where ridiculous combos and juggle moves are par for the course, Monkey and his staff feel a lot more natural to play around with. Even though this is a pure fantasy game, you really feel as if his blows impact realistically as robot after robot go down. Monkey later gets a few beam upgrades to his staff and they do a great job of taking out most metal-heads you'll come across. Movement and battle are fluid and intuitive once you realize that you're not playing yet another button masher and even more rewarding when Trip can assist. She's not a controllable character here, but can open locked code doors, whip up a hologram to distract robots, heal Monkey or even let out an EMP blast if she's grabbed by a machine.

What's really eye-popping about Trip's AI is that the game is designed so that she's not some clueless dope that needs to be baby-sat and she never runs headlong into enemy fire and dies on you. Way back when I played the demo build, I was floored by how Trip "knew" where to hide out or the ways she poked Monkey in the right direction just by standing in a certain spot or running slightly ahead of him. In the final version, she's even more lifelike and you'll grow to really like the girl (if you haven't as soon as you lay eyes on her). Up until this game, Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 was my favorite female character with Heavenly Sword's Noriko being second (sorry, Lara... you came in third). Trip has eclipsed both of them (and yes, I know she's not real - I'm not that delusional) because she's one of the most "normal" characters you'll see in a game.

It's Monkey of course, who'll be your go to guy for combat and navigation and he even gets a "cloud" to ride around on just like in the book. Of course, the game's cloud is a futuristic hover plate that's extremely cool and fun to use, but not overused. In fact, Enslaved isn't one of those games where one element is the "star" that overshadows all else. The adventuring and plot fit together along with the characters and enemies you'll come across. One subtle yet paradoxically obvious touch is the decision to make the enemies robots of different sizes and abilities. There's also no gore or heaving cleavage to distract or cheapen the experience, although I'd say Pigsy is probably the closest thing the game gets to being crude. You'll see - the man is a mess (a very funny and very useful one at that).

As far as the presentation goes, other than some slightly off texture work and an occasional animation hiccup or cinema glitch, the game is just beautiful to look at. Character models are fantastic and the facial animation as well as motion capture are as good as it gets. I loved the different robot types in the game and while you won't see any insane boss fights here that take hours and multiple attempts , there's a nicely handled surprise boss chase that lasts quite a while. Overall, the game's concept art comes to life and at times, the game takes on the look of fantasy art in motion. Lush plant life covers rusted out or worn structures, there are patchwork roadways made from metal or other materials and the sense of scale is done perfectly.

Since you happen to be controlling a character named Monkey, you'll be doing a LOT of climbing, pipe swinging and other acrobatic feats. The levels are pretty wide open and with all the colors popping around you, some players might easily get lost in simply looking for a quick way from one point to another. Fortunately for the easily overwhelmed, objects Monkey can swing from are highlighted, making navigation almost effortless. One thing the game teaches you in short order is how to move as quickly as possible through these swinging sections or anywhere Monkey needs to traverse under enemy fire. One other thing you'll find out is that the game isn't frustrating to play at all. It's not a total cakewalk, mind you, but I'd say most players who expect to blow through games and not care a hoot about the characters will find someone or something to love here (even the awesomely hilarious Pigsy!).

Sound design, voice acting and music are perfect here (and hopefully you pre-ordered the game and got the soundtrack). Andy Serkis' Monkey comes off as a believable lug without trying to be the typical boring testosterone dripping jarhead bad-ass found in other games. Trip, voiced by Lindsay Shaw comes of as real as can be and nails the part perfectly. Considering you'll be hearing quite a lot of her as you play (some of the conversations between the pair are amusingly lifelike). Pigsy, you'll have to hear and see for yourself. He's the game's comic punch when it needs a lift, but he's never wearing out his welcome when he gets screen time.

Finally, the great dialog by Alex Garland (28 Days Later) is well-written and delivered with emotion, thanks to Serkis' stellar direction. The man can do it all, it seems and I hope Ninja Theory keeps him around for future projects. Along with their programming skills, he's their secret weapon (and a kick in the groin to mediocre storytelling efforts found in a lot of other games these days). All of the elements add up and make the game one of the best single player experiences I've had in a while. I'd say that one side effect of Enslaved might not only being gamers demanding better plots, it might actually make a few players track down and crack open a copy of Journey to the West (and NO, not on some E-reader, either).

As for the technical issues, you'll see the aforementioned texture deal, an occasional frame rate hitch and some "Hmmm..." inducing loading screens. But as I also mentioned, none of these problems should keep anyone from the game and none will keep anyone from enjoying the ride Ninja Theory wants to put you on for a good chunk of time. It's definitely about time we're seeing more games that show the medium isn't as shallow as some less-informed folks (many who've never touched a controller) think it is. Having completed the game put down the controller to write this review, I'm about to head back into it just to pick up a few Achievements I missed and once again, get into the fantastically told story. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is not only a Trip worth taking, it's one you'll remember for quite some time after you complete it. Absolutely recommended.

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