A futuristic, post-apocalyptic version of Monkey? Yes, that’s the basic concept of Enslaved, and it’s one of the more novel and exciting premises for a game we’ve come across lately, being big fans of the original harebrained TV series (which was actually based on a classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West). The player controls Monkey with his potent staff, ridable cloud and Jedward hair, the latter being a new addition for the 22nd Century, when hair gel is clearly available in surplus.
Travelling with Monkey is a computer controlled companion, Tripitaka, who has him enslaved via the headband of pain. Oh, and Tripitaka has done a bit more than his hair up, having had a sex change (rather aptly, seeing as the actor who played the original priest in the TV show was a woman anyway). Trip, as she’s known for short, still travels on a great journey, although this one is to reach home after a spaceship the pair were held prisoner on crash lands in central New York.
Although the New York of 2150 is a very different one, consisting of shattered buildings, blasted flyovers, and husks of burnt out cars scattered all over. Visually, the game looks excellent, with some very effective ‘I Am Legend’ style touches such as bushes, lichen and other greenery sprouting on the shells of ruined skyscrapers, and wildlife skittering about in the deserted streets. The only presence left, aside from the animals, are the deadly armed mechs who were programmed to kill humanity.
The game itself is an action-adventure focused on combat, with a light RPG upgrade element. And right from the very first scene when you’re on board the spaceship plummeting down through the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s noticeably quite rigidly on rails. As you leap from pipe to pipe on the vessel’s hull, and from wing to wing as it hurtles towards the city centre, it’s always clear where you’ve got to go as objects which can be jumped to are highlighted and shiny. This whole scene is marvellously dramatic, and there are parts where you’ve got to be quick on the jump button, or you’ll perish.
Enslaved has a superb Hollywood quality, a movie-like flow in its veins. In other words, after a manic scene such as this, there’ll be quieter moments. Or a comedy interlude where you have to leap about a tree, attempting to catch a mechanical dragonfly. An amusingly light hearted ditty plays in the background during this scene, and the transition of the music, the voice acting, timing of the lines and script itself all combine to form a sense of cinematic grace which is a big part of what makes the game so enjoyable.
Yes, there are weaknesses. It’s seriously linear, and channelled to the point where the game won’t let you accidentally walk or leap off a ledge, keeping Monkey safe with an invisible wall. The Enslaved experience is also heavily spoon-fed, with Trip telling you what to do half the time.
Like an action film, there’s an element of check-your-brain-in at the opening credits, but also like an action film, there’s enough going on that you’re glued to the screen, with a sprinkling of puzzles, a variety of enemies to take down and tactics to use, some momentous boss fights, and other clever intricacies. For example, the player can direct Trip to distract enemies with a holographic device while they run around the back of the baddies undetected to deliver a surprise staff clobbering.
While the path is almost always clearly marked or pointed to, there is some room for exploration, and it’s generally rewarded with secret areas containing tech orbs, the game’s experience points which are used for upgrades. Monkey can upgrade his staff’s ranged combat (it fires plasma blasts), health, armour or fighting skills. The latter opens up new moves such as lengthy stuns, evasion attacks, counters and finishers which help flesh out the fighting considerably. Combat is simple, intuitive and satisfying, particularly when you take down a boss monster whizzing around on your cloud, pulling off stuns and combos.
There are two areas where Enslaved trips up, if you’ll forgive the pun, and that’s on those occasions where you can’t see where the game wants you to go. At times, we found ourselves blundering along a cliff edge, just hitting ‘jump’ over and over again to try to find that spot where we’d actually be allowed to leap. In one area, we discovered a secret stash of tech orbs by jumping off the top of a truck. Then we died and respawned at the beginning of the section, and because we couldn’t remember where we’d jumped to get across to this stash, we spent several minutes running around trying every spot on the roof of the truck. It turned out it was the roof of the cab, not the trailer, but you have to find the exact place to jump, or it’s no go.
On these occasions, and with the odd piece of clumsy camera work, that’s when you feel the constraints of Enslaved; but they’re definitely the exception, not the rule. It’s true that as you progress through the game, some set pieces can feel overdone. You’re constantly chucking Trip across gaps she can’t jump, and she only just makes it, clinging on to the other side of the chasm for dear life, while you have to rescue her by leaping quickly after before she loses her grip. But just when the word ‘formulaic’ is starting to form in the mind soup of your brain, the developer chucks in an imaginative heart-pumping set piece involving an armoured car Trip can’t drive and a minefield of multiple automated gun turrets.
There’s a real story and genuine character development played out here, too, which definitely helps keep the player engaged, as the relationship between the pair changes from master and surly slave through grudging respect and onwards. As the chapters move forward, the game becomes difficult to quit, with that just-one-more-checkpoint element holding up the writing of this review. Enslaved is, in fact, rather an apt name…
Company: Namco Bandai