Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a 2010 action platformer about a post-apocalyptic world where an unlikely pair who go a journey for freedom.
One-hundred and fifty years after a world war left most of the planet wiped clean of humans, a devastated Earth is populated by “mechs” or robots left over from the fight. With no one remaining to reprogram them, they continue on with their internal commands to kill all hostiles, which means they hunt humans, by long forgotten orders, forever. Aboard a slave ship under unknown control, Monkey (Andy Serkis), a powerfully strong human with incredible jumping skills, awakens from a cell while a disembodied voice chortles about a place called Pyramid and new life awaiting those aboard. He soon escapes and accidentally triggers the ship into a slow descent and eventual crash. As it is plummeting, he encounters a young woman named Trip (Lindsey Shaw) who has also breaks loose and boards an escape pod but refuses to let him in and jettisons free, carrying him away from the burning ship on the outer surface of the flying pod. They crash and both survive, though Monkey is knocked out. He waked up later and realized that the same woman has bound him with a slave headband that forces him to comply to anything she demands or he will die. So to if she dies while in control of the band. She explains that she needs his skills to help her reach her home, some 300 miles away, something she knows she can’t do on her own. With no other choice he agrees, and on this adventure as they battle mechs and things far worse, the two bond and stumble upon a discovery for which neither is prepared.
If the first twenty minutes don’t prove that game developers can write incredible dialog and story sequences into an action platformer, I don’t know what will. Some of the best voice acting and facial emoting for that generation grace the beginning of this fun but slightly unbalanced adventure. While the visuals and story are top-notch, a modestly disappointing combat mechanic slightly, but not ultimately, hampers a unique and challenging game. You will fight the same enemies throughout, with occasional incredibly challenging but satisfying boss fights, some of which incorporate the use of the “Cloud”, which could have been featured a lot more, but was probably best to keep it limited. The Cloud is a device Monkey wields that when charged, transforms into a kind of energy-based hover board that allows Monkey to skim across the surface at high speed, being some of the best parts of the gameplay as he skips about the environment using the Cloud to defeat enemies. It is limited and triggered by gameplay so it can’t be used freely, which may be disappointing for those who play games where all weapons and devices are accessible at any time.
There are some undeniably thrilling moments without the Cloud though, with some spectacular design and lush, inventive graphics that paint an apocalyptic world not in the typical browns and grays but with beautiful, vivid colors as nature reclaims the cities. The atmosphere and art design are some of the best in gaming and serve as much more than eye candy, inviting players to continue on, curious as to what comes next. But here’s the rub. Undoubtedly meant to compete with the likes of the Uncharted (2007) series, its on-rails platforming makes things a little too easy, especially in an age of free climbers like Assassin’s Creed (2007). You simply cannot explore the wonderful environments as each leap and jump is laid out in a predetermined path, highlighted by glowing ledges and hand holds. Still, there is a wonder fluidity to Monkey, and it’s fun to guide him along the crumbling high buildings and landmarks of this post-apocalyptic ruin.
And as wonderful as the environments are, it’s Monkey and Trip that keep it so compelling. These two characters truly propel the game, and if story and dialog are important to you, then have no hesitation in deciding whether to play. As the game progresses and Monkey (and the player) come to understand Trip and her cause, your willingness and determination to protect this engaging and captivating young woman are truly gripping, despite the reasons you are asked to do so. It’s a remarkable achievement that stays with you throughout. You want to help her, protect her and get her home, which begins with a remarkable moment early in the game.
Cutscene Chapter 2: The Old City: No doubt anyone who plays Enslaved will remember most the startlingly impressive opening sequence and genuinely moving cut scene that follows. Monkey’s escape from the slave ship is one of the better tutorials in gaming as we learn his powers and face ever increasingly difficult platforming and puzzles to reach our destination. It’s a fun way to introduce the mechanics of the gameplay and get absorbed in the art style.
Gaming is best when it is cinematic, and as the technology has changed, that immersion is becoming a thinner line to cross. Enslaved is very cinematic and after the ship crashes and Monkey wakes up in rubble, we are treated to the first cutscene, which, graphically, is no different from the gameplay, so it feels especially connected, never pulling us out of the experience. Most games of that era and before are famous (infamous) for generally quality looking cutscenes with dreadful dialogue, but a few were beginning to enlist better talent and even high-paid film stars. Andy Serkis brings Monkey to life with some fantastic motion-capture and very moving voice acting. Lindsey Shaw is his equal and the entire game experience is lifted by their touching and highly emotional voice work. This moment especially so as both characters express some very deep sentiments. Watch Trip carefully, and notice how frightened and uncertain and vulnerable she seems, yet confident that her actions are the right thing to do. It sets the tone for the remainder of the game. (Scene starts at 7:42, though everything prior is excellent set-up)
What makes a player keep going? Most likely is it’s wondering what’s around the metaphorical corner: Can what’s coming improve on what just happened. The opening set piece, called Chapter 1: The Escape, is more than the tutorial, it’s the appetizer, by carefully letting the player sample many elements of the game they will be playing, teasing at what’s to come. It’s accomplished enough that when it ends, you’ll want to keep going, but Enslaved doesn’t leave it there. The writers and developers added motivation by giving the characters far more weight than most games allow. Generally, our protagonists are merely bodies to propel us through the experience. We rarely get to know them beyond what’s happening to them on screen. We move forward simply because the game leads us there.
With Enslaved, we become invested right away for two reasons: 1) Trip is a mystery and her reasons ambiguous. She is achingly troubled by something that draws our curiosity and everything from the body language and facial expressions trigger a protective instinct in the player. 2) Monkey feels like a real person. He’s frustrated, angry, and saddened that he’s been trapped. But’s he also gentle, despite his demeanor, and he, like us, recognizes something about the girl that needs attention. He says he has no choice, since she has bound him by a slave headband that will kill him he fails her, but it isn’t long before that doesn’t matter and there isn’t anything we wouldn’t do to keep her alive not because he must, but because he wants to. It starts here in this amazing gaming moment.