Reviews

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Premium Edition – Review

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Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

This game was tested using an AMD Radeon HD 7790 graphics card kindly supplied by AMD. Click here for details on that, the Radeon HD 7790 and the test system used for all PC games.

Released back in 2010 Enslaved: Odyssey to the West remains one of my favorite games, and it is my firm belief that it was hugely overlooked by players  everywhere, despite a  positive critical reception and managing to impress  people who bothered to play it, selling only 460,000 copies by November of 2010. Skip forward to 2013 and somebody in Namco Bandai pulled the PC-port lever, creating the Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Premium Edition, containing all of the DLC released for the game and upgraded graphics. More importantly it lets me wax lyrical about a game which holds a special place in my heart.

Still, we do start off on something of a sour note as a trip to the settings menu reveals a distinct and disappointing lack of graphical options, except for being able to change the resolution and adjust the gamma. While this is par for the course in a console game, for a PC title it’s almost completely unacceptable. It’s also impossible to turn of the annoying motion blur via the settings which renders all of the beautiful detail in the game’s world as a soft haze whenever you move the camera or go faster than a gentle jog. In order to actually do anything like adjust the V-sync  - which is advisable as screen tearing can be a  a problem for some – you’ll need to go have a tinker in the game’s ini. files, which of course I would never advise anyone to do, even when using the many detailed guides already available on the Internet. *cough*

And did I mention that changing the resolution doesn’t actually seem to work most of the time? Oh well, another reason to go play around with files, then.

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On a more baffling note there are some menus that can’t be navigated using your mouse, instead you’ve got to either use a gamepad  or the up/down keys on your keyboard. I do actually recommend using a gamepad as the mouse and keyboard controls feel slow and clumsy .Meanwhile other menus work perfectly fine with a mouse. While this isn’t exactly a major problem that will kill your enjoyment of the game, it frankly feels lazy on Namco Bandai’s behalf, and when coupled with the lack of graphical options it doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the port well.

Enslaved is very loosely based upon ancient Chinese writings Journey to the West, a classic tale which is in turn a fictionalized telling of  Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India. The story follows the tale of Monkey  who is trapped onboard a slaver’s ship as the game opens. As he groggily awakens in his pod he witnesses a young red-head making her escape, sending the ship into a death-dive in the process. For obvious plot reasons Monkey manages to survive the crash, but to his horror the young girl, named Trip, has placed one of the slaver’s headbands on him in order to force him to escort her home. Should he stray too far from Trip the headband will destroy his skull, and should Trip die then the same thing will happen. Clearly struggling to cope Trip is vulnerable and terrified, and while her decision to enslave Monkey is hardly the kindest thing to do, her reasons are easy to sympathise with: this is just a girl far out of her depth looking for a way home, and Monkey – a gruff, strong, no-nonsense survivor – is her best shot at that. Still, it would easy for the player to instantly dislike her for what she’s done, but the actor who plays puts such genuine regret about her actions, fear for where she has found herself and determination to see things through into her voice that it’s impossible not to empathise with both her and Monkey’s situation. Monkey just wants to be free, and she just wants to get to her family

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Choosing to enslave the person you’re going to be travelling is hardly the best foundation from which to build a friendship. Indeed much of early game is spent watching the fractious relationship between the two of them, but as the story progresses the less than pleasant situation turns into something more.  This is where the heart of Enslaved lies: not in its gameplay, or even the overall story arc, but in the characters of Monkey and Trip, and their burgeoning relationship. Often in videogames such things feel like they’re handled so coarsely and awkwardly, rushed for the sake of a forced romance between characters where none is needed, but here the progression of the Monkey and Trip feels entirely natural as they move from uncomfortable allies to friends to much more. It’s one of the finest examples of character development in a game, I believe. The dialogue sparkles and each scene is put together with obvious love and attention. While others games struggle to evoke emotion and craft characters with genuine depth to their personalities, Enslaved does both with apparent ease.

Monkey is voiced by Andy Serkis, the man you probably best know for playing the role of Gollum in a small trilogy of films, who does a truly award-winning job of bringing the character to life through a pitch-perfect performance and expressive facial movements. Monkey is a gruff man who has survived for his entire life in harsh environments. He doesn’t spend time brooding or thinking of what could be, he simply accepts what is and lives each moment as they come,  trying to scrape by. When Trip reveals his enslavement his anger is powerful, but he accepts his predicament because it is what it is and no other options are available to him. But as the story unfolds he becomes so much more, and Serkis delivers on every moment, carefully crafting a character with so many facets to his personality that he ultimately feels like a genuine person rather than simply a virtual creation put together on a computer. Monkey displays moments of brutality, warmth and humour that make him one of the most fleshed out characters to grace a game.

Yet even Andy’s brilliance is outshone by Lindsey Shaw who plays Trip. It’s an impossible task to try to describe a voice in mere words, but she brings such a depth of emotion and believability to the character that it elevates Trip from just being yet another videogame girl in trouble to somebody who feels completely and totally real. She hits every line, every scene, perfectly, making Trip sound frightened, terrified, funny, lovable, caring, brave and brilliant. Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite was heralded as one of the greatest game companions ever, placed alongside the likes of Alex from Half-Life, but quite frankly neither of them hold a candle to Trip. And yes, Trip was the first time I ever fell in love with a virtual creation. I don’t mind admitting that. But just go watch a video of her on Youtube, and try to tell me that I’m wrong.

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Some of the best  motion capture  yet seen in a game brings a whole other level to the performances of Serkis and Shaw, so that not only does each scene sound like real people talking, but looks like it too. The voice acting and writing is spectacular, but the scenes between Monkey and Trip simply wouldn’t have the same impact without the great motion capture. Those subtle shifts in expression and body language are something which even the greatest written videogames overlook far too often – they can make a great scene a truly memorable scene, and that’s exactly what they do here. With full motion capture it lets the actors play out each scene almost as they would in a movie or on stage, and the results are more than worth the expense. It’s for this reason I simply had to include a video highlighting how this was done. It’s worth watching until the end so that you can witness the real-life footage beside that of the in-game footage. It’s a damn good scene anyway.

Later a third character by the name of Pigsy is introduced at exactly the right moment within, just as the dynamic of Monkey and Trip  needs a little extra something to spice things up. Pigsy is a fat slob full of cocksure arrogance who provides a welcome beacon of humour in an otherwise serious storyline, constantly getting on Monkey’s nerves in a variety of ways. While Monkey and Trip could have likely carried the entire tale by themselves Pigsy is a welcome addition to the cast, once again brilliantly voiced. And then there’s the hilarious way he runs and drags himself up into platforms. Ah, Pigsy,  You’re awesome.

And thanks to a chunk of DLC included in the package we get to briefly step into the boots of the porcine lover during a time set before the Monkey and Trip meet him in the campaign. It’s a great slice of action, successfully changing up the familiar gameplay with a sniper rifle, explosives, grappling hook, EMP and more. It’s a good few hours long as well, bringing the total lifespan of the game to somewhere in the 10-12 hour region.

80

Regardless of the lack of options Enslaved really does look stellar in its PC form. This is a story set within a postapocalyptic world, one in which pockets of humanity struggle to survive while mechs pose a constant risk and slavers threaten to drag you away. In this generation we’ve gotten used to games portraying postapocalyptic world as grey, miserable places, which I suppose is apt given the subject matter. But in Enslaved things are different: every environment packed with details and awash with a lush color palette that would blow the mind of modern grey military shooters Call of Duty or Battlefield, or other postapocalyptic games like Fallout 3. The game opens in a devastated New York city, but rather than having murky greys and dull browns we’re treated to a version of the Big Apple which nature has reclaimed for its own, creating an amazing green environment filled with beautiful colors. Later things do get darker as the story progresses, but there’s always room for color, and when there isn’t you’re still treated to amazing vistas. You’ll notice plenty rough edges and the like, but the beautiful art-style more than makes up for this.

As beautiful as the game is, though, that does not negate the fact that by playing around in those ini. files you can get the game to look far, far better than its default state, again raising the question of why there’s no options available via the menu. I did experience also some moments of stuttering when entering new areas or when exiting a cut-scene etc. This is far from a major problem, but once again it’s something which just shouldn’t happen.

Battling the many mechs that interrupt your journey by attempting to remove your spine and use it as a toothpick is done by using a limited selection of offensive moves. Monkey can chain together light and heavy attacks with his staff, fluid animations linking together into whirling dance of death, but the possible combinations amount to just a few which you’ll repeat over and over again for the duration of the game. By holding down the correct button you can block incoming attacks while double tapping the appropriate button acts as your evade move. The light strike button can also be held down in order to unleash a special move which disrupts enemies shields or defensive stances,  leaving them vulnerable to attack for a few precious seconds. Some enemies have structural weaknesses that can be exploited by using a special takedown maneuvers, while others will attempt to call in reinforcements if you can’t destroy them fast enough.

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Basic is the most apt word to use when describing Enslaved’s combat. It lacks any degree of complexity, resulting in battles being little more than hammering the attack buttons, unleashing the occasion defensive break as needed. The only challenge comes from the mech’s themselves who are rather aggressive in their onslaught, blocking your attacks and responding with devastating moves of your own. They move with a savage grace that belies their rusted exteriors.  You’ll have to make good use of the block and evade skills to deal with them, while a couple of different mech types help to bring some much-needed variety to the combat, although  there really needs to be more to help keep you on your toes. Every confrontation has a nice back and forth rhythm to it, while a genuine sense of immense weight and power behind both Monkey and the mech’s attacks makes ripping through metal shells brutally satisfying, a fact emphasised by the up-close slow-motion camera shots that often accompany finishing blows.

The savagery of combat and the joy that stems from it lasts for the first few hours of the game, while boss fights against a dog-shaped mech and a massive bruiser of a machine provide welcome breaks from the standard fights. But after those first few hours pass repetition begins to set in, and with no new unlockable combos available in the upgrade system your left to repeat the same few attacks over and over, crushing the steady stream of enemy mechs that get in your way. Any sense of skill largely comes from knowing when is best to charge up your stun attack, mastering the countering skill, which must be bought, and memorizing foe’s attack patterns to ensure your blocking shield doesn’t run out of power. With Enslaved getting ported to PC it’s also disappointing to note that the developers didn’t use this as a change to fix some of the problems from the original game, such as the fact that during combat the camera sits too close to Monkey. While this does give you a great view of Monkey’s incredibly fluid and powerful attack animations, it also leaves you vulnerable to assaults by enemies hovering just out of your vision.

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Leaping and climbing your way around the environment is literally as easy as tapping a single button while pushing in the correct direction, throwing Monkey around with reckless abandon as he gracefully swings and clambers. The path forward is usually made very clear and there’s almost no danger of failure here: Monkey simply won’t leap from any perch unless he can actually make the jump, so it’s impossible to misjudge and send yourself falling into the void. The only time when you can die during platforming sections is when your handhold or perch begins to crumble and you don’t leap to safety quickly enough, but even then you’ve got a generous amount of time in which to move. Later on the game steadily introduces more timing based platforming action, but even then it’s less than challenging.

Platforming in Enslaved is a hardly a difficult affair, then, so why is it still so enjoyable? The answer is that like the combat Enslaved focuses more on spectacle than anything else, desiring to impress you with speed and fluidity more than complex gameplay mechanics. The quality of Monkey’s animations, the effortless, fluid way in which he moves, and the speed at which  he can get around, is incredibly to watch. The quality of the animations was truly amazing at the time of the game’s original release, and even now several years on they’re among the best yet seen in a game.

Again, though, I wish the developers had taken the time to fix the old problems. During platforming sections there are still areas where you’ll come to a brief halt because the game demands you be standing in a very specific spot before it will let you take the leap that you so clearly need to make. It doesn’t matter if the distance is the same, unless you’re standing exactly where it wants you, you’re going no where. The occasional awkward change in camera angle could have been fixed, but wasn’t.

The Premium Edition contains the extra character skins released as DLC. They're not very good.

The Premium Edition contains the extra character skins released as DLC. They’re not very good.

The sense of repetition that comes from battling the many mechs that inhabit the ruined world and from leaping around stems entirely from the simplicity of both those core pillars of the game. The lack of depth in the gameplay can at times be frustrating, but there is also something to be said for the focus on spectacle: the close-ups during combat, the brilliant animations and look of ferocity on Monkey’s face all contribute to the fact that Enslaved really does look and  feel amazing in action, even while you’re wishing there was just a little more to it all.  But at some of the repetition is at least partially offset by superb pacing. Just as fighting mechs becomes too much to bear the game changes gear, balancing out the amount of combat and climbing near perfectly while introducing a few smaller elements. There’s the occasional turret section, that while a little sluggish provides a welcome moment of respite, and Monkey’s staff also acts as a ranged weapon so that you can get in the occasional shootout. Again, like the turrets aiming the staff feels clumsy, and pure shooting sections are dull, but the game is smart enough to often mix the shooting up with the games platforming and melee combat, challenging you to dodge mini-gun fire using a  mixture of clambering around, battling mechs and using your staff’s stun and plasma attacks to emerge victorious. It’s during these sections where the gameplay is placed into a giant melting point where the game really shines. Swinging from poles while the wall behind you is shredded by gunfire, stopping on occasion to deal with some troublesome mechs and bark orders to Trip while unleashing a few plasma rounds, is exhilarating stuff.

Monkey’s handy little “magic” Cloud deserves special mention. This little beauty is essentially a floating surfboard, allowing you to skim across water and earth alike with ease. It’s usage is carefully restricted to certain areas within the game, which is of course disappointing but understandable. Hop aboard and it’s instantly fun thanks to incredibly responsive controls and the fact that the control scheme remains exactly the same as when you’re controlling Monkey on land. Outside of platforming sequences it’s mostly used during boss fights and to great effect. Honestly, the Cloud is criminally underused throughout the game, but then I suppose had it been utilised in more sections it would have likely out stayed its welcome.

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All of this takes a back seat to Monkey and Trip, though. Essentially one vast escort game there is of course the understandable concern that Trip will get herself in trouble every five seconds, but the opposite is true: not only does she try to stay out of the way, if a mech manages to grab hold of her she can unleash an EMP blast, stunning the foe for a short while in order to let you get your ass over there and take it down. Meanwhile Trip can help out by using a decoy to distract turrets, pull levers for you and even heal you should you require it. As their relationship grows its fascinating to watch the power shift in their relationship back and forth: Monkey may be enslaved, but he’s still a physically powerful force while Trip is far from it. She’s terrified and thus Monkey is essentially the boss, tackling the mechs and helping her get around. She might be the one with the power, but without him she’s likely to die. But as the story goes on she becomes invaluable thanks to her skills with technology and resourcefulness, and their awkward alliance becomes a partnership of trust. And yes I’m harping on about Monkey and Trip.

The ending deserves some discussion, as well, although have no fear as I won’t be spoiling anything here. Suffice to say that it goes in an unexpected yet clever direction, one that is bound to leave you more than a little surprised and just a tad unsure of what to think. Back when Enslaved first released the ending resulted in a lot of discussion and a lot of very different opinions floating around. I, for one, like it: it’s unique, it fits, it’s surprising and it has emotional weight. My only complaint would be that I’d like more closure for the characters, but that’s only because I’ve become so damn attached to them.

It’s not about the combat. It’s not about the platforming. It’s not about the graphics. And it’s not even about the end. It’s about the people and the journey, the incredibly well realised relationship between Monkey and Trip that grows throughout the game. Don’t read this the wrong way: despite it’s simplicity the gameplay is still fun, largely thanks to its cinematic flair, but it’s not the driving force behind the game or the reason that you should open up Steam and hit the purchase button.

The Good:
+ Trip.
+ Trip and Monkey.
+ Looks amazing.
+ Wonderfully written.

The Bad:
– Gameplay may be too simplistic for some.
– Lack of graphical options.
– Old problems remain.
– A poor port all around.

The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
Quite honestly I wanted to give this game a five purely because I’m so attached to the characters and world, but it would be a dishonest score, too influenced by my love and not enough by critical thinking. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Premium Edition is a half-arsed PC port that Namco should be ashamed of, but still stands as a great game, one that portrays a beautiful relationship in an equally amazing world. If you though Elizabeth was a hell of a companion, just wait until you meet Trip.

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