Enslaved: Odyssey to the West has technical flaws aplenty, a story that can be summed up in a few sentences, and can easily be beaten in under ten hours. It’s also a profoundly beautiful experience that will affect you in surprisingly subtle ways, with stunning visuals and some of the best acting to ever grace a videogame. It could have been the kind of déjà vu-inducing mediocrity that clutters store shelves. Instead it’s one of the most enjoyable games of the year.
The plot of Enslaved is loosely based on the Chinese novel Journey to the West; a brainy girl named Trip and a brawny loner named Monkey manage to escape a slaver ship moments before it crashes into a New York of the future. Trip knows she can’t possibly make it home in one piece on her own, so she slaps a slave headband on Monkey while he’s out cold and forces him to escort her. If he doesn’t do as she says, the headband hurts him and if she dies, he dies, too. He takes it pretty well, all things considered, and off they go.
The story never really gets much more complicated than that, with Trip and Monkey picking their way across the ruined countryside, running from the mechanized minions of the slavers, fighting when there’s nowhere left to run. It doesn’t really have to, either. By keeping the plot relatively simple, Enslaved leaves plenty of room for the characters and the adventure itself. Monkey and Trip’s cross-country trek is a dangerous one; even when they’re not dodging mechanized death, they still have to navigate a countryside devastated by catastrophe. Monkey can climb, jump, and swing like his namesake, but Trip is less athletic and often needs help. What she lacks in physical prowess she makes up in technical acumen, using her mechanical dragonfly to scout ahead, or creating a digital decoy to distract the mechs. Once you collect enough Tech Orbs, she can also begin to upgrade your gear, bolstering your shields or unlocking more powerful attacks. For a relationship based on enslavement, Monkey and Trip are surprisingly symbiotic.
Although the game is one huge escort mission, Enslaved prevents Trip from feeling like a burden by keeping the babysitting to a minimum. At times you’ll have to fling her across a gap or give her a boost up to a ledge, but most of the time, she’s safely out of the way, leaving you free to ignore her while you convert mechs to scrap metal. The combat of Enslaved is fairly shallow; you can mix up light and heavy attacks with Monkey’s staff in close quarters, or use it to fire plasma and stun bolts long distance. You can upgrade the staff to give it more powerful long-range attacks and unlock a few close combat moves, but don’t expect to be learning long and twisty combos. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however; unleashing my Focus Attack was just as satisfying at the end of the game as it was at the beginning, even though it was pretty much the only deluxe move I had.
With a main character named Monkey, the platforming in Enslaved should feel effortless and free, but unfortunately the controls aren’t nearly responsive enough. You’ll try to jump only to have Monkey do a somersault. You’ll frantically jam on the A button, but he’ll patiently wait on the ledge, staring pensively into the distance. Trying to leap from handhold to handhold in an elegant, fluid chain of motion is a recipe for disappointment – it can be done, but not with any kind of regularity. The opinionated camera doesn’t help much, either. It has a very clear idea of what it thinks you should see, and it’s going to do its best to make you look at it, whether that’s actually helpful or not.
Enslaved has some definite technical issues, but one thing it absolutely nails is the visuals. It’s set in a future Earth that’s been devastated by war, yet it’s a vibrant and beautiful landscape, bursting with color and lush detail. Instead of just giving us the same old brown and broken dystopia, Enslaved gives us an environment we genuinely want to explore and rediscover. It’s just one way the game plays on expectations created by playing dozens of nearly-identical games to provide moments of genuine surprise. When Monkey recovers his motorcycle, a vehicle level seems inevitable, yet it never comes. I won’t spoil any of the other moments for you – they’re far more enjoyable when you discover them on your own.
The real reason to play Enslaved, though, is for the sheer pleasure of watching Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw as Monkey and Trip. The voice acting and motion capture of Enslaved set a new benchmark for characterization. The relationship between Monkey and Trip could’ve been very one-note and obvious, with her the beautiful yet terrified genius and him the gruff but reluctant hero. It would’ve been easy to make them into a comfortable and expected pair; instead, their relationship is subtle and imbued with genuine emotion. These digital actors are remarkably deft storytellers; their performance guarantees you’ll remember Monkey and Trip long after you’ve finished the game.
Bottom Line: Enslaved rises above its flaws to deliver a grand adventure. Neither the platforming nor the combat are particularly inspired, but it doesn’t really matter – you’ll keep playing because you care about its characters.
Recommendation: It’s an incredibly short game, so you can probably get by with just a rental, but play this game as soon as you can.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.[rating=4]