Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Ninja Theory/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language,
suggestive themes, violence)
By Billy O'Keefe
Gaming's 2010 holiday season is fueled almost entirely by sequels to and remakes of games you've already played, so the mere air of mystery surrounding the brand-new "Enslaved: Odyssey to the West" makes its presence welcome by default.
Fortunately, "Enslaved" wholly earns that welcome by telling a fresh story, telling it well, and backing it up with continuously great third-person action.
"Enslaved" stars players as Monkey, a prisoner who escaped a crashing prison ship only to become subservient to another escapee, Trip, who planted a device on Monkey that forces him to obey orders and help Trip return home alive. (The story, in addition to boasting outstanding voice acting and exceptional character and environmental details, pretty capably makes surprising sense of the details behind Monkey's predicament.)
In case you're worried: No, this isn't one long escort mission that requires players to keep a useless sidekick alive. "Enslaved's" levels occasionally ask players to help Trip safely navigate difficult terrain, but these instances usually play out via well-designed environmental puzzles or very quick combat challenges. And in addition to capably following a few commands (run, distract, heal) and flashing smart A.I., Trip usually can fend for herself when necessary.
Freed from babysitting duty, Monkey proves quite capable himself. "Enslaved's" core action is a cross between third-person brawling and platforming in the "Uncharted" vein. Fights in wide-open fields against gun-toting mechs borrow tricks from cover-based shooters, and a hoverboard-like device lets Monkey freely surf around certain levels at high speeds.
What elevates all these familiar elements into something unique is the stuff "Enslaved" does with presentation and momentum. Monkey doesn't stop on a dime when players stop running: Momentum carries him a half-step further, and the camera takes a few additional steps before snapping back. Though jarring and counterintuitive at first, the loose physics allow for more fluid movements in battle and a more exciting presentation of those movements. It doesn't sound like much, and it has to be experience to be fully understood, but it's enough to light a noticeable fire under what otherwise is a familiar stable of gameplay staples.
(Worth noting: These ticks don't apply to climbing, which uses a "sticky" system, a la "Prince of Persia," that allows players to dart from platform to platform without slowing down for precision's sake.)
Everything "Enslaved" tries — brawling, climbing, puzzle solving, infiltration, escorting, even a little shooting and more — it does capably at worst and brilliantly at best, and the game does a nice job of rotating those pieces so as to prevent any of them from overstaying their welcome.
This alone would make this an easy game to recommend, but "Enslaved's" ability to tell a wholly original story with so much care absolutely clinches it. Monkey and Trip are much stronger characters than their original archetypes first imply, and "Enslaved's" world — a post-apocalyptic America that trades in the usual grey wasteland for a beautifully mossed version of New York City, among other locales — is a treasure trove of engrossing unknowns as well as a feast for the eyes.
(c) 2010, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.