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Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West crafts compelling characters

Bad robot dogs are but one feature of this post-apocalyptic road trip.
Bad robot dogs are but one feature of this post-apocalyptic road trip.
Ninja Theory

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Rating:
Star4
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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West ran under my radar from pretty much the time it was announced to just about a month before the game was released. I didn’t quite know what to make of the multi-platform game from Ninja Theory but once I started to pay attention my interest was piqued. And I’m glad I did as it is one of the more enjoyable single-player experiences of the year.

Enslaved is a loose interpretation of the ancient Chinese novel Journey to the West set in a future where robots (we should stop making these) have either killed or enslaved most of the human race. Computer wiz Trip and the acrobatic Monkey are unexpectedly thrust together after escaping a crashing slave ship. Trip is trying to get back to her village but knows she can’t survive on her own so she forces Monkey to help her with a Slaver headband that allows her to simultaneously control and help him. Plus, there’s there added incentive that if Trip dies, the headband will kill him.

Thus begins one of the better written, acted and animated games of 2010. Andy Serkis (Gollum/Smeagol, King Kong) does a fantastic job as Monkey both with his voice acting and the work he does with motion-capture animation. Lindsey Shaw is similarly outstanding as the brave but vulnerable Trip. While the voice-acting is very good it doesn’t mean much without the characters conveying the emotions on-screen with their bodies and facial expressions and a script that develops the characters while providing humor at the right moments. That’s where Enslaved is able to stand out.

Gameplay is a mix of platforming and combat with an RPG-lite system to upgrade Monkey’s abilities as the game progresses. And while Trip doesn’t directly engage in combat she can help out by directing her to distract enemies while Monkey moves in position to knock them off. Overall, Enslaved provides a satisfactory mix of combat, platforming and boss fights with different challenges along the way so that the gameplay doesn’t become stale.

The otherwise engaging story and characters are marred by some gameplay and technical issues. For starters, while Monkey’s acrobatics start off as exhilarating in the opening act it quickly becomes obvious that there is little to no danger in the platforming sections. The game makes it impossible to misjudge any leaps leaving it mostly as an exercise in puzzling out the right path. Dangers are limited to the occasional crumbling platform, rush against the clock and fire belching out on to handholds in later levels but these are far and few between.

The camera and controls are likewise uneven with controls not always responding to what you intend to do. Meanwhile the camera tends to flip around to angles that make it hard to see during combat or it causes problems when the view switches unexpectedly.

Graphically, the game game is refreshing too look at but suffers from very noticeable texture pop-in at the introduction of each new area of the game along with some framerate slowdowns during combat.

These issues don’t overpower what is one of the best single-player experiences to hit the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in a long time. Ninja Theory’s ability to craft a compelling story with likeable and well-acted characters in a world that is both lush and colorful makes for an enjoyable experience. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West's gameplay doesn’t quite measure up to the quality of the story but it is nice to see a developer create a post-apocalyptic world that doesn’t rely on browns and grays.

[Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was reviewed on the Xbox 360.]

Grading Scale:
Five Stars - Excellent. May not be a perfect game but it is truly top-notch.
Four Stars - Great. An above average game that is definitely worth a look.
Three Stars - OK. Not a bad game but it doesn’t necessarily standout.
Two Stars - Below Average. Could have been a contender but something is holding it back.
One Star - Poor. You get the idea.

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