Delayed Reactions: Enslaved – Odyssey to the West – At Least it’s Not Racist
For people who like:
Uncharted, Heavenly Sword, Prince of Persia (2008), Tomb Raider, Beyond Good and Evil
+ Beautiful use of colors
+ Great Acting
+ Entertaining cutscenes and banter
+ Awesome set piece action sequences
- Repetitive gameplay
- Highly restrictive platforming
- Choppy animation transitions
- Cumbersome, unhelpful camera
- Frequently stubborn controls
- Needs more polish
Before I ever got to play Enslaved, I had already been forced to debate in favor of it. On GameCrashers Radio Episode 62, we talked about the smattering of internet press which was claiming that Enslaved was racially insensitive because the enslaved character’s name was Monkey. I wanted so badly to come to its side and say, “No internet, this game is a beautiful reimagining of the ancient Chinese story “Journey to the West” and any argument that the game is racially insensitive is purely over-reaction.” After playing it, I find I’m able to come to its side on certain fronts, but I have to bite my tongue on others. I’ll start off by saying that Enslaved is not racist, nor is not a bad game, it just gets repetitive and is generally unpolished.
Enslaved is really the story of Tripitaka, or Trip for short, on her way home after escaping a slaver’s ship. She steals one of their slaving control helmets and puts it on you, Monkey, linking her mind to yours. If she tells you to do something, you’re bound to do it. If she dies, you die. The devastated city is filled with abandoned Mechs from the world war of who knows when, all still in operation and ready to strike when any trespasser comes near. It is Monkey’s reluctant task to escort Trip through the perilous wasteland to safety.
For anyone keeping tabs, this storyline has nothing to do with the original “Journey to the West” where Tripitaka, also known as Xuanzang, was a Buddhist Monk on a journey to the Western Heavens to fetch the holy scriptures. So, “Enslaved: Odyssey to the West” is a reimagining of “Journey to the West” which was a creative account of the real Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India to replace the worn and incomplete Buddhist scriptures found in China. Whatever you do, don’t call Enslaved a “retelling”. Only the character names, some elements of the characterization and the weapons / items are taken from the original text. Either way, none of it is “insensitive” to American slavery issues, so let’s just be done with that. Monkey has become a hostage, his life is being ransomed back to him in return for keeping Trip safe. This doesn’t even come close to the atrocity that slaves have experienced and do experience. Here’s the main connection that Enslaved has to the original text.
Your character, Monkey, is based on Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King. Wukong was a powerful immortal who waged war with the heavens and lost. He was ordered to follow Xuanzang on his quest in an attempt to teach him some humility and kept on his quest due to the head band which would painfully constrict at Xuanzang’s command. Wukong’s weapon was an expanding rod the size of a needle which he kept behind his ear. This rod could expand to the size of a column capable of holding up 13,500 pounds. Wukong can also perform a cloud somersault, allowing him to bound over miles in a single leap. ”Enslaved” has taken the rod and the cloud idea, giving Monkey a staff he can shrink down and hold in his wristband, as well as a cloud hover disc granting him fast movement over large areas.
One additional character named Pigsy is based off of Zhū Wùnéng, also known as Monk Pig or just “Pig”. The original Pigsy was an immortal who got drunk and flirted with the wrong woman, condemning him to earth. This character flaw enters into “Enslaved” eventually, but generally Pigsy acts as your Mech expert and machinist. Ok, enough of the history lesson, onto the gameplay.
I played through the first chapter of Enslaved with my jaw on the floor. The scenery was colorful and beautiful, the camera work was immersive and exhilarating and the acting brought me straight into the action. This chapter was incredibly linear, but it was a series of set piece sequences so good at doing specifically what it set out to do that I was filled with pure excitement to keep playing. Once I got to chapter two, then three, then four, I started to realize that my joy of the first chapter was an isolated event and not the norm. This isn’t to say that there aren’t things the game does well though.
The main gameplay consists of combat and platforming, neither of which do anything impressive or different. The combat has no combos. You have your regular and heavy attacks, a non-damaging sweep attack, a stun attack, dodge roll attack, a counter attack and a blindly recharging focus attack. There are only a few unique mechs, each with their own fighting style and they are recycled throughout the length of the game, so combat gets stale too quickly. The presence of the mechs ultimately feels unnecessary in many areas, as though the game is trying to pad its length by putting inactive hibernating drones in your way. Their alert status is based on your proximity to them, so it would have made sense to include some stealth based gameplay. The truth is that it’s actually more of a disadvantage to take a stealthy route because you ultimately miss the energy orbs dropped by defeated enemies which you can use towards health and power upgrades. The upgrades don’t really feel like they give your character any growth though because there’s nothing really new you can unlock. Everything is basically an augment to something you start the game with, like additional shield power, or stronger plasma bursts.
The combat works, though it can feel stubborn at times when you’re trying to move gracefully between moves and the character is taking a long time to finish his last one. There were a few enemies I gave up using heavy attacks with because it slowed me down so much I couldn’t get a good dodge in when they started their attack animation.
The platforming is easy to the point of limiting. There is a very rigid definition of where you can and can’t go. I remember getting stuck at a few places and feeling completely cut off from exploring what I thought to be viable options. I had to look around the environment until I found the exact pipe among all the similar looking pipes that the game designated as the one to climb. They’re generally not hard to see because they start to glow, but sometimes an object I thought was inaccessible became accessible later on, so I didn’t think to look back. Also, when you’re climbing from object to object, there’s no possible way to fall off, making the peril of dangling hundreds of feet up from impending doom seem moot. I was just spamming the jump button. I generally felt like I wasn’t really deciding where to go, but rather like I was just watching where the character ended up, especially in a few places where the next foothold was off screen.
The most fun I had moving around were the cloud hover disc sections. They unfortunately didn’t really feel like they fit in with the rest of the game though. Generally all your pickups and collectible orbs found in the level are lining the perimeter, so you have to circumnavigate the level to do your collecting. This gets annoying and breaks the pacing anytime the characters have finished agreeing on where they need to go and should do so in all haste just to have you stop to do a lap around the level. The cloud is no exception to this because they provide you with an environment of ramps and jumps but encourage you to stop your momentum, get off the board and wander to corner to collect some orbs. The sections you’re allowed to use the cloud in are never very long which just makes the segments feel wasted. Then when you are provided with contextual chase scene on the cloud, the controls stiffen up degrading the feeling you had of the cloud as a free wheeling slide to a stiff truck speeding down a freeway.
The camera tries to present some artistic views throughout the game, but it’s inconsistent. When the game does it well, it really shows. There were some great sequences where my jumping from platform to platform was framed perfectly in harmony with the action happening around me. At times I would literally shout out loud “this is freakin awesome”, something I don’t do very often. It’s in the moments like this that the game really stands out and the first chapter was full of moments like it. In fact, by the time I finished the first chapter I honestly thought I might be playing a new favorite of mine. Once I got passed those carefully crafted segments though, most of the time the camera felt unruly, providing no assistance during battles and sometimes restricting my camera’s perspective without any discernable reason. Most of the game is the behind back free camera like most 3rd person games have, but sometimes it would just switch to a fixed camera perspective in the environment without any obvious intent. It wasn’t difficult to adjust to the change in perspective, it just left me wondering why. The game was generally either working the camera for you, or leaving you completely alone with it.
Aside from the grand set piece action sequences, the real strength of the game is unfortunately the non-interactive aspects, the performances and actors. The banter, humor and relationship that Monkey and Trip have is genuinely moving and entertaining to watch. Pigsy starts off likeable, but ends up turning into someone I truly despise at the start of Chapter 11, but still, his presence did provide some entertaining situations for Monkey. The story isn’t really anything to write home about and the plot arc never really challenges you until a twist at the end. The difficulty with this game’s story is that you never really get a good sense of the enemy’s reason for being there. You can generally accept it if you do get to the end, but there are still far greater answers to be had than any of the answers you actually get within the game. The world is full of the evidence of a great and specific struggle, but I have no real knowledge of what it was exactly. I won’t give anything away, but the Epilogue is so out of left field that it’s like coming up to a final boss fight only to find an elderly man who you must then punch in the face. I just wish I knew more about the “why”.
I’d say that the game is well worth starting, but I can’t necessarily say it’s worth finishing. The last chapter and the first chapter are easily the best interactive experiences in the game. Though the game does provide a beautiful backdrop, the game generally runs like an older generation title and occasionally looks like it too. The game quickly degrades into more of the same, not that what you get is necessarily bad, it just gets stale. Overall, play this one for the characters and have some genuine fun doing so, just don’t expect it to challenge you in any way.
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Ninja Theory
Available on PS3 and Xbox 360.
Played on PS3. Copy provided by Namco Bandai.