Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is the latest title from English developer Ninja Theory, the team behind 2007's Heavenly Sword. As with Ninja Theory's previous work, storytelling takes center stage in Enslaved thanks to relatable characters and top-notch cutscene delivery. The game's major addition, at times missing from Heavenly Sword, comes in the form of expert pacing - blending combat, platforming, occasional puzzle solving and set-piece sequences in a way that's reminiscent of Naughty Dog's work with Uncharted. However, a steady pace has come at the expense of depth in the core mechanics. Combat and platforming, in particular, are very streamlined in the name of progression. A slew of technical issues also hold Enslaved back from greatness.
Enslaved is set in a lush, post-post-apocalyptic world, one where nature has begun to recover from humanity's self destructive wars that left only a handful standing. Those that were fortunate enough to survive were subsequently enslaved by a mysterious foreign entity. Players take control of Monkey - voiced by the Lord of the Ring's Andy Serkis - a newly captured slave who narrowly escapes with his life after the transport ship he's held on crashes. Monkey goes from one undesirable situation to another, as he quickly finds himself subject to a new master, a young girl named Trip. She requires Monkey's strength and agility to help her get safely home through the unforgiving ruins of New York City and beyond.
While the story serves as strong motivation to progress, the introductory and concluding plot segments have a certain degree of awkwardness. For example, Monkey's almost immediate acceptance of his enslavement at Trip's hands feels too convenient - a relatively minor gripe that fades as the plot develops and their bond feels much more natural. Additionally, the ending leaves something to be desired. More could've been done to flesh out this intriguing world, which seems unlikely now that Ninja Theory has, at least for the immediate future, moved onto rebooting the Devil May Cry series. Ultimately, Enslaved lives and dies on the rapport between Monkey and Trip - it's a great journey while it lasts.
Plot points aside, Enslaved's other strength lies in its excellent pacing. Ninja Theory have managed to combine such a variety of combat, platforming, puzzle solving and set piece moments so that nothing ever overstays its welcome. Whether it's surviving an arena brawl, covertly navigating unsuspecting foes, chasing a gigantic mech, or traversing crumpling ruins, you'll be pleasantly surprised with what's around the corner. However, this breakneck pace largely forced the designers to forego challenging, complex mechanics.
As mentioned above, Enslaved's keeps the fundamentals of combat on the simple end of the spectrum. Combat is largely based upon the God of War formula, a standard for the action-adventure genre, minus the wide variety of combos. However, Enslaved doesn't mimic other well-known protagonists entirely. Monkey is equipped with a powerful staff that allows him to shoot enemies from a far, damaging or temporarily stunning them. Another unique feature is Monkey's ability to direct the inexperienced Trip on the battlefield - ordering her to distract enemies, move toward his position or perform context specific actions. Tactics become a crucial part of survival as all these elements combine in the latter half of the game, which makes for a much more rewarding experience. It's just a shame the at times unwieldy camera can spoil some of these hectic sequences by frequently obstructing your vision.
Much like combat, traversal makes up a healthy portion of Monkey and Trip's journey, as well as being kept very basic. In fact, platforming in Enslaved takes the simplistic mantra to another level by holding the player's hand throughout the entire process. Monkey's path is always clearly indicated by brightly glowing objects within jumping distance, whereas the best platformers are able to direct players through natural visual cues in the environment. Attempts to deviate from this predetermined path go ignored by Monkey, meaning you can never fall to your death. Despite how this hand holding may sound, it's has the benefit of eliminating frustrating, accidental falls and is essential to maintain the excellent pacing.
In terms of presentation, Enslaved is somewhat schizophrenic - gorgeous, yet incredibly flawed. The cutscenes, the lush environments and intricately designed character models are nothing short of beautiful... from a distance, when the myriad of visual hiccups and technical bugs are absent. Rough, pop-in textures, performance drops during hectic moments, audio syncing issues and getting stuck on pieces of the environment are a frequent occurrence. However, when everything comes together smoothly the cutscenes and environments are extremely well crafted. While rough around the edges, Enslaved is nevertheless an impressive technical achievement.
Enslaved, despite its shortcomings, is a worthwhile, enjoyable adventure with an intriguing story and fantastically varied campaign that will maintain your interest from start to finish. However, the relentless pacing largely comes at the expense of complexity and depth, meaning Ninja Theory's latest epic will not appeal to everyone.