Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West has benefited from a lot of attention in the lead up to its release, with much of the press coverage centred on the collaboration aspect of the game’s development. As it’s commonly that Alex Garland was brought in for the role of writer and Andy Serkis acted as not only co-director, but also the vocal talent and live action basis for our protagonist, it’s widely accepted that Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is an effort to push forward the storytelling capabilities of the videogames medium. Just how successful it’s been in this regard however, might well come as a surprise to many.
Set over one hundred years in the future, a global war has ravaged the Earth. In this future, the human race is in tatters, with the few survivors subjugated by mechanical artificial intelligence from a bygone era, still following their initial programming to eradicate human life. The storyline is loosely based on the ancient Chinese novel Journey to the West, which has also previously been made into a popular 1980’s television show, Monkey.
Our protagonist, Monkey, has spent his entire life running from the mechs. With his parents having been killed when Monkey was a child, he’s learnt to keep his ties to humans loose, travelling alone between colonies that he sees as little more than simple trading posts. At the start of the game, we find Monkey captured by the mechs, travelling on an airship with the only hope to avoid a life of slavery being to escape. However, a young woman by the name of Trip has a similar idea, and triggers a series of events that result in Monkey’s chance to break out.
Upon a hefty impact with an equally hefty floor, Monkey is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he finds that Trip has placed a slave headband on him in order to provide her with some assistance getting home. She explains that she has hacked the headband so she can give him jolts of pain at will (an instance clearly developed to aid the “game” aspect of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West), that should Trip’s heart ever stop beating for any reason, Monkey’s fate will be sealed. Given that he has little choice, Monkey is compelled to act as Trip’s bodyguard as they journey to her home colony.
The opening tutorial sequence of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West takes place on the aforementioned airship, and is as explosive as some games only manage is their closing moments, belying the frequently serene gameplay that lies beyond. Though some may consider Enslaved: Odyssey to the West an Adventure game, in reality it’s a Platform game that has more of a predefined, linear structure than would be expected. Not too dissimilar in that regard to Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia series, though here the experience is less about a player’s awe and more about the characters and the world in which they exist. So strong is this delivery, in fact, that Enslaved: Odyssey to the West could well change the perception of the genre for many less-bookish gamers: there are those players who would never consider picking-up a bloodline Mario release, but would certainly entertain this more “mature” approach.
The Platform action demands vision as much as dexterity; being able to detect where a path will lead is often as important as being able to time the jumps required to get there. Though Monkey grows in ability throughout the game, this upgrade options are generally designed to improve combat prowess, and so gamers are taught early-on how Monkey can perform, and are slowly challenged to chain together these abilities in increasingly complex series of manoeuvres. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West has obviously taken inspiration from Damnation in its verticality challenges and grand sense of scale, but has far surpassed the standard Blue Omega Entertainment and Codemasters achieved only a year ago.
The combat system is certainly reliable and feels pleasantly weighty, but isn’t quite up to the standard of the acrobatic challenges presented in the game. With two buttons for attack commands, the player can mix-up light and heavy attacks to surpass blocks and attack at wide angles, but the limited enemy types does mean that the player will rarely explore the system, finding a workable groove to fit nicely into and never venturing beyond. The upgrade system is obviously designed with intention to counteract such issues, but in reality must players will upgrade their favourite abilities first, making them even more reliable than other manoeuvres.
The visual quality is right up there with the delivery of the story, presenting a believable world whose “destroyed beauty” that offers far more than murky browns and greys. The animations is also superb, with both Monkey’s bulk and Trip’s slim build aiding the suspension-of-disbelief, and showing true emotion in the facial movements. The vocal talent obviously helps greatly with this last note, again being of a fantastic quality. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West’s remarkable production values have clearly designed to work in tandem with the storyline itself, as opposed to merely being a backdrop.
Though the original motivating factor for both Monkey and Trip is self-preservation, the game makes a dramatic shift at the close of its first third. As the relationship between Monkey and Trip grows stronger, so to does his resilience to fight for what is right, rather than simply what appears to be offer benefit to him. It’s this twist that elevates Enslaved: Odyssey to the West high above its peers. 2010 has been a dramatic year for storytelling in videogames, with the likes of Mass Effect 2, Mafia II, Heavy Rain and Halo: Reach providing seismic shifts for what was thought possible. For Ninja Theory, sitting amongst such significant titles was really the only possible outcome.