Today is a momentous day. Today I have published my 300th post to this blog. For the last week I had been thinking about what I wanted to do for this occasion, and after mulling over a number of ideas I came to the conclusion that it was time to do something I had mentioned at the end of a previous post. It was time to finally resurrect and finish my incomplete and long-dead writing piece on a video game that I played on PlayStation 3 called Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. I had started working on this piece back in March of 2013 and it was intended to highlight a game that I had enjoyed but at the time didn’t seem to be getting much attention from the gaming community. Unfortunately, I got distracted by other things and the post fell by the wayside. Since then it has been waiting for the day where it would come bursting back into the light. Today is that day. To complete this post I had to take a look at screenshots, watch some Youtube videos, and remember the game as best I could, since I hadn’t played it in years. Resurrecting an old writing piece isn’t easy, but when you succeed it’s like your work as a writer has been vindicated. And now, without further ado, I give you, after three years in the grave, (and with full spoilers) my thoughts on Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (referred to hereafter as Enslaved) comes to us from the folks over at Ninja Theory, the studio behind Heavenly Sword and DMC. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where most of humanity has been wiped out by murderous robots. It is never said exactly what happened, but from the dialogue and clues in the game it seems that at some point there was another world war in which humans unleashed powerful machines on each other, but when the war ended humanity lost control of the machines and they went on the massacre most of the global population. Now these machines wander the land looking for humans or lie dormant until they detect a human presence. The remaining humans either live in scattered villages or wander the lands that were once theirs. Suffice to say things are looking so good for humanity, and as if the machines weren’t bad enough, there are also mysterious gangs of slavers who fly around looking for people to capture. Humans taken by slavers are given headbands that compel obedience through pain and are capable of killing their subject if they continue to disobey orders. Who is in charge of the slavers is unknown, but they always seem to come when a human settlement reaches a certain population.
Into this scenario we meet Monkey, the main character, who has just been captured by slavers at the start of the game. Monkey manages to escape his cell onboard the slaver airship and fights his way through the ship as he looks for a way out. Along the way he notices another escaped slave who has sabotaged the ship and two manage to get to an escape pod before the ship crashes (albeit, Monkey is left to cling to the pod’s exterior as it is launched). The pod makes a hard landing in the remains of New York City, knocking Monkey unconscious. When he comes to, he finds that the other slave, a young woman named Trip, has placed a slaver headband on him. Infuriated, Monkey tries to attack Trip, but is subdued by the headband. Trip explains that she does not want to harm Monkey, but needs him to help her get back to her village, as she will never survive all the killer machines on her own. Upon her return, she promises that the headband will be removed and Monkey will be free. She also informs him that she has tied the headband’s kill protocol to her own heartbeat, so that if she dies, Monkey will also die. With little option but to help her, Monkey and Trip set out for her village. The rest of the game plays out as the two make their way through the remains of New York City and then beyond as they travel to the village. Upon arrival at Trip’s home, they find it overrun with machines and after Monkey clears them out Trip’s father is discovered dead and all the other villagers are gone. Vowing revenge, Trip refuses to remove Monkey’s headband and the two of them travel to meet Pigsy, a friend of Trip’s father, who is a skilled mechanic and also has an odd obsession with pigs. Monkey, Trip, and Pigsy commandeer a massive war machine and use it to reach the base from which the slavers operate, though Pigsy sacrifices himself in the process. Inside the base, Monkey and Trip confront the man who has been running the entire slaver operation. The leader of the slavers, who calls himself Pyramid, is quite indignant, claiming that he actually hasn’t enslaved anyone, but rather he has set people free. Those who have been captured by the slavers and brought to him are plugged into a virtual-reality simulation, much like the movie The Matrix, where they experience an existence free of the machines and the other horrors of the world. While the lives these people now live are fake, they are much better than lives they would live in the real world. To prove his benevolence, Pyramid allows Monkey to try one of the devices that everyone else is plugged into. Monkey is instant mesmerized, and is about to become lost in the alternate existence when Trip kills Pyramid and disconnects everyone from the program. The game ends with a massive “what have you done?” moment, as everyone in the simulation is brought back to reality and it is uncertain as to exactly what the fallout of Trip’s actions will be.
The story of Enslaved is loosely based off a 16th century Chinese novel, and I liked it a lot. Post-apocalyptic stories and journey stories are not uncommon in video games, but Enslaved is one of the better ones I’ve encountered. In particular, the relationship between Monkey and Trip is very well developed, as we get to see the slow transition from antagonism at the start of the game to a close friendship at the end. Strong voice and motion-capture work by the actors behind Monkey and Trip also goes a long way in making them believable characters. When I was playing Enslaved I was concerned that the story would take the token approach of turning Monkey and Trip into a couple, but thankfully that does not happen, as that would have felt really forced and would not have fit well with the game’s storyline. The only part of Enslaved’s story that I had a major problem with was the ending, which is rather abrupt and feels like there was supposed to be more. If the final cutscene of the game was extended a minute or two to show more of the consequences of Trip’s actions, then perhaps it would feel less awkward.
Enslaved is beautiful game. Unlike most games in the post-apocalyptic genre, the world of Enslaved is not grey and dusty, but rather brilliantly colored. In the absence of humanity, nature has encroached on New York City and covered it with grasses, flowers, vines, trees, and other plant life. Blue skies and a strangely clean Hudson River also bring out the feel of a place that is very much alive in spite of the wrecked buildings and lack of people. The rusted and decaying remains of human civilization are themselves part of the beauty of the game, with the stone, metal, and glass of former structures contrasting with the overgrowth of nature and creating a literal urban jungle. Despite coming out back in 2010, Enslaved’s environments are still pretty to this day, as I can attest from the Youtube videos I watched in preparation for completing this post. Enslaved’s developer, Ninja Theory, has a talent for creating distinctly vibrant and colorful games, and I would go so far as to say they are on of the few studios whose games I can recognize purely by the color palate.
Though Enslaved’s gameplay is good, it is also where you’ll find most of the small number of problems that the game has. During traversal there are times where you experience some slight lag between button presses and the actions onscreen, and in combat the camera often zooms in closer to Monkey, which makes fights more dramatic but also limits your situational awareness. The game’s engine also starts to chug during some of the more hectic sequences, causing noticeable drops in the framerate. Despite these and a few other minor issues, however, Enslaved is still a fun game to play. Combat is simple but satisfying, with new combos and abilities for Monkey’s staff unlocked by gaining experience points. Strong level design keeps traversal from getting boring, and at one point you get to ride around on small floating disc, which Monkey uses to help him and Trip cross the Hudson River (this was one of my favorite parts of the game). The occasional boss fights or set piece sequences also make for some exciting game moments. Pacing between everything that happens in Enslaved is excellent, ensuring a good balance between traversal, combat, and story moments. Lastly, although you play the game as Monkey, Trip also has an important role in the gameplay. What she lacks in physical prowess, she makes up for in technical expertise. Trip can deploy a drone to scout an area, distract enemies with holograms, and interact with the various technology found throughout the land. If attacked by the machines, she can briefly disable them, giving you a few seconds to get to her if she’s in trouble. I’m normally not a fan of escort missions in games, and Enslaved is arguably one giant escort mission, but Trip is both helpful and is likable as a character, so I didn’t mind having her around.
Enslaved truly is a gem of a game. Captivating from start to finish, it received positive reviews from most of the major games media outlets, but unfortunately it didn’t sell well enough to warrant a sequel. For whatever reason, not many people were interested in playing Enslaved around the time it came out. Reading comments online over the past few days has been encouraging, though, and I think the game is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves. Better late than never, I suppose. If you have a PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, or a PC that can run it, I highly encourage giving Enslaved a try if you’ve never played it before. You might just be pleasantly surprised, like I was, with how good of a game it is.