The Average Gamer

Preview – Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

We were lucky enough to preview Namco Bandai’s upcoming action game Enslaved last week. Bit of backstory: Enslaved is subtitled “Odyssey to the West” and is partially inspired by (no surprises for guessing) Journey To The West, a very old Chinese story. Most people in the western world probably know it from the late 70’s television show Monkey (originally Saiyuki), which was dubbed from the original Japanese by the BBC. Growing up in Singapore I had a different source; a 1986 subtitled chinese show that retained the original title, Journey To The West.

Let me tell you, I HATED that show. Or to be more precise, it scared the living daylights out of me – the scene where Zhu Baije unexpectedly transformed into a pig-faced monster gave me nightmares for weeks. My mother loves to remind me that I used to hide behind the sofa whenever I heard the opening music.

Fortunately, Enslaved has none of that. There is a character known as Pigsy but he’s not a floppy-eared monster. In the 4 chapters I played, there was no sign of piggy horrors and it quickly settled into a nice tale of spaceship destruction, android smashing and general carnage.

HALP! Mines iz scarry and walkin in ur futsteps iz 2 dificult.

You play Monkey, a big beefy brute who’s good at things with his armored fists, swinging from the landscape Prince-of-Persia style and thinking about his motorbike. You have a female sidekick, Tripitaka (Hey, I didn’t say the Journey to the West references were subtle) who has the obligatory wasp waist and partially exposed breasts. She’s the tech-head of the pair who managed to break out of her slave pod, evade dozens of guards and escape the slaver ship all by herself. Sadly for my fellow enlightened gamers, that’s the last thing she seems capable of achieving without the help of a big strong man. She spends the next four chapters cowering in corners, squealing in fear or demanding to be carried and thrown across chasms. Sheva Alomar she is not. Trip has some use as a distraction to draw covering fire but mostly, her role seems to be the annoying NPC that takes forever to hack into a locked door while you have to fend off attackers. She has a few passive skills as well but they feel more like the anthropomorphication of a game menu than character traits.

The game itself is quite fun. As Monkey, you run around the landscape beating up mechs with the occasional boss thrown in for good measure. Developed by Cambridge-based Ninja Theory, boss battles follow that tried-and-tested tradition of having to beat the boss into his vulnerable mode 3 times before he goes down for good. The combat animations and direction are spectacular with some truly beautiful take-downs, much as you might expect from the creators of Heavenly Sword.

As you might also expect from the team, Enslaved is fairly plot-heavy and boasts “real” writer Alex Garland, famous for penning The Beach, zombocalypse reinvention 28 Days Later (but not the appalling sequel) and that strange psychological space drama, Sunshine. There are plenty of cut-scenes interspersed between action sequences and for those of you who don’t care for such things, they are all skippable. [Caveat: I was playing on an existing savegame but I’m pretty sure I managed to skip a new cutscene that the previous gamer hadn’t yet reached]. I am assured that Trip’s character does grow as the game progresses and that Monkey becomes less of a bossy asshole, so there is hope.

Seriously, who doesn't think this kind of interface could be great on Kinetic?

One of the things I really admired about the cut-scenes was the detail in the animations. The interactions between Monkey and Tripitaka are actually motion-captured featuring everyone’s favourite mo-cap artist, Andy Serkis, who also co-directed the scenes. Tripitaka is played by Lindsey Shaw; I can’t find an actress Lindsay Shaw on IMDB so I assume she’s relatively unknown some of you may know her from her leading role in TV series 10 Things I Hate About You. But motion capture aside, the other creatures have some lovely interactions – body language on the mechs is suitably menacing and early on Trip acquires a cute little robo-dragonfly that reminds me a little of Half-Life’s DØg.

Graphics aren’t quite as amazing as the animations, sadly. They’ve worked hard at building ruins overgrown with beautiful shrubs and other greenery, but it just serves to remind me of Uncharted. And the graphics are not at all up to par with Uncharted. Even worse, they’ve gone with a very old-school design of only making certain bits of the landscape interactive, so you’ll find yourself happily able to swing from pole to pole while under fire from a dozen mechs, yet totally incapable of climbing a wall with gaping holes where the windows used to be. In that sense, it feels a little like a very polished PS2 game – we’ll call it 2.5 because the graphics aren’t THAT bad. In fact, Trip, Monkey and the other character models are pretty impressive but again, the contrast just shows up the jagginess of the landscape as you move around. At least the save checkpoints are close together so we’ve moved on from searching frantically for the next save crystal/point/node while you desperately need to pee.

Giant robots WILL cause the apocalypse

Combat is… okay. I played on Normal mode and found it fairly pleasant, which probably means that fans of melee action games will find it shocking. Good news for those of a more casual disposition, and there is a Hard mode that I didn’t try. A little more history here – my experience with Heavenly Sword. I bought it for the plot and discovered the combat was surprisingly do-able for my skills. I played through to the final battle, beat all the mini-bosses without too much sweat and then got totally and utterly pwned by the final boss. To this day I feel a little left out not seeing how it ends and I hope Enslaved doesn’t have a similar hockey-stick difficulty curve.

As I said earlier, the combat animations are fabulous but they’re marred by a camera that will insist on locking itself to whatever it goddamn pleases. In boss battles you find yourself running for health packs or ammo that you can only see from across the room because the camera wants to keep the boss on its periphery. In normal battles you’ll sometimes find the camera obsessed with the detail on Monkey’s shoulder, to the exclusion of the hordes of enemies around you. Even so, just keep mashing X and Y and you’ll probably take them down. There’s also a bit of a skill tree that lets you upgrade your weapon and special moves. Nothing ground-breaking but if you prefer to stun enemies rather than shoot them from a distance, you can buff up your stuns; that sort of thing. There’s a nice touch where you can choose to take down certain enemies by hitting B at crucial points. This will give you access to their mini-gun which can be handy in a tight spot. Just remember to check that you’ve cleared the entire area before dropping the gun; you don’t get to pick it back up.

Up she goes. Note the boxy icon for Teamwork!

Outside the battle modes, Ninja Theory have chosen to do that terrible thing where the camera automatically swings around to give you the best possible (read: arty) view of the path. Now as much as I like cinematics and film direction, in game it’s basically a giant sign saying “YOU SHOULD GO THIS WAY!” I like to explore and given that there are hidden areas everywhere that contain points for my skill tree, the level design seems to encourage exploration. Even though I love to moan about getting lost in Sands of Time, I relish the challenge of figuring out how to get from A to B that the original Tomb Raider games were about. I don’t like the feeling that the camera is shoving me along its ideal invisible corridor when there are all these interesting rooms along the way. It’s frustrating as anything, especially when you get interrupted by a cut sequence on the way to promising area and have to battle the new camera angles to find your way back. The game also has a habit of putting ugly icons over the next place you need to climb justified in the plot by your neural interface. I’m all for hints, but give me half a chance to look first and don’t complain that I’m going the wrong way when I wander off to look for skill points.

Camera whinging aside, playing Enslaved was enjoyable and the three hours of preview passed by very quickly. When you really get Monkey going, you can get a satisfying sense of flow in movement as well as combat. I’m intrigued by the story but underwhelmed by the limitations of the game engine. Still, I did have fun – the graphics and limited movement areas are a little disappointing but not a good enough reason to stay away. You may have noticed that I didn’t say anything about the music. Go listen for yourself over at the official Namco Bandai Enslaved site.

The game will be out on 8th October. Preorder Enslaved: Odyssey To The West from and get a truly horrendous bonus skin for Trip that doubles your duration on stun attacks. Whoever designed that should be slapped with a large trout until he crawls back under his rock. Even Trip looks unimpressed and she’s wearing the thing.