Thursday, November 25, 2010

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

This past few days, I’ve had the Sly Collection, Enslaved, and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in my hands. I’ve been switching between the three at intervals. For the moment, I’m gonna talk about Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Enslaved is a bit of oddity. It’s another one of those games where the story takes precedent above all else. As a result, while the graphical fidelity, voice acting, and overall production values are all very good, but the gameplay suffers a little for it.

This all-important story revolves around two characters (and later three): Trip and Monkey. Trip is a beautiful, curvaceous young woman with some impressive tech skills (you don’t see too many of those these days). She probably failed a couple PE classes when she was younger. Monkey is large, musclebound dude who’s as agile as he is strong. He doesn’t have any relatives, or even a name (Monkey is a just a nickname some people call him after seeing his climbing skills), and drifts through the land aimlessly.

The story is set 150 years in the future, long after a global war ravaged the planet, leaving nothing but ruins and wastelands. Now, mechs roam the surface, killing or capturing any remaining humans that they encounter and carting them off to some destination in the west using flying slave ships.

Monkey and Trip are held aboard one such slave ship. Trip manages to escape using her hacking skills, and when an explosion dislodges his container, Monkey follows suit. Whatever Trip did to escape did a number on the ship, because it crashes in the remains of New York. But not before Trip and Monkey can get away in an escape pod. Monkey’s menacing demeanor apparently gave Trip the wrong impression however, because she fits a hacked slave headband onto his head after they land while he’s unconscious.

With the headband on, Trip can make voice commands that cause Monkey immeasurable pain and eventually death if he fails to heed them. Her request is simple: her home is a few hundred miles to the west; if Monkey can get her there in one piece, she’ll take the headband off. If she dies, the headband is coded to kill Monkey as well, so he has no choice but to accept. And thus the duo’s journey to the West gets off to a shaky start.

Prince of Persia (the ‘08 game) had a cool dynamic where you had two characters, one player controlled and the other computer-controlled, who had to work closely together to accomplish a goal. Along the way, they eventually developed a bond. Enslaved features a similar mechanic. As you might expect, Monkey and Trip’s relationship starts off pretty uncertain. Trip retains a sunny disposition toward Monkey for the most part, but he is (understandably) unable to reciprocate her efforts. However, the land is littered with mechs and other hazards, so they’ll need each other’s skills to stay alive.

Besides being able to get to many places Trip can’t using his expert climbing skills, Monkey uses his raw strength, an energy shield, and a staff for protection. He’s able to take the mechs head on, clearing the way for Trip. He has a good sense of survival, and is often the one to notice when there’s danger afoot. Trip is a tech wizard, able to hack just about anything to suit her needs. She’s a tad clumsy though, and frequently needs Monkey to help her cross gaps or throw her up to a ledge. Though at first Monkey sees her as little more than a burden, she shows her worth. Trip is able to upgrade Monkey’s equipment and abilities to increase his survivability (and, indeed her own in turn). She can also use a dragonfly camera to scout the area ahead for Monkey, letting him know of anything she spots, such as mechs and turrets. She can transmit relevant information directly into his headband, to better show Monkey where he needs to go, or what he needs to do, for them to progress. Trip can also distract the mechs with a holographic decoy, allowing Monkey to flank them.

These two will need each other’s skills to survive the journey, something that even Monkey realizes early on. And when he does, this is also when the two begin to develop something a bit more pleasant than animosity.

That’s enough about the story and background; let’s talk gameplay. Well, it really is just filler. The game is at its strongest when it’s either playing a cutscene or having the player work together closely with Trip. For example, you’ll often encounter areas that are under the watch of automated turrets. Monkey’s shield will withstand some punishment before he starts taking fire, but for him to get close enough to neutralize the turret, he’ll need Trip to distract the turret so he can get by safely. Likewise, sometimes Trip will need Monkey to distract turrets for her so that she can move safely. Cooperative movements such as these aren’t always that complex, either. For example, occasionally Monkey will toss Trip across a gap, only for her to not make it the whole way and grab onto the ledge, requiring the player to jump across and help her up before she falls.

Unfortunately, areas that require close coordination with Trip aren’t as common as I hoped they would be. More often than not, the two will have to momentarily part ways, with Trip either hanging behind on the computer, or taking the direct route, while Monkey either takes the scenic route or has to cover her by fending off assaulting mechs.

Which brings me to combat. Most of the game, the controls feel a bit sluggish to me, but during combat they’re more responsive. Though the game goes to some lengths to shake things up, the combat is mostly a simple affair. You have a light attack and a strong attack, and the ability to block. There are a few variations on the typical mooks that you’ll encounter, each requiring just a little bit more thought, but for the most part you can probably get by with just button mashing, to be honest. While I found the combat to be enjoyable, it still feels like filler content.

In terms of gameplay, the biggest problem I have with Enslaved is the same problem many other story-dominated games suffer from; hand-holding. When you’re climbing, each handhold is highlighted, telling you precisely where to go next. It’s often not even possible to fall to your death, whether you’re climbing up a wall or walking on your own two feet. Many interactions is explained with a giant bar across the screen, saying “press X to throw her up” or “press O to finish him/her off”. The gameplay doesn’t feel linear, per se, just shallow at times.

Back to the good stuff. The world of Enslaved is atypical of what you might have come to expect from the post-apocalyptic theme. With mankind near demolished, Mother Nature has retaken the planet. As a result, the world is a surprisingly bright place, saturated with color (most dominantly green). This came as a pleasant surprise, very refreshing. Unfortunately, the game almost never ran at a smooth framerate (save for cutscenes), with the visuals coasting right between smooth and jittery. I also noticed some visual glitches such as pop-in, slow-down, and objects (such as tech orbs) disappearing. During my playthrough the game never once froze, though. Furthermore, I wanted to give special mention to the animation, which is superb. The facial animation in particular is probably the best I’ve seen since Heavy Rain and Uncharted 2. There are often times in the game where characters are able to communicate believably just by contorting their faces; lesser games would have required spoken dialogue to get the same point across. The audio is also very good. The voice acting is a treat to listen to, and the BGMs serve their purpose well. As I said, the productions values are excellent.

Enslaved’s strength lies in its presentation and concept. The characters (what few of them there are) are all quite likable, and the overall plot is good. I was, however disappointed by the ending, but your mileage may vary. Not all of the developers ideas are as consistently well executed as I might have hoped, but when they do all come together, Enslaved shines very bright indeed. A 7.5/10.

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