Three years have passed since the console release of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Originally developed by Ninja Theory – the team behind Heavenly Sword and this year’s DmC Devil May Cry – and published by Namco Bandai, Enslaved has undergone a repackaging and found its way to PC in the guise of a premium edition. Coming with the original game, the premium edition also bundles all three DLC costumes and the expansion Pigsy’s Perfect 10. How does it hold up after all these years, and what do the new pieces of content add to the experience?
Enslaved is an interpretation of the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. The 17th century novel tells the tale of the Chinese monk Xuanzang (otherwise known as Tripitaka) and his journey to India to find enlightenment. Along the way he is aided by Sun Wukong (Monkey King), whose combat prowess and quick wit come in very handy in dealing with various demons along the way. Unfortunately, due to Monkey’s mischievous nature, Tripitaka is forced to control him using a constricting headband, disciplining Monkey whenever he becomes too unruly.
Enslaved is more of an homage than a retelling, though, taking the famous characters and putting a futuristic spin on them. Waking up on an exploding slaver ship, Monkey meets a strange woman, bent on escaping the ship. One spectacular crash landing and a stint of unconsciousness later and Monkey wakes up finding himself under the control of the woman, and a requisition slave headband. The woman – who gradually reveals her name as Trip – wishes to cross the wastelands of the ruined city and return to her peaceful home village. Problem is the ruins are full of killer robots, and Monkey is the only one around to help her get there. An uneasy alliance is formed, and together they begin their journey into the west.
It’s a typical traveller’s tale, but one delivered with elegance and panache. There are the requisite twists and shifts in goals, but the immediate imperative is always clear and justified. Trip and Monkey grow closer and experience challenges together, and their experiences generate real heart-felt interactions. It’s a clean narrative experience with little extraneous distractions, and one that is well worth experiencing.
Characters relate to each other in a believable and sympathetic way. Monkey’s initial anger at Trip’s control of him soon gives way to empathy at her situation and a desire to help her achieve her goals. Their relationship quickly evolves into a respectful friendship, with each character learning about the others’ past. This genuinely affecting relationship is conveyed through some rather great facial animation, as well as wonderful voice acting. Emotive glances between Monkey and Trip – a raised eyebrow here, a grimace there – tell a deeper story than either dialogue or actions, showing the change in attitude clearly and definitively.
The unequivocal triumph of Enslaved is the world that has been built. Post-apocalyptic (unnamed) New York looks lush and rich, telling a story of war that is completely ignored – much to the game’s benefit. The apocalypse isn’t the story here, the struggle to survive in this destroyed world isn’t the story here – it’s all just background to the interplay between the characters. Nothing about the world is forced down your throat; instead, you are allowed to absorb and enjoy the glorious vistas and reclamation of destruction by nature, wondering about times past.
Gameplay, on the other hand, is not always so stellar. Let’s start at the top.
For the most part, you explore your environment through climbing and jumping. Monkey is quick and nimble, and the climbing is fast and fluid. Andy Serkis’ movements are captured with loving detail, showing off Monkey’s namesake agility. There are some occasions where the path forward through an obstacle is not always clear, but for the most part the gentle sheen of the next handhold is a useful marker for direction. The platforming does its best to convey the agile side of Monkey, and, for the most part, it works really well.
Some puzzles require you to work together with Trip, either throwing her to a high handhold or across a wide gap, and then finding your own way around using scant handholds. Using a radial menu, you can communicate with Trip to pull a lever or rotate a pillar or perform some other contextual action to help you solve the puzzle. It’s not the most elegant of menus, but it gets the job done.
In some areas, Monkey gets to activate a hovering platform called the Cloud, zipping quickly around the environment and over water. While being able to have more open areas with this new form of movement is pleasant, the unfortunate truth is that the Cloud is also used in some rather annoying pursuit sections. The controls are nowhere near responsive enough to carry these sections along consistently well, and I often got frustrated at the instafail/restart gameplay in these sections.
Another significant part of gameplay is combat against enemy robots, taking place in close quarters with Monkey’s staff. Reminiscent of Beyond Good and Evil, mixing it up in close quarters involves a series of light and heavy strikes. In the beginning tapping attack is enough to kill any bot, but enemies quickly gain the ability to block. This is dealt with by using a stunning attack that deals no damage, although this doesn’t always break the guard. Some enemies can be taken down with a contextual finisher, giving some added effect, exploding and killing or stunning nearby enemies. Monkey has the ability to dodge or block incoming enemy attacks, but the system lacks sufficient finesse to deliver a rich combat experience. Monkey’s movements are strangely slow and clumsy in comparison to his climbing, detracting from the fluidity of Monkey’s overall elegance.
On top of melee combat, Monkey’s staff also doubles as a ranged weapon. While mostly used to shoot weak points on structures to solve puzzles, plasma blasts can also be used during combat – sometimes necessarily. The limited availability of ammo prevents extensive use of this mechanic, which is a good thing, but I found the occasional compulsory shooting sections against ranged enemies a little tedious. Your staff is also used rather extensively in boss battles, stunning enemies with a stun blast before being able to hit them with your monkey stick. Shooting feels clumsy and a little out of place, and having it forced upon you is not the most enjoyable part of the game.
There is a rudimentary upgrade system to help improve a number of Monkey’s skills. XP orbs can be found around the environment or dropped from enemies. With these, you can buy various upgrades for Monkey’s abilities, but a whole lot of them are entirely cursory. For example, upgrading health, regeneration, and shields are useful, as well as staff weapon power and ammo storage. Less useful are the extra attacks that you’ll probably never use at all. It seems like limited thought was put into having upgrades in the game.
Keyboard and mouse controls aren’t horrendous, but the game plays infinitely better with a controller, and thankfully the game recognises a 360 controller natively. Plug one in and you won’t regret it.
The premium edition comes with a number of extras. First are the three additional DLC costumes – two for Monkey and one for Trip. They’re okay. Perhaps not the most interesting or valuable additions, but they’re there. More importantly, the premium edition comes with the DLC mission Pigsy’s Perfect 10. This expansion is set before the events of the main story, putting you in the trotters of Pigsy. Looking for a friend, he does what any self-respecting engineer would do – sets out to build one. Gameplay is rather different to the main campaign. There is more of an emphasis on platforming, stealth, and long-ranged combat. Pigsy is equipped with his rifle, moving much of the fighting to a third person shooter. Since Pigsy lacks Monkey’s physical melee offence and defence capabilities, when faced with multiple close threats, Pigsy has to rely on his gadgets – an array of throwables like EMP grenades and distraction bombs – to disable and distract opponents. Pigsy’s grapple takes the place of nimble climbing, allowing for a completely different approach to platforming puzzles. The expansion adds perhaps 3-4 extra hours of refreshingly different gameplay, making for a delightfully innovative addition that adds to the value of the original game.
The PC port contains a few vagaries, just to complicate everything. Attempting to change any of the graphical settings, of which there are practically none, completely fails to work. Changing settings requires a complete .ini hack, with the manipulation of some very specific lines. Next up is the performance itself. Even with the 30fps limit turned off, I rarely exceeded 30fps on my gaming laptop, which well exceeds the measly requirements and is capable of running BioShock Infinite on very high/ultra. I breached 100 degree temperatures on all four cores, despite not maxing them out. And the game seemed to slow down to an absolute crawl in some sections.
I couldn’t diagnose any problem, and many people seem to be happy with their performance, so it could be one of those unfixable, inherent system incompatibility things, but beware – a good rig won’t automatically guarantee good performance. It seems like my Nvidia settings reset themselves, and were set to default to integrated graphics, rather than the discreet card – that would be the problem.
When it does run, it looks gorgeous. Not technically – it’s a fairly old iteration of the Unreal 3 engine, with all the baggage that comes with it – but visual design-wise, Enslaved is gorgeous. From the sumptuous green foliage of wrecked and ruined New York, to the towering wind-spires of Trip’s mountain village, to the mechanical wasteland of Pigsy’s junkyard, each area has a clear and distinct visual direction. It’s visual spectacle at its best, embracing colour and vibrancy, creating a world exciting to look at. The world is unreservedly lavish, revelling in its post-apocalyptic aesthetic, and arising triumphant.
Audio is adequate, but not on the same level as the art direction. Futuristic beats with a tribal take make up a large part of the soundtrack, although there is also a healthy dose of classical orchestral score. Music fits in well with the situation, sufficiently enhancing whatever’s happening on screen, although I didn’t find it excessively memorable. The stand-out in the sound department is the voice acting, with Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw delivering stellar performances as Monkey and Trip.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West tells a genuine story in an enthralling world, with only a few mechanical and technical oddities holding it back. If you can put up with the frustration of wrestling with the clumsy porting, Enslaved delivers a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and, with the DLC expansion included, offers a great value package to boot.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Premium Edition is available now through Steam for $19.99, and on PlayStation 3.
(Reviewed on PC. Review code supplied by Namco Bandai. Thanks.)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 9/10
Gameplay/Design – 7/10
Visuals – 8.5/10
Sound – 7/10
Lasting Appeal – 8/10
Overall – 8/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: PS3, PC
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Ratings: T ESRB, 16 PEGI, M ACB