Friday, February 11, 2011

Enslaved, Oddity of the West

enslaved-gamescom-2010-cinematic-artworkConsider the curious case of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Fact: it’s a third-person action game from developer Ninja Theory – the people behind the PS3 success Heavenly Sword.

Fact: it’s based on the Chinese novel Journey to the West, which served as the primary inspiration for Akira Toriyama’s Dragonball series.

Fact: it is bursting with Andy Serkis.

At face value, these don’t seem like negatives. And in practice, they aren’t negatives. Yet the market seems confused by Enslaved.

Sobering fact: Enslaved has sold roughly 500,000 copies to date, a disappointing number for a large publisher like Namco Bandai. 

Why didn’t it click? I have no idea. But it is danger of being completely passed by. This I simply cannot abide.

Just so we’re on the same page, allow me to brief you on what Enslaved is all about. It is set in a post-apocalyptic America some 150 years in the future. Have you seen Life After People? It looks like that, but way prettier. You play as Monkey, a big strong dude who escapes from a slaver ship, only to crash land with a lady named Trip who promptly places an enslavement band upon your head. She needs your help getting home, see, and the band will kill you if she wants or if she dies.

They sound simple, but the characters in Enslaved rival those found in many recent games. Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted: these are games praised for their characters and Enslaved, despite its tiny cast (there’s only one other major character you’ll meet, the perverse Pigsy), holds its own with all of them. All three are voiced and animated superbly, thanks to the brilliant direction of Andy Serkis. I don’t know what technical wizardry is behind it, but these characters move believably all the way down to how they make eye contact (and how they avoid it). Rarely does animation – in-game or in cutscenes – reveal so much about character.

enslaved2x-largeThough the story itself offers no mind-blowing surprises (save an unbelievably bizarre ending cutscene), the interactions between the characters earn every story beat. The stereotypical guy-smashes-things-while-girl-hides-and-hacks-stuff bit isn’t entirely revolutionary, but the particulars of Trip and Monkey’s relationship feel true. They bicker, they cajole, they need, they worry. Progress cannot be made if both aren’t working together. What can be viewed as Stockholm syndrome can just as soon be called survival. Head writer Alex Garland weaves this tenuous distinction into every aspect of Enslaved.

Unfortunately, not every element of the game sufficiently supports this level of artistry. Like any game running unoptimized in the Unreal Engine, texture pop will mar even the most breathtaking of set pieces. The framerate stutters in intense combat situations, especially in the later levels. And the controls are rarely as precise as you’d like them. The absence of a dedicated jump button isn’t felt in combat (you’re given a perfectly useful roll dodge), but the platforming sections get a bit tricky as Monkey sometimes simply refuses to perform the contextual jump you know he needs to make.

This kind of contextual platforming is something with which I don’t have a lot of experience. Often times, Trip will need Monkey to reach an area by scurrying along some pipes and leaping up a few handholds. Thanks to the convenient UI provided by the slave headband (nice UI solution there, Ninja Theory), all potential handholds glow. There’s an outside chance you might not see one at first, but they’re pretty damn hard to miss all the same. All these sections require of the player is to point the stick in the right direction and press A. A 3D Mario game this is not. Rarely are the sequences difficult. A few near the end gave me a bit of trouble, but they mostly felt like guided tours through puzzle sequences and scenery.


And, man, that scenery. I know I said that Enslaved often succumbs to the weaknesses of the Unreal Engine, but that doesn’t stop it from occasionally being gorgeous. The vistas are welcome rewards for the uneventful climbs. Even its color palette tells a story: vivid greens and blues give way to depressing browns and industrial greys. It’s certainly the best-looking apocalypse I’ve ever seen.

When not gazing at ruins or swinging from pipes, you will be fighting. Now, Enslaved’s combat isn’t particular deep. You don’t have the options present in action games like Devil May Cry or God of War, nor does it unfold rhythmically as in Assassin’s Creed or Arkham Asylum. Nonetheless, it’s remarkably satisfying. Monkey’s fun to control, and each encounter feels intrinsically linked to the narrative. There’s no “Go here and grind on some stuff.” It’s always “I have to kill this mech or Trip’ll get shot” or “I have to race through these guys so I can get Pigsy what he needs.” Enslaved’s combat is economical and all the better for it.

If games continue on their cinematic path, developers would do well to study Enslaved. Study how the sound designers teamed with the voice actors to create believable onscreen dialogue. Study how easy and fun Monkey’s Cloud device is, how it harkens back to the joy we all felt when we first shell-boarded in Mario 64. Study how “character” doesn’t have to mean tomes of written backstory. Study how it faithfully interprets a five-hundred-year-old story yet still falls apart a bit at the end. Study the flaws: the too-forgiving platforming, the performance issues, the odd shooting mechanics. Study it, and build upon it.

But before anyone can study Enslaved, people need to play it.