I’m sure many of you glossed over Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West when it came out last October. I know I passed up its release in order to save some cash, but having finally gone back and played it I’d say it’s a shame that anyone missed it.
As you may know the story is a futuristic take on an ancient Chinese Buddhist text called Journey to the West, which centers on a mischievous monkey god who is forced to accompany a Buddhist monk on a journey to retrieve sacred texts from the dark and dangerous “Western Regions”.
The monkey – known as Sun Wukong – is fitted with a magical headband that shrinks upon the monk’s command, should the rascal get out of line. So in order to be freed from his bondage he must protect the monk on his journey, and return him safely home.
As you can guess from trailers, replacing the monk in this modern version is a young girl named Tripitaka, or “Trip” for short. And our hero “Monkey” is a capable vagrant with enough jaded resentment for the world to keep them both afloat in its murderous fathoms.
After a few harrowing one-offs in a sequence where the pair flees a slave ship and the controls and premise are introduced, Monkey awakens amidst the rubble of a crashed escape pod with an enslaving headband fitted to his skull, and a young girl watching him warily from a safe distance. Here the fun begins.
The first thing that stands out about this game is its characters, and that may seem obvious as they’re the central focus, but surprisingly few games present characters that are both likeable and believable. It’s a right smart thing when the player feels like the character acts exactly as they would in given situations – when their responses are lifelike and sensible.
“Get this thing off, or I’m gonna rip your head off.”
First calm words out of Monkey’s mouth when Trip tells him she enslaved him in his sleep. And the voice acting is phenomenal. Granted, Monkey consistently sounds like a mix between Mel Gibson and Steve Blum, but all of his lines are delivered pitch-perfect in terms of his personality and situational contexts.
Monkey is scarred, burned, ragged, but most of all – built like a freaking Panzer. His character design is a great interpretation of Sun Wukong. Long, gorilla arms, tail-like sash, and even the weird red war-paint the monkey god wore across his eyes. His history is left vague – where he acquired his staff and “cloud” (reference to Wukong’s Nimbus) isn’t delved into. But we know what we need to – he had a rough past growing up in the wilds, and had to fight to survive. That’s what makes him capable.
Trip also has a fantastic design in my opinion. She’s not just another bra-mannequin fresh out of the skank bank. Aside from her girl-next-door green eyes and freckles, she’s got a fitting personality – Tech-wiz from a small village, vulnerable but resourceful, scared, but packing #!@&-loads of ambition. This makes her less escort and more asset, which is a nice break from RE4 and more reminiscent of Knight’s Contract.
Yes, she’s attractive. Yes, that’s brought up. But not focused on. She’s not a sex symbol, she’s a flower in a schoolyard of bullies who hate flowers and like to stomp on them. And you’re the grumpy groundskeeper.
(Kinda puts you in a protectin’ mood, doesn’t it?)
The animation of these loveable survivors is great as well. Monkey reacts to every explosion shielding his eyes and trying to catch his balance, and Trip scrambles to pull herself up the other side of every ravine Monkey tosses her over. Much of the environment is even destructible, coming apart as you attempt to scale or hide behind it while under attack. The graphics aren’t top notch, but the visuals are phenomenal. Despite this being the post-apocalypse there are colors everywhere. “The War” was over 200 years prior and nature has reclaimed much of the urban sprawl, making for a lush vista at every turn.
You’re encouraged to explore this detailed environment by the orbs that can be collected to upgrade Monkey’s abilities. They’re sprinkled all around in every corner, giving you incentive to clamber up every random pipe and scout every dark corner the developers so painstakingly rendered.
Another thing I love about this game that many other games disregard is grounding in reality. This may sound odd to say about a game featuring a monkey-man tearing apart giant mechs with his plasma staff, but I’m speaking here of subtleties.
When Monkey is fitted with the headband he can see his and Trip’s vital signs, as well as the status of his shield, and the number of orbs he has – essentially, his HUD. Trip hacked it to present him with all this information visually, as well as to create an audio uplink between them, explaining why you can hear her far away. It’s a small detail, but I love when games give a reason for the strange things going on, rather than hiding behind suspension of disbelief.
I’d much rather believe that Monkey knows which enemies have vulnerabilities because Trip scanned them and transmitted the info to his headband, than that he has great intuition, or they happen to have glowing orange kidneys he has to punch.
This brings us to the meat and potatoes of the game – combat and platforming. I had heard from some other players that the combat in Enslaved: Mel Gibson Goes to New York was repetitive and the platforming too easy. But while I can see why they might say that, I have to disagree to an extent.
The mechs do regularly present a similar threat, but even fights with them are created as puzzles. There are about five types of mechs with different abilities that are confronted in varying situations. Usually one has a weakness that you can exploit in order to more rapidly defeat them all, rather than slogging through mashing the square button ‘til Monkey’s arms fall off. And oftentimes I was surprised at the difficulty of a seemingly simple encounter because I was overlooking the puzzle elements of the fight and focused on swinging my staff all over their metal faces instead.
The fights also require you to utilize all the varying moves you can learn instead of relegating the upgrade system to useless-fluff status. You will need to block, counter, evade and stun if you hope to survive against clusters or larger mechs with an affinity for pugilism. And it is incredibly satisfying when you context-kill a big demolition mech by literally ripping his arms up through his own shoulders.
And the “ease” of the platforming is excused in my opinion due to the necessity of its being easy. Too often are you required to swing up and across a series of handholds before Trip’s decoy runs out and the machine-gun mechs tear your monkey ass to ribbon. If Monkey had to have the patience of Nathan Drake in his platforming, this would be a very short and very sad game. Instead, rapid swinging was implemented to ramp up the harrow-factor of clambering around as a jungle man dodging plasma bursts in the wilds of Old New York.
There are also lots of good puzzle sections interspersed with the action. Your classic “room full of moveable bridges” and “get the power back on in the right sequence”. None are terribly difficult, but they’re a nice change of pace. This and the game’s humor are a nice reprieve from the normal itinerary of “kill they ass ‘til all they ass dead”.
There’s plenty of humor in the game, often in the form of Monkey playing punching bag and Trip apologizing profusely after the fact. But it’s ramped up later when the third player, Pigsy, is introduced. A reference to another character from Journey, Pigsy is a fat junkyard man with the hots for Trip. There are some great scenes of Pigsy delusionally trying to compete with Monkey for Trip’s attention that doubled my love for the whole cast.
(“Monkey can I ask you a question. You use a lotta hair product?”)
The story’s progression is mostly swift and satisfying, with only a few hiccups that cause it to drag here and there. I found myself not wanting to stop when it was time to go to bed, and was profoundly curious about how it would all wrap up. I won’t spoil it here – it’s too good. Consider this a long-winded foreplay, intended to get you in the mood. Pick it up, try it out – it’ll cost you a few dollars and a few hours and it’s totally worth your time. Then, if you like, come back here and discuss ;)
This game does its predecessor a great modernizing service, and I’m thinking I might go play it again, real-life obligations be damned.
Can't seem to embed the video but check out the trailer here if you're not familiar with it already.