Well, it’s been a really long time since I last posted. Sorry about that. But, in good news, I actually have comments on a game and I’m not too late to actually chime in on it. Well, except that I beat it over a week ago, so I could have been right on the bleeding edge, but, no, I had to put off writing about it. So, now, there’s already a bunch of stuff written about it and I won’t actually be adding anything new. Darn.
Moving on, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
When I first heard that title during one of the “Here’s some random stuff we saw at E3” posts, I pretty much dismissed it. That name downright sucks. I mean, even when we shorten it down to just Enslaved, it’s still not very good. It evokes all the wrong images (very MMO feeling). If you even dare try to say Odyssey to the West, you’ll just start feeling foolish. So, yeah, they really should have gone back to the drawing board on that one.
Admittedly, I don’t know what they should have done instead. The main character’s name is Monkey. So, that won’t work. The other main character’s name is Trip. Which is even worse. Trying to use those names in a pun would just be stupid. So, yeah, I give up, let’s stick with Enslaved.
So, let’s start with my reaction to the demo (which, oddly enough, convinced me to go out and buy the game). I didn’t like it. I thought the controls were too loose and the platforming was just weak and the gameplay overall felt incredibly last-gen. Or even older. I mean, even in Super Mario 64, you could fall to your death. But, no, not in this game. Here, you can only go where they want you to go, no matter how hard you try.
Then there was the combat. It skipped locking the camera to hide the fact that it was super simplistic (it feels like you’re doing a lot more when you’re having to always concentrate on where the camera is/should be). But, that was when I saw the first thing I kind of liked (aside from the fact that I rather like simplistic combat since I’m usually pretty bad otherwise).
During one of the fights, I activated one of the slow motion kills that these types of games often have these days. But this one was different. In, let’s say, Batman: Arkham Asylum, the slow-mo effect is used to worship the overwhelming power of the Batman. You can see his grim visage and bulging muscles while the minion is flying backwards, mouth wide open in a silent scream of pain as he is, most likely, not going to be using that limb for a long time. In Enslaved, the focus is on Monkey. And he doesn’t look grim or professional or even all that powerful, really. He looks scared. Desperate. Tired. Probably in a little pain. This wasn’t a celebration of the player character’s power fantasy. This was the look of someone fighting for his life. Again and again and again.
“That was really cool”, I thought to myself. Games don’t normally show me something like that. Later in the demo, the game established that Monkey gets enslaved by Trip and is recruited to help her get back home. His reaction was perfect. Resigned agreement. This character was truly from the world of this game. All he knew was struggle and so it never even occurred to him to question his fate. In this world, everyone deserves whatever they get. It was kind of sad.
And so, I decided that I’d wait and see how the first couple reviews would come out. They all pretty much said the same thing: gameplay sucks but the story is both well-told and worth telling. So, I bought it.
And played through it.
Now, given more time with it, I realized something. Mainly, that the voice of Trip is Lindsey Shaw. Also known as Moze from the Nickelodeon show Ned’s Declassified School Survivor Guide. Which was pretty good. In case you’re curious, she doesn’t really look like Trip. But when I hear her voice, I think of a 14-year old version of her (Lindsey Shaw, not Trip). She’s in her 20s now, though, so...yeah. This isn’t the first time this has happened with a Ninja Theory game, though. Their last game, Heavenly Sword, featured the voice talent of one, Anna Torv, who has now become at least a moderate star since being the lead in Fringe. Interestingly, she didn’t look like her character in that game either. And both characters were both red-heads, oddly enough (although neither of them actually are). I will say that I think Trip is slightly cuter than Nariko, although I don’t think either of their character designs were exactly focused on providing male players with eye candy to convince them to play the respective games. Aside from the exposed mid-riffs.
Gameplay-wise, I actually rather enjoyed the combat as the game continued. Overall, I really liked the pacing of the game, period. I thought that they did a good job of upping the stakes and challenging the player (with the simplistic combat). Early on, the idea of trying to fight more than three of the mechs at the same time was pretty scary, but by the end, you were regularly taking on 5-8 at a time. And you were often in a hurry to get through them, so you were fighting sloppily and Monkey’s post fighting, post damage tired walk felt pretty well earned. The controls stopped feeling loose and started feeling, well, accurate. This was a big guy with a lot of mass and he gets rather beat up. It’s not his fault he can’t stop on a dime (unless there’s an invisible wall, of course).
I thought the big action set piece managed to get a nice variety as well. Also, I liked that we saw bosses in multiple contexts. Most bosses first appeared as, essentially, environmental puzzles that would later on become a true “fight”. The game spent a lot of time building up the “Dog” boss as we kept having to run away from it. Finally getting to face up against it, and eventually have it running away from you, was surprisingly satisfying. That was a well told, well executed boss.
Plus, the environments were, quite often, something special. There’s one point, where you’ve lost Trip and you’re trying to find her in this village. Not long ago, it was a peaceful village and you can see how the buildings are made from century-year-old trash. But, in my hurry to find her, I almost missed the playground made of trash. Or the formerly discarded couch that’s now being used for sitting back and enjoying the view from this mountain village. I had to remember that this game is different from a lot of other games. It’s full of imagination and beauty, and destruction and poverty. It’s worth stopping to take a look around.
Like when you realize the mountain you’ve been climbing for the past level is the back of a giant, long-destroyed mech and now you’re walking on its arm, towards the palm of its ancient hands. There’s a history to this world. A bloody and sad one, but we never really get to know it. It’s not clear that anyone knows it anymore. There’s simply legends and remnants of the world that was and the facts of the world as it is now.
So, yeah, is it a bad game? Well, it’s a godawful platformer, no matter how generous you want to be. But, it’s certainly not a bad game. And you have to give Ninja Theory credit for making a beautiful game with the Unreal 3 Engine. The Batman team couldn’t do it and I’m not sure if Epic themselves has ever really tried. While some people liked the ending, I thought it was a pretty typical Alex Garland ending. He seems to really struggle with endings that actually fit within the world he’s been building. At least when he’s working with Danny Boyle, he gets reigned in a little bit. But, no, this one downright disagrees with the world as it’s been established since the first level.
Also, I was never entirely clear who it was that we were stealing the giant mech from, anyways. And what were they going to do with it, for that matter? But, well, that’s Alex Garland for ya.
I will say that if there’s any opportunity to play with these characters more, either in DLC or sequels, I’ll be ready with my wallet out. So, you know what, I’m just going to go ahead and say it. It was a good game. Maybe not a great game, but closer than most games get to being great. It managed to succeed at almost everything that other games struggle with. The character and voice work is flawless. The story is both epic in scale and carefully focused on a small, well-developed cast. Have I mentioned how good the character and facial animations are? Oh, I did? Well, they’re all really good. They tell the story and develop the characters better than all the dialogue in the world.
I just wished they had checked out some of the other platformers that have been made in the last 5 years to see what people have been doing. Because, well, that part feels rather dated. But then again, I think this whole reaction is fairly similar to the way people thought about the original Uncharted (Drake’s Fortune, hey another weak name for a game). So, who knows, that game significantly improved the gameplay in the second one without sacrificing the story telling skills and voice work and animation that they’d pulled off in the first one.
Man, now I really want there to be a sequel...
That is all.