IT FROM AMAZON:
PLATFORM: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3
DEVELOPER: Ninja Theory
PUBLISHER: Namco Bandai
If Heavenly Sword was developer Ninja Theory’s riff on the God of War series, Enslaved is its Uncharted.
An incredibly cinematic adventure with a strong emphasis on character aided by the unexcelled mocap, voiceover work and direction of one Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) working off of a script by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), the game only stumbles a bit because of its linear nature.
Enslaved is a retelling of the classic Chinese story Journey to the West (available online here), updated to a futuristic post-apocalypse where robots have taken over the world and left entire cities vine-covered and abandoned. Our hero is Monkey, a savage loner who has survived in the wilds, traveling to outposts only to trade and barter as necessary. As in the original story he fights with a retractable staff, although this future version comes with a few technological updates (an on-screen HUD, for one), and like his namesake he’s quite adept at climbing and swinging around the environment.
We meet him as he’s been captured by the mechs and trapped aboard a flying slave ship, heading with dozens of other people towards some nefarious end. His journey is interrupted by the actions of a girl named Trip, who manages to escape from her cage and sabotage the ship, unintentionally freeing Monkey from his cage. He chases after the scared girl and finally manages to meet up with her and escape the doomed aircraft with her escape pod… though not actually in the escape pod.
Despite clinging to the outside when it launches Monkey manages to survive when it crashes, only to wake up and find out that Trip has put a headband on him- the same slave headband that the mech’s human slaves on the ship were wearing. Now he has to follow her commands, and if she dies for any reason, he dies as well. She’s done this horrible thing because she was impressed by his strength and agility and needs his help to get back to her human colony. The two begin start a journey (and unwitting friendship) through ruined landmarks of America on their way home.
Also, this is Pigsy. He lives up to his name in every way imaginable.
Enslaved’s gameplay is very similar to Uncharted, in that it sees you traversing various hostile environments by climbing, leaping and swinging your way to your destination, pausing only to fight enemies in both close and long range combat. Monkey’s staff pops out into a large weapon (stop giggling) that’s perfect for smashing mechs to bits but it can also be charged up with various ammo you find in the environment- plasma bolts and shock bolts – the better to take out any enemies that shoot at you. Ammo usually appears just when you have some long-range robots to take care of.
Sometimes you’ll have to help Trip around the terrain, but fortunately she never gets in the way and actually adds a little bit to the puzzles as you’ll have to throw her to higher ledges and such to get her through. She can help you out with a few support moves as well, one of the more handy ones being a decoy that makes any turrets and gun-wielding mechs target her, allowing you to sneak up behind them. But it’s usually incredibly obvious when you should use her moves, specifically because she’ll be sure to tell you exactly when she should use them.
CHUDTIP: If you have to go somewhere in a hurry, just pick Trip up. She doesn’t really slow you down much.
Unfortunately, this highlights one of the dumb design decisions the game makes. For about the first half of the game you’re led around completely by Trip, who pauses before every area to map out the place entirely and show where your destination is, ticking off hazards, enemies and the path you should take. This effectively kills any sense of exploration and adventure you’d otherwise have, as you know how to deal with everything before you even get there. This also helps ensure that it’s a very easy game that you never get stuck in- even boss enemies’ weak points are explicitly told to you before you even get a chance to try anything. Fortunately you can make more choices on your own later on in the game and there are a couple of easy puzzle moments, but on a whole you’re just going straight through the game. It’s obvious these decisions were made to let us focus on the dialogue and story but it does make the gameplay incredibly simplistic.
For example, the combat system relies only on about two combos, although there are a few moves you can purchase. Trip functions as a walking store that allows you to purchase upgrades with red “tech orbs” that float around the world and give you something to collect. The upgrades help make your character nigh-invincible- simply give yourself regenerating health and beef up your shields first thing, and you’ll never die.
Fortunately just getting around the environment is so much fun. Ledges you can grab on to are highlighted much like in Saboteur, and while there’s almost always just one route to take Monkey’s animation is quite fluid and the cinematic camera angles only add to the experience. Monkey is a lot like Nathan Drake in the way that Ninja Theory doesn’t mind beating him up a bit, helping him feel a bit more vulnerable than he really is. This is a guy that rips robots apart with his bare hands, after all.
CHUDTIP: Enemies that have icons above their head can be taken down in easy ways. Go after them first.
The character is helped immensely by Andy Serkis, who is completely at the top of his game here. He’s chosen to give Monkey a tough guy old school hoodlum sound to his voice, but laces it with all kinds of emotions to really give you a feel for this character right from the start. Lindsey Shaw as Trip and Richard Ridings as Pigsy also take these otherwise stereotypical characters and give them a lot of heart. The cutscenes are alternately funny, exciting, and touching- the game never shying away from giving you these fantastic little character moments.
The beautiful, colorful post-apocalyptic world is what likely attracted you to the game in the first place, and it’s just as pretty as you’d hope. Even better- the destroyed city that you start the game in (not much of a mystery of what actual city it is if you pay attention…) is only the very first part of the game. Almost every level takes you to new, diverse locations, all just as stunning to look at. It’s just a shame that they decided to stick red orbs everywhere in the game. While collecting them helps to disguise just how linear your path really is, you end up darting your eyes all over the screen for your next orb fix instead of taking in the breathtaking views.
CHUDTIP: Yes, the developers have been watching Life Without People too.
The soundtrack was created by Nitin Sawhney and is suitably epic for the story, utilizing all kinds of genres of music to really help add to the feel of them traveling across the country.
While the game will run you a good 8-10 hours, there’s not much of a reason to go back to it besides achievements/trophies. You’ll have seen all the story has had to offer, and unless you really like collecting red orbs to upgrade your attacks, there’s no incentive for another playthrough.
There is DLC on the way however, a sidestory featuring Pigsy as a playable character. If reception to it is positive Ninja Theory has ideas for more in the future.
The storytelling really is top notch here, and while the simple gameplay lacks any challenge it was clearly done just to shuttle you through the game as easily as possible. But the memorable locations, boss battles and plot all culminates in an extremely satisfying ending (as similar to a certain other scifi film as it is) that will only make you wish there were more adventures to come.
Ninja Theory has bested Heavenly Sword in every single way with Enslaved.