Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Premium Edition

Developer Ninja Theory has displayed some talent this generation when it comes to fantasy beat-em-up, action/adventure games.  They made Heavenly Sword, a fun little PS3 title that came out about a year after the system’s launch and did a great job showcasing the system’s muscle.  A few years ago, they also produced Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for the PS3 and XBox 360.  Since the game’s original release, the DLC Pigsy’s Perfect 10 was released, and the pair is now available as one downloadable package on a variety of platforms.  If this game somehow slipped under your radar when it was originally released, then now is a good time to check it out, although you might be better off just getting the original game.  The core game won’t disappoint if you are looking for a good, story-driven action game.  The ill-fated Pigsy’s Perfect 10, however, is an overall lousy experience, and you would do well to ignore it.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a colorful mashup of God of War style brawling and Uncharted style climbing and platforming.  That mixture is tossed into a post-apocalyptic United States where the main character, Monkey, has to escort a young woman, Trip, to her home village.  Along the way, Monkey smashes hundreds of hostile robots to bits with his trusty staff while solving the occasional mechanical puzzle.

The game’s blend of ingredients makes for a solid recipe, although it is hard to point to any one thing in the game that is a defining feature.  The most disappointing trait is that its gameplay elements don't perform very well.  The combat, while functional, gets pretty repetitive with its simplistic design and lack of variety.  There is a quick attack and a slow, more powerful attack.  You also have a really slow shield-breaking, stun attack, a sweep attack for attacking enemies that surround you, and a block.  Unlike a great melee action game though, the game never really challenges you to become an expert at these moves.  Most enemies attack you with the same pattern, and you can get through most of them using your basic attack, with the occasional shield breaker added in for when enemies defend themselves.  The game doesn’t reward you for stringing together combos, nor does it force you to have good timing.  It isn’t necessarily too easy, but as the game progresses, the fighting system doesn’t develop much depth.

Like the melee combat, the platforming is functional, but flawed.  It fits appropriately into the game’s setting, but it lacks the refinement and precision that makes platforming shine in other adventure games.  Other than the tiny side paths that hide collectibles, the environments are tightly linear.  Every grapple point glows, because the game either doesn’t trust you to find them out on your own, or because its visual design isn’t refined enough for you to be able to notice them.  The camera also frequently takes control away from you to show you the direction that you need to traverse.   Overall, the platforming is lacking in a sense of player control.  It almost feels more like a quick time event, where you push the left stick in the direction of the nearest glowing item and press “X” to make Monkey go.  The controls are also a little bit sluggish and unresponsive – if you try to trigger a move before the animation for the previous move completes, it won’t work.  Because of this little problem, you will eventually find yourself mashing the jump button to speed through platforming.  Monkey’s controls lack the slick sense of polish that you would find a top notch action/adventure game.

The new elements that Enslaved brings to the table are some clever teamwork mechanics that have Monkey and Trip working together to navigate past groups of enemies.  Trip has an EMP attack that she can stun attackers with, and she also has a hologram that she can use to distract enemies and allow Monkey to get through environments unnoticed.  The early stages of the game have a lot of dangerous turrets that Monkey has to carefully approach and disable with Trip’s help.  There is also a little bit of puzzle solving that involves Trip and Monkey working together remotely.  They complement each other nicely, which is why it is a bit disappointing that Trip mostly disappears from the action in the second half of the game.

Although the game’s simplistic and often crude gameplay elements don’t offer the depth that you expect in a game like this, it makes up for it in other ways.  The writing is good and the voice acting is, surprisingly, really good, especially for Monkey.  When you first meet Monkey, he strikes you as just another stereotypical muscle-bound, roid-raging, meathead protagonist.  Soon, however, you find that he is surprisingly thoughtful and relatively even tempered.  It helps that the actor who provides the voice over does some of the best work that I have ever heard in an action game.  Hollywood veteran Andy Serkis brings a ton of depth to Monkey that is typically lacking in beefy video game heores.  Instead of being an annoying, overused cliché, Monkey ends up as arguably the best part of the game, and one of the best action game protagonists in years.  Trip is also a likeable character, although her “Monkey help me!” damsel in distress routine gets a little bit old after a while.  Her friend Pigsy, who you meet late in the game, provides some quality comedy relief.

The story, as a whole, is very much an asset to the game.  The best part about it is how it is told – not through dialog or exposition, but through its visual design.  Without a single line of narration, you know everything that you need to know about this post-apocalyptic world with just a few glances at its abandoned and crumbling dwellings.  The game begins with a spectacular flyover of New York City, complete with a brushup against the Statue of Liberty and then a crash into Grand Central Station.  Enslaved shows you not a gray, desolate world where nuclear war has made the Earth uninhabitable, but rather a beautiful, lush world where nature has reclaimed the land abandoned by humankind.  The early portions of the game have a lot of impressive vistas that show you this new world and leave you to ponder what has happened.  The game doesn’t tell you exactly what happened or how long ago it happened, and that is fine, because the game’s characters don’t even seem to know.  It is as if civilization has been so utterly destroyed that the concept of history doesn’t exist anymore.   The Earth is now an exotic, almost alien place where a man like Monkey fights big hulking robots with an electric staff.  It is a unique blend of cyberpunk and medieval fantasy.

In general, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a beautiful game, thanks to its art assets and its use of colorful scenery.  The facial animations communicate emotions very effectively and Monkey faces a variety of huge, intimidating foes.  On a technical basis, however, the game is somewhat lacking.  I was surprised to see that even with its gorgeous art design, this game is a noticeable step backwards from Heavenly Sword.  Polygon counts are relatively modest and some of the skins and textures look pretty crummy up close.  The characters also look a little too bright and orange in places, thanks to the game’s occasional overuse of bloom.  In addition, the game’s frame rate takes frequent hits when there is a lot happening on the screen, which may explain why Monkey rarely faces more than four or five enemies at a time.  Despite its issues though, Heavenly Sword thrives on its beautiful and haunting depiction of a futuristic United States that is populated by strange characters and fascinating machinery.

Enslaved also benefits from its strong level design and appropriate pacing.  Enslaved doesn’t have its one landmark memorable moment, but it also doesn’t have any low ones either.  There are no sections that last too long, and there are no annoying or poorly designed levels in the game.  The scenery is constantly changing and you are constantly on the move, giving the game the feel of a true odyssey.  The levels appear to have been designed with the game’s limitations in mind.  The challenges are forgiving enough to tolerate the game’s often sluggish controls.  The platforming doesn’t require a lot of speed or precision, which means that the game is generally devoid of irritating moments that feel you leaving as if you got screwed.

After the typical 10 hours or so that it takes to finish a modern action game, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West wraps up its story satisfyingly.  It is an exciting journey that pleases despite its gameplay flaws.  The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of its DLC, Pigsy’s Perfect 10.

Pigsy’s Perfect 10 can best be described as a noble experiment that ultimately fails.  In this mini-story, you get to play as Pigsy as he attempts to build a robot friend.  Pigsy has an entirely different set of abilities from Monkey.  Pigsy can’t fight, and he gets killed almost instantly if he takes damage.  He moves slowly, and he can’t do any platforming without his grappling hook.  He does, however, have a sniper rifle and some tricky gadgets that he can use to make his way past enemies.  Pigsy’s Perfect 10 is, ultimately, a humorously-themed stealth game.

One thing about stealth is that when it goes bad, it goes really bad.  Poorly designed or executed stealth games are an irritating chore to experience, and, unfortunately, Pigsy’s Perfect 10 is one of those games.  The humor works great, but Pigsy’s slow movement and the game’s sluggish controls make the game miserable in spots.  Enemies are aggressive and the game is totally unforgiving.  It is easy to get caught out in the open where a turret turns you into swiss cheese.  You may find yourself getting killed repeatedly when you try to duck behind an obstacle, but the game responds to your controls too slowly.  The cramped, linear environments provide you with little freedom in how to get through them and use your gadgets.  Two out of the four gadgets are mines that have to be planted and detonated, which limits their usefulness.  The concept of Pigsy’s Perfect 10 is a good one, but it fails badly in its execution.

So, is this package worth buying?  It might be, for the core game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, but you can probably just get it cheaper since it is a three year old game.  Pigsy’s Perfect 10 doesn’t add enough value to make it worth buying, although perhaps you can find some enjoyment out of it if you have a high tolerance for bad stealth.