Enslaved Review (PS3)

Whenever video games and the film industry collide there is usually a mess. It is rare to find a collaboration between the two great entertainment industries that truly works well. Video games usually suffer for their links to Hollywood names and so it was a bit worrying when Namco announced a collection of big names from the film industry in connection with Ninja Theory's new action adventure.

As it turns out, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a bit of an aberration as far as Hollywood collaborations go. Ninja Theory has been successful in using the talent that they have had at their disposal to enhance the gaming experience making Enslaved one of the best surprises of the year.

Escaping requires a wing, a prayer and a big stick

The story of Enslaved centres around the journey of two characters, Trip and Monkey as they escape from slavery and return Trip to her home. It begins with both characters imprisoned on a slave ship bound for an unknown destination. From his cell Monkey watches Trip set off a chain reaction which causes the ship to begin to fall apart. The resulting explosions release Monkey from his cell and play begins with guiding him through the disintegrating ship as he follows Trip to the escape pods.

The escape pod jettisons and crashes to the ground leaving Monkey unconscious. When he comes to he discovers that Trip has fitted him with a slave headband binding his life to hers. She uses the band to bargain with Monkey to ensure he helps her to get home from the crash. So begins one of the more intriguing adventure games to be released in the last few years.

The whole dynamic of the game centres around the interplay between Monkey and Trip as they make their journey first through what turns out to be the overgrown ruins of New York City to find the crash site to recover Monkey's motorbike and then onwards to Trip's home and beyond. You take control of Monkey with access to some of Trip's skills in order to help you pass every obstacle the game throws at you. Enslaved is both a blunt brawler and an action platform game with some mild co-operative elements thrown in for good measure.

Ninja Theory has created an immensely beautiful game to play through and it is in no small part down to the involvement of some Hollywood talent in the form of Andy Serkis. Serkis' motion-capture experience from his role as Gollum in Lord of the Rings has proven invaluable to creating Enslaved and has earned him credit as co-director on the game as well as lending his vocal talents to Monkey. The results of Serkis' involvement in the game is impressive indeed. Enslaved has some of the finest character animation seen in a game to date. This animation is backed up by some intricately created visuals that evoke memories of both Uncharted 2 and the recent cel-shaded Prince of Persia reboot.

Monkey finds some time to surf on the Hudson River

The similarities don't stop there though. The platform puzzles are very similar to both titles and the dynamic between Monkey and Trip at times is very reminiscent of the dynamic between the Prince and Elika. Of course, the game's other main influence is the Chinese myth of the Monkey King and this definitely inspires Monkey's choice of a staff as a weapon as well as his name.

The main threat in the game is a variety of robots called Mechs that are programmed to either disable or kill any human life that they encounter. The game's combat sequences flow very intuitively. Monkey has access to usable range of different attacks that can be combined and chained to effectively destroy any enemy he may encounter, all with the swing of a staff. Combat is suitably meaty and just challenging and varied enough to provide an entertaining counterpoint to the platform elements of the game.

The story of the game itself is very engaging. The comfortable difficulty level of the game ensures a good balance between challenge and progression, and in-engine cutscenes really flesh out the changing nature of Monkey and Trip's relationship as they endure the game's hardships together. Adding his experience to creating the game's narrative is 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland who manages to sculpt a story that manages to strike a healthy balance between making you feel like part of the story and creating a deeper storytelling experience.

There are a few minor flaws in Enslaved that leave it teetering on the edge of true greatness rather than placing it smack-bang in the middle of it. Every-so-often there is a missing animation or snippet of dialogue taking a bit of the shine off a game that is buy-and-large excellent. Unfortunately this also extends to the control system. Missed jumps at time critical locations and Monkey's occasional tendency to veer off slightly only to be stopped by the game's careful clipping show that the control calibration is not quite what it should be in a triple-A title.

Enslaved's overgrown ruins of Manhattan are breath-taking

Ninja Theory have managed to successfully buck the trend for Hollywood collaborations and produce an enjoyable new intellectual property in the process. Enslaved may have a couple of minor flaws but the beauty of the visuals and the storyline make the frustrations of control niggles melt away as you get lost in the tale that has been woven together for you. The game also marks the beginning of a new level of maturity showing that a game can show character development in a deeper and more meaningful way than just using characters as tools and plot devices.

Monkey and Trip's adventures in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West have been a refreshing surprise that sadly is in danger of being lost in the ocean of big-named sequel releases that are coming over the next month or so. One thing that should be clear here is that Enslaved is not only an example of how the games industry can use film industry expertise to enhance the gaming experience, it is a welcome release from the endless pursuit of sequels; at least until Enslaved 2 appears...

Top Game Moment: Just wait until you get to the end. It's a curious ending but well worth the Odyssey.

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