Friday 3 December 2010

Video Game Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Triple-A games these days, you see 'em coming a mile off. Canny marketing campaigns encompass everything from rumours to teaser trailers, gameplay footage of precise vertical slices to unboxing videos of pre-order bonuses; there'll often be "behind the scenes" bits for the unusually dedicated, lustrous eight-page spreads in magazines here and there for those who can't as yet work the internet. The avenues through which publicity-minded folks can get the word out about such and such a game are near enough to infinite as is, and industrious whatnots that they are, somehow they're always coming up with more.

Let's face it: no-one's going to be in the least surprised when, say, Dead Space 2 happens in the new year. No-one's going to be even mildly taken aback when Visceral's interminably anticipated sequel rocks our goddamn socks off, either. In such a climate, where marketing budgets can dwarf development budgets, for a game to truly surprise is a rare thing indeed. And that's exactly what Enslaved does: it surprises. Come to that, it leaves you reeling in wonderment, that a game as thoroughbred as this could possibly have come and gone without anyone really giving a hoot.

Well, quite. Stand up - or sit down, I suppose, if you prefer - and take note, for without question, Enslaved is one of the year's best games. And coming as it does from the team behind Heavenly Sword, that shouldn't be half such a shock to the system as it appears to have been. As a matter of fact, perhaps that's a large part of the problem here, because a lot of people got their panties all in a bunch over Heavenly Sword, didn't they? You remember the days? Cast your mind back... back to a time when Gran Turismo 5, Final Fantasy XIII and God of War III were a crazy dream and a global economic collapse away, and word filtered through the grapevine of a PS3 exclusive that actually looked - would you credit it? - worthwhile. At last! came the collective cries from the community; a catch-all way to justify every early-adopter's expenditure, no matter their particular taste in entertainment!

Predictably, the moment finished copies of Heavenly Sword arrived on the desks of reviewers and critics across the industry, the backlash began. Heavenly Sword looked phenomenal and played like diet God of War. It played just fine, when you cut through all the crud, but of course Sony had sold us all a dream, and Heavenly Sword, whatever its positive qualities - and it boasted no shortage thereof - was not that. I wonder if anything truly could have been.

Fast-forward a few years. PS3 owners finally have all the games they'd wished upon a star-strewn sky for, and wisely, I think, Ninja Theory have gone multiplatform with their sophomore effort, Enslaved. The game, in short, has changed - except they still can't win it, can they? It seems some lingering resentment still exists; it's either that or perhaps someone went and spent all the dollars earmarked for marketing on the game itself. And isn't that exactly what game journos the industry round have been crying out for these past years, with the rise of the triple-A? But I digress.

Out of the gate, Enslaved looks stunning. Lavish textures and character models abound. Lighting effects refract and glisten brilliantly. But you know, that's par for the course. What sets Enslaved apart, first and foremost, is its fantastic design; is its striking vibrancy. Hit start and an impossible landscape of reds and golds and greens stretches out before you - you meaning Monkey, a buff, unkempt-looking prisoner who awakens from stasis on a doomed cruiser packed to the gunnels full of mechs. Escaping from the ship functions as an introduction to the world, its sparse array of wonderfully fleshed-out characters, and a tutorial of basic gameplay elements all in one. It's practically seamless, and for ten to twelve hours, it continues thusly.

As to gameplay, well. Think Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time with slightly more emphasis on combat. You'll action, and then you'll adventure. Sometimes you'll adventure before you action, even - and that's grand! There's nothing particularly innovative about the way Enslaved plays, but neither do its well-trodden mechanics falter in the least. Leaping from platform to platform feels natural, if as linear as a straight line - more on which in a moment - while you're rewarded for plowing through a gang of weaponised mecha courtesy of Monkey's weighty staff-cum-sniper rifle with a sense of accomplishment substantially more persuasive than that which awaited you in Heavenly Sword.

The only real issue I'd raise with regards to Enslaved's gameplay is the path of least resistance it designers force you down. The platforming segments seem, in all honesty, more than a little canned. You can't jump anywhere but backwards or forwards, from one conveniently glowing object in the environment to another, and maybe back again if you feel like stretching your legs or else hunting down a tech orb or a collectible mask. It can seem crushingly linear until you acclimatise, and the worst is yet to come: you can't fall to your death except on rare occasion, divorcing the experience entire of any real sense of jeopardy. At the two-thirds mark traps along the track - again reminiscent of those from certain games starring everyone's favourite royal - are introduced, and they do a lot to making the platforming that much less of a senseless mashing of buttons. Sadly, it's a case of too little, too late.


Seriously, however. It's a real problem, and it persists from one end of Ninja Theory's latest to the other: I don't mean to diminish its significance, but you know what? I got used to it. Same as I got used to Elika in Ubisoft's 2008 reboot of - yes, that old chestnut again - the Prince of Persia franchise; it serves much the same purpose, and Elika the floaty ghost-girl represented a contrivance at least the equal of Enslaved's glowing trail.

So Enslaved isn't perfect. Aside from the aforementioned hand-holding, the frame rate grinds a bit at times too. Yet what Ninja Theory does right - shorthand for pretty much everything else - it does so very right. They're among a depressingly scant assortment of developers who approach character and narrative with actual measure and maturity: Monkey and his bipolar charge, Trip, are among the year's most memorable double-acts; their relationship, as the narrative presses forward, develops as naturally as the tragic tale of a post-collapse Earth Enslaved offers up. In large part, that's thanks to stellar, nuanced performances from Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw akin to and indeed the equal of any in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, though it would be doing Ninja Theory a disservice to gloss over the finesse and attention such cross-media translation demands. The story itself, only revealed as you approach the endgame, is a belter. And it saddens me to think, given Enslaved's underwhelming turn on store shelves, how unlikely some continuation of Monkey and Trip's tale is.

Never has the term "criminally underrated" felt more appropriate...

Enslaved is a more satisfying game by a large margin than Ninja Theory's last original IP, and while it suffers from occasionally overbearing design and the odd technical hiccup, it stands, in the end, as far more than the sum of its myriad parts. Solid gameplay and stellar graphics are the connective tissue of a character-focused narrative of such restraint and sophistication as to put anything else the industry has hashed out this year - short, perhaps, Red Dead Redemption - to shame.

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