Many saw developer Ninja Theory’s first game, the PS3-exclusive Heavenly Sword, as not only a mediocre effort, but a sign that the studio just didn’t have the talent to make great games. I can’t say that I agreed, however, as I found that while Heavenly Sword did make a few mistakes with some of the combat, pacing, and controls, its emotion-driven story and great characters made it worth the effort if you could get over a few clunky battles.
Ninja Theory is back, and while they’ve gotten a lot of press recently over the announcement that they’re rebooting the Devil May Cry series for Capcom, they’ve slipped under the radar with Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a new sci-fi action game that introduces us to a brand new version of our world and (yet again) some very interesting and unique characters. At the heart of it all is actor Andy Serkis, the guy who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies. He was also that great viillain in Heavenly Sword, and he’s done a lot of work over the years with putting a full actor’s performance into a motion capture studio.
And it works beautifully here. Serkis stars as a guy named Monkey, a tough, but relatively uneducated yokel who was captured as a slave off of another planet. The slave ship has a couple of “issues” in its journey, though, and winds up crashing onto a lush planet. In the attempt to get to an escape pod he sees a young woman, and she takes the last pod, forcing him to hold on for dear life as it jettisons. Things go poorly for him in the landing, and he wakes up to find one of the slavers’ headbands around his forehead - and the woman staring at him. Her name is Trip, and now Monkey has a difficult path ahead of him: if Trip dies, the headband will kill him, and she wants him to help her escape from the planet. She’s got some skill with electronics and science, and Monkey’s got, well, no shirt. Okay, he’s also got a high-tech staff, which Trip can power up with a range of sci-fi abilities like shielding and ranged attacks.
Monkey doesn’t realize what planet he’s on. It’s Earth, long after an apocalypse that killed off the humans, and now it’s overgrown with vegetation. You start off in a New York City that’s been partially enveloped in plant life, and work your way towards getting offworld if you can. But the planet is just a cool, partially-familiar setting; what makes Enslaved so interesting is that the two main characters are forced into a co-dependent relationship that you rarely see in video games. Trip needs Monkey’s brute force and fighting ability to stay alive and get back to her people, and he needs her to stay alive so that his head doesn’t go boom. But as you play, he also starts to depend on her active abilities, which the player activates at will with a button combination. Trip doesn’t have much in the way of pure damage, but she can disable and distract enemies to make tough fights much easier. The enemy here is an army of robotic mechs that are presumably there to kill off Trip and her kind, and therefore Monkey is in the way as well. (It also helps maintain a Teen rating while allowing Monkey to smash the bots into tiny bits with some great, hard-hitting finishing moves.)
With spot-on lip sync, great animations, and very good acting, the experience of playing as such a lifelike character does a hell of a lot to make up for the game’s shortcomings, especially when it gets artificially lengthened by repetitive areas full of mine detection, scanning for a switch or lever, and slightly annoying platforming. And unfortunately, the game’s also got some bugs, as I found two of them just within the first hour of play that forced me to revert to previous checkpoints both times. (One locked the camera in a place that completely broke my view, and another got a boss stuck running into a wall with no way to damage him or pull him out of it.)
For the most part, the developers at Ninja Theory have done a pretty decent job keeping the action fresh, but it’s clear that their focus, once again, was on the story and narrative. Fights get old and dull for too long before something new’s added, and the upgrade choices you make (based on the orbs you pick up, which are of course converted to a points system for upgrading) are just about the only elements of choice and non-linearity in Enslaved. The game takes you on a wild ride of a story and doesn’t try to annoy you with difficult Quick Time Events or awful video game stereotypes, but it’s disappointing that the two things you’ll be spending most of your time with - platforming and fighting - often feel like they were worked on the least.
While Heavenly Sword’s action tripped up here and there, it was the story and the characters that were the memorable part, and it’s the same here. Enslaved might wind up as a sleeper surprise for the enthusiast gamers who don’t only watch Spike TV commercials to make their video game buying decisions. But it’s a shame, because this game, even with its flaws, could have really used some marketing and branding to get the word out. As an experience, it might go down as a near-cult classic, sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Shadow of the Colossus or Beyond Good and Evil, but I doubt many people would put Enslaved on the same level. Still, for a holiday season filled with mainstream-friendly releases that disappoint their publishers if they don’t sell 10+ million copies, a game like Enslaved really is a breath of fresh air. All I can hope for is that Ninja Theory works on making their action a bit more fun for their upcoming Devil May Cry remake, because anything less will probably be a total disaster for a game like that.