Monkeying Around in a New Genre
HIGH Activating Monkey's "cloud" for the first time.
LOW The end of the game doesn't seem to match the beginning.
WTF Trip shows no remorse for killing innocents in the first level.
It's only been recently that I've started thinking about a new genre; one that I like to call Experience or Spectacle Games.
While the finer details are still being processed in my head, this new classification boils down to titles whose main reason for existence is to provide the player with a low-resistance thrill ride. Lots of energy, a fast pace, and definite cinematic flair. The emphasis is on graphics and story, and the skill requirements to pilot the things from start to finish aren't too rigorous. There's usually little reason to revisit them post-completion, and they have a tendency to leave the player craving something a little more substantial once they're done, but they're good at delivering rollercoaster rides.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West? It falls squarely into this genre, I'd say.
Starring the super-athletic Monkey and tech-savvy Trip, Enslaved has the two meet while captured on a slave ship flying through a verdant, post-apocalyptic Earth. After escaping, their newfound freedom leads to an uneasy alliance—Trip needs an escort to make her way safely back home, so she attaches a lethal headband to Monkey's skull. The device ensures that he'll act as her bodyguard by killing him if she dies. It's not exactly a partnership in the classic sense, but under such severe circumstances, it's in their best interests to "work together."
Several titles have featured teamwork mechanics before, but Enslaved takes a slightly different approach by making Trip (the NPC of the pair) much more competent than one might expect. She's good at finding hiding spots when battle ensues, so the player rarely has to save her. Trip can also create distractions to allow the player to safely advance under fire, and delivers crucial healing in a pinch. Although she can't match Monkey's physical prowess, she's clearly an asset rather than a liability. This portrayal of something other than a damsel in distress is quite refreshing and welcome.
Monkey's primary function is to keep Trip from harm, but mainly he fulfills her orders by leaping and climbing, when not using his staff to bash in the cranial casings of enemy robots or sniping them from afar. The combat fares well enough, though it generally maintains the same sort of one-note feeling from beginning to end in spite of a variety of upgrades and enhancements available. The jumping is equally lukewarm. Though certainly exciting to watch, it's not nearly as thrilling to do.
While I'm no fan of falling to my death in platform games, Enslaved sucks every bit of complexity and challenge out of moving Monkey from ledge to ledge. The game literally will not let him jump unless there is a safe perch for him to travel to, and the player never has to do more than point in a general direction. In fact, the jumping is so overly-enabling that in instances where Monkey's destination is not clear, it's possible to simply push the jump button at random and let the auto-correction make a successful leap. Questions of skill or timing never enter the equation.
The ultra-compensatory nature of the jumping is the biggest clue that the developers are more focused on constantly moving the player forward than providing substantial gameplay, but there are several other indications of this as well. For example, there are several "gamey" collectibles to pick up along the journey, but in many instances it's quite difficult (or even impossible) to backtrack if some are missed. The levels are set up for the best camera angles, not to allow that degree of freedom. Another example is that Monkey constantly carries a small magnetic "cloud" to ride. The race-like bits that employ it are thrilling, yet the device is only accessible in extremely limited sections. The game makes a weak attempt at explaining why within the logic of the world, but it's pretty clear what the real story is—Enslaved is an Experience Game.
In regard to creating a project of this sort, I'd say that the developers were mostly successful. There are plenty of stunning vistas to take in, and there are certainly several moments that serve to get the blood pumping. The small number of boss battles all manage to feel like serious events, and there was one particularly clever sequence with Trip behind the wheel of an out-of-control vehicle. The biggest rush of the game is arguably the first level (also available as a downloadable demo) but the rest of the adventure does an admirable job of attempting to match that intensity with very little dead space or padding to be found.
However, you might have noticed that I said the developers were mostly successful in crafting this Experience Game. While the shallow depth of gameplay can be excused in service to the story, I would expect a much tighter plot for a game which hangs its existence upon it.
Without spoiling things for those who haven't been through Enslaved, I'll say that the ending doesn't quite fit the beginning, almost to the point at which it feels as though two separate writing teams were at work. There were also several narrative shortcuts taken that had me wondering what happened in the scenes not shown. It's clear that the player is meant to feel a certain way about the relationship between Monkey, Trip, and the adventure that binds them together, but I have to admit that the script never engrossed me. It's certainly better than much of the competition out there, but rather than catching fire, it merely held steady at a low simmer.
To be perfectly honest, I found Enslaved: Odyssey to the West to be a pleasantly enjoyable and well-constructed game easily superior to Ninja Theory's earlier work. It's a beautiful title with many nice moments, and I want to extend my congratulations to the team for such a noticeable step up. That said, neither the gameplay nor the plot and characters were strong enough to put it over the top. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the ride, but this new genre of Experience and Spectacle demands even greater heights to truly succeed.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 9 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, language, suggestive themes, and violence. While the game is not particularly graphic (the main character never fights anything besides robots) the story and writing are definitely slanted towards older audiences. That's not to say that it's graphic or explicit in any way, because it's not, but I'm of the opinion that it will be more properly received by older audiences. The game might be easy enough for young ones to play, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be aware that although the game contains quite a bit of dialogue during cut-scenes, the developers were smart and added subtitles for all conversations. There are certain times when being able to hear audio cues is a minor advantage, but overall I would say that the game does not rely heavily on sound.