Monkey Don't Trip
HIGH The romantic art design.
LOW Fall-behind-and-die chase segments.
WTF Andy Serkis' face, in cut-scenes all over the place.
Like the pilot of a modern sci-fi adventure series, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West seemingly begins mid-story. Through chaos and explosions, brutish anti-hero Monkey pursues tech-girl Trip through an out of control slave ship hurtling across a post-apocalyptic Manhattan skyline. Narrowly escaping with their lives, introductions turn hostile as Trip reveals she has installed a subcutaneous slave control device into Monkey's skull. He is forced to help her survive her journey back to her hometown, or die.
What follows is a romanticized platform romp that is cinematic and engaging, if not particularly challenging. The game is terrifically non-expositional in its presentation of the world. You are given a few scant hints as to what the nature of this dark future is, but nothing is explained. The lack of context breathes a welcome air of intrigue into the futuristic gone-to-seed Manhattan, and makes it seem more like a timeless paradise than a ruin. The boldness of the color palette from the get-go is stunning, bordering on lurid, but it loses that intensity once you pass the halfway mark. Not just in looks, but in design. The action moves from a recognizable future location to more generalized arcade-like areas as the game progresses. Perhaps this is a tip of the pen to the third section of the Chinese novel Journey to the West in which the monk Xuanzang (Tripitaka) and his companion, the godlike "Monkey King", travel from the hubbub of the Imperial city of Chang'an, through the center of China, and into more vaguely described mountain areas bordering India, searching for the living Buddha.
Aside from the scenery, the incidental art and character designs are a pleasantly hip mix of Asian deco and some Flash Gordon styled armor and tech. Firefly fans will like this look. The in-game voicework by Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw are exceptional, and the music by Nitin Sawhney is a strong background for them. The action music has elegant flourishes, while the ambient pieces crackle and hum with eerie dissonance.
Gameplay is a marriage of simplified movement and slippery combat. A majority of areas will require jumping to navigate, and this has been streamlined into a highlighted, no-fail mechanic. In addition, Trip will always lead Monkey through overgrown areas where the exit isn't clear. So, Mario it's not, although exploration is subtly discouraged as well. And then the combat is slippery. The telescoping staff has a illusory feeling of heft, due to the camera drifting off center whenever you take a swing. And if you're near a wall or in a corner while swinging you will find the camera more often than not stuck in Monkey's shoulderblade. If the combat were difficult, it might present a serious problem, but as it is, most enemies are easily taken down, and the greatest challenges you face are the occasional boss fights, or rescuing Trip if she wanders into harm's way.
Some of these sequences work well to invest the player with some urgency. In a moment of being menaced by enormous mechanical dogs, or during a long trek across a bridge that is collapsing in places, Trip becomes so terrified she begs Monkey to carry her. No profound writing, no new mechanic, just hitting the O button to pick her up. But it's a moment where a simple button push carries some real weight; you connect with the need to protect Trip. It's manipulative, but it works, partly because you know in the back of your head you can't really fail. You will save her.
Or not. There are a few fall-behind-and-die chase scenes where Monkey has to ride his hover device ("Cloud") to catch up with some mecha-monster that has run off with her, and she will die. I don't mind race sequences. But where the scenes I mentioned above connect you with saving her, doing a Dragon's Lair style QTE race in which one wrong turn ends up with her dead just felt like a cheap shot. If you had to reload those races repeatedly before you won them, it'd take you out of the game. I had to, and it did. And afterwards I thought it an odd choice to have cheap deaths based in a wobbly mechanic in a game design that seemed pointed in avoiding exactly that. If Trip's survival is the most important goal in the game, and Monkey's best skills are climbing and fighting, then (for gameplay's sake) aren't those the skills he would have to bring to bear in a sudden-death fight to save her?
Boogie-boarding aside, the game paid off for me because I loved the mysterious mood of its first half. I found the general cinematic approach with it's bottle-necked difficulty forgivable. I enjoyed where it took its story. Escape becoming a journey home. A journey home becoming a mission of vengeance. A mission of vengeance that leads to an ironic climax echoing Taylor's discovery of the statue of Liberty in The Planet of the Apes, or Snake Plisskin's destroying the tape at the end of Escape from New York.
That "maybe everything you know is wrong" punchline. Maybe our heroes are in fact the outcasts, the anti-heroes of this future vision, as they destroy the collective memory of the former world. Maybe the enslaved are the lucky ones. In either case, the journey is the worthier part. And I dug it.
I'd like to see more of it.
— by Robert Scott
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 10 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 2 times).