Monkeying Around in a New Genre

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Screenshot

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.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Screenshot

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. Rating: 7.0 out of 10.

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.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
Brad Gallaway

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9 Comments on "Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Review"

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re: killing innocents.. I’ve played the game 2X now and the beginning probably 5-6X.. I don’t get that Trip deliberately kills anyone. I think she sabotages the ship to get doors open, but the rest of the effects seem like they were unintended accidents, since she does seem to value life. Is it really clear that all the pods have occupants?

I liked the ending btw, I thought it went for a Planet of the Apes style irony-slap. I dug it.


The characters and their chemistry was simply fantastic with top notch voice acting.

Having said that i only really enjoyed the levels up until and including Trip’s home. After that i felt that the wheels fell off the rollercoaster.

Shallow combat, some bad camera angles and zooming and the idiot proof platforming.

The main issue i have with regards to this new “genre” is that while i mostly appreciate the thrill it provides i resent that it takes the gameplay out of the game. Gamers will become dumber and dumber when playing these games.

Jeffrey Matulef

I’m sure something as short as Vanquish will stretch this argument to the breaking point. I think it was Ludwig Keitzmann (or possibly Justin McElroy. Someone from the Joystiq podcast anyway) who once said, “It’s not the length, it’s the mirth.”

Brad Gallaway
Hey Jeff! >>>I’m curious, Brad, would you consider other linear, single-player games with poor replay value like Ico as experience games? If so, do you think that makes them lesser than more robust games with lots of hidden goodies, depth and replay value? Good question. I haven’t really gone back and tried to create a list of other experience games, but Ico is an interesting one to look at. I think it generally fits the category, although I daresay it offers a greater depth of gameplay and requires more from the player than something like Enslaved or Uncharted. That’s certainly… Read more »

I’m finding that the snap-to camera is giving me a bit of a headache. I’m looking around with the right analogue stick, trying to see what’s going on, and it keeps fighting with me for control. The result is a jerky back and forth that is extremely irritating.

Developers: if you’re going to give me full 3D viewing controls (and in a spectacle game, you should), then don’t grab the camera back from me constantly. Or at least give me an option to turn that “feature” off.

Jeffrey Matulef
Re: the platforming, I’d say that Enslaved simply isn’t a platformer. It looks like one, but there’s no skill involved and I’d hardly even call it “gameplay” for lack of a better word. This isn’t a criticism though. Saying that the platforming sucks in Enslaved would be like criticizing the walking in GTA because you can’t fall into pits. It’s just there to provide a pretty way of traversing the terrain. I completely agree with the above poster RE: the third act. I too have grown weary of factories and gears… I’m curious, Brad, would you consider other linear, single-player… Read more »

I am going to keep my eyes peeled for this game on Black Friday sales.

I suppose that you’re right in most respects, though I found that the game offered a greater variety of combat than I would have expected. Primarily a brawler, Enslaved also offers occasional bits of completely competent cover shooter action as well as various surprisingly unique moments (such as the moment mentioned with the out-of-control vehicle). That being said, the platforming was notably weak, though it did become slightly more skill-based in the last few levels. This change in platforming brings me to one of my major complaints about the game, though. The last couple levels, excepting the final boss battle,… Read more »

Not entirely new. Your thoughts on Enslaved are basically identical to mine on Prince of Persia (the current-gen version) a couple of years ago.

Very pretty, very fun, very easy, no replay value – simultaneously too good not to play, and too limited to spend full price on.