Whenever people complain about the abundance of overly dark, washed-out post-apocalyptic settings and the lack of strong storytelling in video games, one game has always stood out as incredibly overlooked and underappreciated by the gaming community: Enslaved. In an age where brown, gritty visuals have become the norm and players are craving strong characters with compelling story lines, there exists a small group of gamers who have played Ninja Theory’s colorful reimagining of the 16th century Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en, Journey to the West. Like any game, Enslaved has its flaws, the combat can be bland and the story treads some familiar ground, but what it does right, it REALLY does right. If someone is looking for textbook examples of solid art direction, riveting storytelling, engaging character development, or perfect pacing, Enslaved is their game.
One of the hugely refreshing aspects of Enslaved is the vibrant and imaginative world it envisions. Many people have expressed frustration over this console generation’s obsession with realism and how that usually seems to translate into grey-brown shooters with explosions and feelings of despair. Enslaved eschews all of that (okay, it does have explosions), in favor of a colorized apocalypse. Though the game takes place 150 years in the future, the world has been destroyed for generations when the narrative begins. The time that has passed since the end of the world is beautifully reflected in the environments. The scenery embraces spectacle with truly magnificent vistas full of green foliage, crumbling structures, eccentric robots, and fantastical machinery around every corner. The depiction of a world in which nature reclaims mankind’s cities and dangerous future technology lies rusting and weathered is inviting simply through the originality of the visual design. This approach to visual aesthetic engages the player with the novelty of the experience. Not knowing what new fantastical sight could lie around the next twist in the path can be a huge motivator.
Enslaved opens with a daring prison escape from an airship as it crashes from the sky into the remains of New York City (Edit: If that previous sentence doesn’t catch your attention and immediately get you interested in this game, I don’t know what will). During the harrowing escape, protagonist Monkey meets a young woman named Trip and the two nearly kill each other attempting to leave the rapidly descending vessel. Monkey, knocked unconscious while clinging to the outside of an escape pod, awakes to find that he has been enslaved by a headband Trip put on him while he was unconscious. If he disobeys one of her orders, if he wanders too far away from her, or if she dies, the headband will kill him. Trip agrees to remove the headband once Monkey returns her home. The arrangement clear, the two set off on a pilgrimage across the ruins of America in search of Trip’s village. As is to be expected from a story that was novelized in the 16th century, but existed in legends long before that, the story can seem a bit formulaic at times. However, there are enough twists, especially one toward the end, that keep the game compelling for its relatively short duration.
Strong writing and performances elevate the story into something unique. Over the course of their adventure, Monkey and Trip gradually learn about each other and develop a strong, yet platonic, attachment to one another. Part of what makes their relationship relatively unique in the video game industry is that their interaction stays firmly rooted in friendship. Trip might be the only female character in the game, but she is never relegated to being the tired and overused role of damsel in distress/love interest. Too often video game characters are written to fulfill some stereotypical role that remains static for the remainder of the game. Monkey shows his rage at being forced into slavery, while Trip visibly shows her remorse at having used the headband in the first place, yet maintains that it was necessary to survive. These feelings change over the course of their time together in what feels like a natural progression.
Writing and performances that make the characters believable as human beings set Enslaved apart. The authenticity the two characters display is largely due to the solid vocal and motion capture work from leading man Andy Serkis (best known as the actor who for playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films) and leading lady Lindsay Shaw (who might be recognizable from her role as Paige McCullers in the television show Pretty Little Liars). Both actors really steal the show and create the emotional bond that seems so absent in many games with larger budgets.
Ninja Theory was careful to avoid falling into stereotypes and lazy writing with Enslaved. It was somewhat shocking that the team didn’t make Trip an obligatory love interest. Most games would have written her as a piece of eye candy who Monkey eventually has to save from some generic villain because he “loves” this person who he met a day or two ago. Instead, Ninja Theory took the time and effort to give each of the characters motivations and personalities and then threw them into strange scenarios. Ninja Theory even avoids cheapening the thematic elements of Enslaved like friendship, free will, and memory. Players are shown how Monkey deals with his enforced servitude through his interactions with Trip throughout the game. The result is a stronger, more effective narrative that allows players to connect with the characters and care about what happens to them. It would have been so easy for the writers and designers or the marketing department to tweak the originality out of Enslaved, but somehow Ninja Theory got the game through development while keeping what made it great intact.
Enslaved represents almost perfect execution when it comes to pacing. Both the story and gameplay are perfectly timed so that you are never really doing the same thing the same way more than a few times. For example, there is a recurring boss robot that first appears early in the game. Each time players encounter this boss they must use a different tactic in order to proceed. Sometime you have to run, other times you have to fight or solve puzzles while avoiding its powerful attacks. When one enemy can recur and each time it feels new because different skills are in play; that's good game design. As previously stated, the combat in Enslaved isn't the deepest or most interesting, but Ninja Theory designed and paced Enslaved in such a way that players don’t lose interest in fighting the various enemy types. Well-timed set piece moments and the introduction of new abilities like projectile stuns and plasma blasts break up what could have easily been a lackluster experience and create something great. The story moves along at a good pace where nothing feels rushed and you aren’t left to grow bored with what is happening.
Here is the TL:DR version – Enslaved: Odyssey to the West does so much right, that it is a crime that not many people bought it when it released or have played it since. The visuals are unique and interesting. An extremely competent narrative provides a few great water cooler moments. The character development between Monkey and Trip should be the standard for non-romantic video game relationships. The pacing is so well done you could probably power through the entire game in one sitting and feel like you never repeated a scenario more than once or twice. I’d strongly encourage anyone who is interested in game design or development to pick up a copy of this game.