Ninja Theory learned a few things from their 2007 PlayStation 3 exclusive, "Heavenly Sword." Those lessons were clearly put to work for "Enslaved" and the finished product is stronger in every way than the developer's first next-gen effort. It's an entertaining 12-or-so hours of gameplay, complemented by the strong and all-too-rare combination of compelling story, strong voice acting and eye-catching visuals.
"Enslaved" is an adaptation of the ancient Chinese tale "Journey to the West," a work classified as one of the Four Great Classical Novels in Chinese literature (for reference, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" is also on that list). Naturally, some changes have been made. The setting shifts to a post-apocalyptic New York City for most of the game and the enemy forces are comprised of robot mechs. Our hero is Monkey, a muscular, staff-wielding warrior-turned-slave who breaks free from his mech captors at the outset of the game.
"Free" is a bit of a misnomer, however. Shortly after gaining his freedom, Monkey is fitted with an enslavement headband by fellow escapee Trip. It works like this: if the young woman's heart stops, so too does Monkey's. Trip's mission is a sympathetic one; she just wants to get back to her home and her father, but she knows that she'll never survive the journey without the aid of someone like Monkey. So, seeing an opportunity, she forces him to provide that aid. And so the adventure begins...
The gameplay in "Enslaved" is nothing you haven't seen before -- comparisons to "Uncharted" and "Tomb Raider" are easy to make -- but it is entertaining thanks to a strong execution. Combat is largely melee-based, with some light strategy included in the form of Trip's enemy fire-drawing "Decoy" ability. It's also satisfying; Monkey's blow land heavily, causing visible damage, and his finishing moves are pure spectacle. Boss fights deliver too; the patterns are easy to work out and the challenge level is low, but the bosses are large and menacing. Platforming sections are equally enjoyable to play through, thanks largely to the impressive mo-cap work done by Andy Serkis, who also provides Monkey's voice.
A Post-Apocalypse In Green
Who knew that New York City 150 years after the apocalypse would look so green? It is a lush world that Monkey and Trip must navigate through. There are very few living people to be found in an urban wilderness populated by sentry mechs, but plant life has reclaimed the once-bustling metropolis, making for a very pretty post-apocalypse to adventure through.
All The Pieces Matter
Between a script from "28 Days Later" writer Alex Garland and a soundtrack from composer Nitin Sawhney ("The Namesake"), returning after "Heavenly Sword," not to mention Serkis' starring role, "Enslaved" has a lot of top-level Hollywood talent behind it. It shows too. The story is particularly compelling; Garland not only reworks the source material very well, his considerable skills are also evident in the natural flow of the game's script. This is helped of course by superior facial animations; characters effectively convey their emotions without awkward expository dialogue, which is refreshingly absent in Garland's writing.
On the surface, "Enslaved" appears to be a platforming-heavy game. It is, to a certain extent. There's one key difference between this and all other games that ask players to jump from point to point: in "Enslaved," it is literally impossible to fall to your death. All jumps are contextual and none of them fail. Sometimes you might flounder trying to get Monkey's positioning right before a leap, but he'll never miss a ledge, never fumble as he reaches for a rock outcropping. It's beautiful to look at in motion, but it takes a lot of the tension out of the experience.
Challenge-Free Everything Else
Combat offers a bit more challenge, in that Monkey actually can die. What's more, there are three difficulty settings. Normal is a cakewalk though. There are a few timed chase sequences -- Monkey can use a hoverboard-like device during certain levels, the Cloud -- in which one wrong turn results in failure. But by and large, success in "Enslaved" is a war of attrition: what little challenge there is erodes with repetition. Skillful play is besides the point.
The chief success of "Enslaved" is that it really works to some degree on every level. The gameplay, while not without its faults, is fun. The production values are off the charts for a video game, particularly in the story and performance departments. The art design is visually pleasing and the animations are equally so. You not only care about the characters, you enjoy guiding them through this beautiful world. "Enslaved," for all its lack of challenge, is far more than an interactive movie. It is an enjoyable experience and deserves recognition for standing out as an exceptional new IP in a holiday season crowded with sequels, retreads and remakes.