If you ever meet me, you will know that one of my great loves is the art of literature. I’ve written my fair share and read far more than I probably should have. And one of the greatest pieces of literature from Asia is Journey to the West, the tale of the T’ang monk Tripitaka’s journey to India to bring back the sutras of Buddha, and his bodyguard and disciple, the Monkey King, as well as their allies. So when I heard that Ninja theory, story-driven developers of Heavenly Sword, were making a game based on it, I was naturally excited. But does it work as a game?
Let’s start by saying that Enslaved is very much a story first. There’s an arc, development of characters, and the ending (which I will NOT spoil) is one that people will probably talk about and debate for a little while. You play as Monkey (voiced and motion-captured by the great Andy Serkis), an agile and brutish wanderer who was captured by the mysterious slavers. On the same ship, a young girl named Trip breaks out, and Monkey manages to get free in the process. After a harrowing escape from the slave ship, Monkey awakens to find that Trip has fit a slave headband to him. If he wants it off, he has to take her home. And if she dies, the headband will kill him. Thus begins the journey of two people as different as can be as they attempt to survive in a post-apocalypse filled with lethal and deadly mechs.
It needs to be said that this game is not just a glorified escort mission. In fact, Trip is relatively good at keeping out of trouble until the story demands it. Gameplay-wise, the game is not what most people will be used to. Combat is not like more popular games (like the God of War series), but does make you feel like a strong man with a staff smashing through mechs with the odds occasionally against you. Combat takes some getting used to, but with the use of a decent upgrade system, you’ll be taking on robots and brutally beating them down in no time. Platforming is the easier aspect of the game, as it’s based on finding the right handhold and clambering along. Once you get a rhythm going, Monkey can be an amazing sight as he leaps and swings with little effort.
The production is possibly one of the best I’ve seen for a game. The initial environment of post-war New York is beautiful, like a shot taken out of a nature documentary as bright green foliage and gorgeous red flowers. And the sections of the game that follow, including a decaying robot factory, and an underwater base, showcase a great level of art design and detail. And the icing on the cake is the acting. The use of both professional actors and motion capture technology give Monkey and Trip amazingly life-like performances. I actually found myself looking forward to the cutscenes as the two would talk, and go from reluctant allies to true friends. The cutscene following the first boss battle made me laugh and also managed to touch me in that warm fuzzy way.
You can sense a “but” coming, can’t you? Well, Enslaved is not like a lot of the games that the majority of gamers seem to like these days. It’s linear (although your methods for dealing with mechs are often up to you), and it shows that the gameplay is driven by the story, not the other way around. But it is a great, fun game, and the new frontrunner in the argument for games to be taken seriously as a story. I recommend giving this game a chance, see if it works for you. Those who play it through will find one of the most enjoyable stories in games to date.