In 2007 a lesser known independent developer called Ninja Theory published a major Playstation 3 exclusive in the form of Heavenly Sword, a title that, while short, was praised for its storytelling and stellar graphics. Despite community pleas for a sequel however Ninja Theory decided to go in a different direction with a new IP. Enslaved, Ninja Theory’s newest title, marks the company’s first entry in multiplatform development while staying true to many of the design rules of Heavenly Sword.
Is it worth your money though?
A Monkey By Any Other Name
Enslaved, like many popular titles over the past few years, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting. Decades after two world wars lead to a mechanized apocalypse humanity has returned to a state of tribalism with communities banding together in order to survive. Mechs left over from the war litter the landscape and are still programmed to kill the humans they once obeyed though almost all of the giant ones, known as Titans and Leviathans, perished long ago. With this return to tribalism however so too has slavery, the main source of it being an unknown organization called Pyramid. The story begins onboard a Pyramid slave ship bound for the west. As monkey regains consciousness in his containment pod he witnesses a young girl break out of her pod and approach a console. Within seconds of her going to work on it alarms begin to go off and signal the beginning of the end for the aircraft. Monkey escapes and follows her to the escape pods only to find himself latched on to the outside of her pod which launches just before the ship crashes.
Monkey reawakens a short time later after the pod has crashed into a ruined building. In an act of sheer desperation, the girl, Trip, has fitted Monkey with a slave headband that she’s hacked to work for her. Trip wants to get home to her wind farm community that’s hundreds of miles away but she knows she’ll never make it with thousands of killer mechs inbetween. As such she offers Monkey a deal: if he can see her safe return she will remove the headband. If she dies however so too does he.
Enslaved’s story is loosely based on Journey to the West, a 16th century Chinese tale of a pilgrim’s journey to India to retrieve sutras from the living Buddha. However, other than the names of the characters the comparisons pretty much end there. Instead, Enslaved is more appropriately a tale of reaction and, later, revenge against the slaver organization Pyramid whose abductions of humans number in the tens of thousands. The ending to the game is nothing short of fantastic and brings to a close Monkey and Trip’s journey on a cliffhanger note, though no more severe than many other games nowadays. The ending fits perfectly with the overall moods and themes of the game so if you are looking for a singleplayer game with great potential going forward then here you go.
One thing I found most interesting about the game’s characters is their explicit lack of knowledge in regards to the outside world. The first third of the game takes place in the ruins of New York City with crumbling skyscrapers and deep rifts into the ground signifying the end of civilization as we know it and yet Trip and Monkey know almost nothing about the city. There is even a point to where they actually speculate about how many “tens of thousands” of people used to live there and construe Grand Central Terminal as a kind of gathering place. The stark contrast between the most famous city in the Western Hemisphere with their complete ignorance of it gives an interesting look into the world they live in but it also makes the player wonder about the world that was. Enslaved does very little to allude to the world before the end of civilization but it is a bit refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic title that is focused on the here-and-now rather than of the remnants from the past.
Enslaved’s gameplay can be split into two different categories: platforming and close/midrange combat. Monkey’s name is well representative of his nature as he is extremely agile and capable of some unusual, if not extreme, parkour, an element of platform games that have become far more common in recent years thanks to titles like Uncharted. Monkey’s agility in the game not only feels smooth and natural but it also flows very well in almost every situation. Several instances in the game have him dodging gunfire as he is flying across the side of a building and, as in this example, demonstrates how the game rewards the player for learning how to utilize Monkey’s rhythm of movement by having him take less damage.
In addition to being light on his feet Monkey is also a strong fighter. The majority of the combat in Enslaved involves close-range melee fighting against an assortment of different mechs who have different rhythms and methods of attack. Utilizing both his fists and his staff weapon, Monkey is capable of causing unrivaled blunt-force trauma to his mechanized enemies. Though the combos Monkey can pull off are fairly limited but the flow of them, like Monkey’s parkour abilities, feel natural with nary an animation cut when switching from a heavy to a light attack or vica versa.
While Monkey is to be considered the main character of the game Trip is far from a damsel in distress with nothing to add. Though it is in your best interest to keep her out of harm’s way Trip has several tools at her disposal that can make your job easier. In addition to being able to heal you with health vials should you be unable to find some first aid she can also distract mechs with a decoy light show. Should she be attacked by a mech she automatically engages an EMP blast that temporarily disables all nearby mechs, allowing you to rescue her.
The End of the World Never Looked So Good
These days, when games are set in a post-apocalyptic scenario, it is very common to see a dying world where hope isn’t something that’s widespread. Almost every end of civilization set-up in video games these days are composed of bleak, urban environments with nothing but shades of grey and brown to be seen all around. Thankfully Ninja Theory was smart enough to realize that a world without humans wouldn’t exactly be an ugly one. With the apocalypse having happened decades beforehand nature has taken its course and is actively in the process of reclaiming the land for itself. During the course of the game I couldn’t help but be awestruck at several sections of the game. One great example comes early on in the second chapter of the game where you get to explore the initial sections of New York. Amidst crumbling buildings and long since destroyed vehicles stand tall trees with various types of plants growing along and up the walls of humanity’s creations. There’s just something to like about seeing pieces of giant mechs littering the landscape and seeing strands of ivy growing up them.
One thing that the game does provide very well is a sense of scale. As you travel through the remains of New York and beyond you get a much greater sense of the world before the end and just how chaotic it must have been in the final days. Several later environments actually tease you with just how powerful and large these mechs were, as one such environment has you fighting inside the palm of a long since dead Titan. You really get the sense that the wars before the events of Enslaved were massive in scale, far beyond what we experience in the first half of the 20th century but thanks to the art direction it certainly doesn’t feel like a dying world. Rather, thanks to its design it feels like this is a world that is recovering and on the way to a renewed state of liveliness not seen since before the industrial age.
The good looks aren’t limited to the environments however: much of the beauty of the game comes from the character design. Using NaturalMotion’s Morpheme animation system, Ninja Theory has created some of the best looking and best acted faces and bodies in Trip and Monkey that I’ve seen since Uncharted 2. You can really feel and see the emotions on these characters, especially Trip, as she experiences fear, shock, loss, and all those other face-wrenching emotions. It’s not just limited to the facial animation though. Andy Serkis, the award winning actor who played Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, stars as monkey and his acting of the part is nothing short of stellar. Lindsey Shaw, a young actress whose career has begun bearing strong fruit, plays a delightful and completely believable Trip.
A Journey Well Traveled
If you would have asked me three years ago if Ninja Theory had enough under its belt to stay alive in an industry filled with fierce competition at every turn I’d have said no. Heavenly Sword, while a good game, was far too short to merit a $60 price point and its console exclusivity really cost the game any replay value. With Enslaved however I think that Ninja Theory has succeed in bringing strong, mature storytelling to the masses with enough content to justify a full price purchase and with DLC on the horizon designed to compliment rather than intrude on the story it certainly is a keeper in my book. During this review I tried my best to not ruin the story for you: what you read above is mainly a glancing pass at a deep and wonderful story with excellent potential. So if you’ve been looking for a unique title this year that doesn’t follow the norm when it comes to game design be sure to check out Enslaved. If anything, experience the story in its whole with a friend.
Oh, and someone get Roger Ebert on the phone; I can’t find a better candidate out there for cinematic storytelling than this.