Ninja Theory is a fairly impressive title. Their first title, Kung Fu Chaos, was released in 2003 to fairly middling reviews. It wasn't until 2007 when they wowed the gaming world with Heavenly Sword for the PS3. While that game had some issues it's free-form combat, Hollywood quality motion capture and some of the best voice acting ever featured in a video game.
Now with Enslaved they have shown that Heavenly Sword was no fluke. With the contributions of Andy Serkis, the man behind Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as King Kong in the remake, the visuals in this game are beyond anything else seen in video games today. Acting as director he has ensured that the motion capture is ridiculously smooth and life-like, giving these animated pixels a life of their own.
While you're playing Enslaved: Odyssey to the West you're not just playing a video game you're having a movie quality experience. Serkis has brought the same astounding animations, be they body or facial, which he brought to the table with Gollum and King Bohan from Heavenly Sword. These are some of the most lifelike character models in a video game and when paired up with the star quality voice acting it just makes this game incredibly engrossing.
Enslaved tells a heavily modified version of the Chinese story Journey to the West. In the original story a monk, named Xuanhong, leads a small group of companions to retrieve Buddhist scripture from India. Sun Wukong, the monkey king with an extendable staff, Zhu Bajie, a character known as Pig or Piggsy in the West who is lives up to that designation in appearance and personality, and Sha Wujing, known as Sand and being something of a minor character. With them and the monks' steed, a dragon prince, they embark on a long and interesting journey.
In this modified version of the story the monk is replaced by Trip, a teenage girl looking to get back to her home. She uses a headband to enslave a powerful warrior named Monkey. If he doesn't do as he commands then she can use the headband to cause him pain, forcing him to agree to help her get home through the mech infested new world. Their trip starts off simple enough but becomes something much more emotional. Along the way they battle dozens of mechanical beasts, meet an old friend named Piggsy and they even get their own version of the dragon prince as well.
It's hard to discuss the story too much without getting into spoilers but it's quite an adventure. In many ways it's quite comparable to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time with it being a fairly simple story that's powered by the emotional growth of the heroes. As the story goes on the relationship between Monkey and Trip really develops and, thanks to the excellent voice acting, makes for a really compelling story.
As great as the story is that's not all there is to the title. Furthering the parallels between this game and the PoP games the title features a mix of fast paced, but simple to control, combat and platforming.
Combat starts off incredibly simple as you don't have many options early on in the game. Monkey can use quick or strong attacks with his staff, block with an energy shield emitted by said staff or roll out of the way of incoming attacks. But as the game goes on Monkey gains the ability to fire energy blasts from the staff, perform powerful finishing moves and a variety of counter attacks that make even the hardest enemies a breeze to handle.
The platforming feels very simple as it's all controlled by one button although a second can be used to simplify things. All you do is aim the analog stick at where you're trying to go and then jump. But later on it gets tougher with obstacles that can easily kill you if you don't time your jumps properly. It's also possible to get caught by enemies while doing this making for some frantic dashes to safety as enemies open fire on you. There are also many parts where you must assist Trip to continue moving forward, throwing her across pits or up to ledges so she can move on or open the way for you.
Perhaps the more interesting parts of Enslaved are when you and Trip must deal with large groups of enemies. In these sections a bit of stealth is in order so you will have to sneak around the mechs carefully. Trip can help you by showing how close you can get to mechs without waking them as well as using a holographic projector to distract all of the enemies in the area. Using this you can sneak around enemies or sneak up on turrets, tearing them to shreds or using them for your purposes. It's very exciting trying to get through these areas without you or Trip dying.
The visuals in this game can't possibly be given enough praise. Seeing the post-apocalyptic world in such a vibrant, colorful way is a breath of fresh air. This game does its best to avoid the whole "reality is grey and brown" visual design that's going on in modern gaming. Even the danker, interior levels tend to be a bit more colorful than you would expect thanks to clever lighting tricks and various indoor light sources.
More notable than that are the character models. These are some high quality models if there ever were some. Monkeys' body tells a story all of its own with the various scars and what appear to be tattoos on his body. Trip is one of the prettiest character models to grace modern gaming while Piggsy is definitely among most disgusting. The mechs look like the titular Transformers in the recent movies, moving like the complicated machines that they are.
There are only a few things that really hold this game back from greatness. First and foremost amongst them is the camera. For 99% of the game the camera is totally under your control, easily allowing you to view the area. Unfortunately it doesn't lock the camera when you're doing some of the racing levels that occur on Monkey's flying Nimbus device. This means that as you speed through the level incredibly fast you also have to make small adjustments to the camera to more easily go in a straight line which can make these levels quite aggravating.
Also the combat can be a bit on the annoying side. Generally speaking the fighting is fairly exciting in Enslaved but it's also a bit easy. Enemies will happily attack you while you're trying to beat on their buddy or shoot at you while you're trying to stop their friend from cutting your face off. But some of the boss type enemies make up for how easy the game is by dealing heaps of damage and being annoying to dodge. One notable boss, the Rhino, must be dodged when he charges at you. But he will also bounce off the wall when you dodge; hitting you even after you avoided him. It's doesn't make the fight much more difficult but more annoying.
Enslaved: Journey to the West is definitely a contender for game of the year. There are very few games these days that put this much effort into telling a compelling, emotional story and it deserves every bit of credit it can possibly get for that. While the gameplay might not be as well developed as the story it is in no way an impediment, being quite enjoyable in its own right if you're willing to give the game half a chance.