I’ve been keeping a close eye on Enslaved for quite some time now for one simple reason – Ninja Theory’s previous game ‘Heavenly Sword’. Whilst the actual gameplay was good, it was the character development that kept me hooked, and I was genuinely drawn to Nariko and Kai in their desperate fight for survival. The prospect of another game like that made me very excited indeed.
Enslaved starts with one of the main protagonists – Monkey – imprisoned aboard a flying slave ship heading for parts unknown. This journey is interrupted by a young red haired woman – Trip – who has snuck aboard and overloaded the systems, causing a malfunction and a fair few explosions – one of which knocks over Monkey’s cell, damaging it enough for him to escape. What follows is a tutorial of sorts, as you guide Monkey through the burning ship looking for an escape pod.
You eventually locate an escape pod, but unfortunately Trip is in it and isn’t very keen on letting Monkey in – mainly because he looks enraged. The pod ejects with Monkey clinging on for dear life, and crash lands some way away – knocking him unconscious. When Monkey comes to he finds Trip has fitted him with a slave headband, meaning he does what she says or gets zapped right in the brain with an energy pulse – oh, and if Trip dies, the headband overloads and Monkey dies with her. Trip’s assignment is simple; she needs to get home – which is 300 miles away across an Earth destroyed by war and patrolled my ’Mechs’ - and needs Monkey’s help. How can he refuse? (He can’t).
The first thing you will notice about Enslaved is the striking visual style that has been produced using the Unreal Engine. Gears of War may have coined the phrase ‘Destroyed Beauty’ – but Enslaved takes this to the next level. Cities have been devastated and left for so long that nature has taken over. The juxtaposition of organic and man-made is breathtaking to behold, and on the occasion you get high enough the view of the city makes you stop in awe.
At its heart Enslaved is a third person adventure game in the same vein as Uncharted 2. Traversing the land involves lots of climbing, puzzle solving and manipulating the surrounding environment. As his name would suggest, Monkey is very athletic and as such does the bulk of the work throughout the game. Climbing feels very much like it does in Assassins Creed – where you just have to jump in the general direction of the next hand hold and Monkey will automatically snap to it. Anything that can be climbed has a slight shimmer to it, and whilst some of you may not like that idea it is an absolute God send in the later levels when things get hectic – and believe me they get very hectic.
Trip is the electronics wizard of the pair, and can normally be found hacking doors, hatches, and generally anything with a power supply. Whilst you never take control of Trip directly, you do interact with her throughout the journey by carrying her over dangerous terrain, or throwing her (yes you read that correctly) over gaps she wouldn’t be able to jump. Early on Trip also takes control of a robotic dragonfly which she programmes to be Monkey’s ‘eye in the sky’ – spotting landmines, scanning enemies and pointing out structural weaknesses.
It’s not all about the puzzles though, as the Mechs are on the prowl and hunting you down. This is where Monkey’s combat staff comes in handy. The weapon has a combination of melee attacks – quick and weak, or slower more powerful hits. The staff can also be charged to release a quick burst of energy which will stun enemies with pesky shields. Plasma can also be collected throughout the levels which act as ammunition for the staff, allowing it to fire energy bolts which become essential in later levels. As if that wasn’t enough the staff also provides a limited shield capability. Monkey also has a ‘Cloud’ which can be deployed in certain areas. This is essentially a hard to control hoverboard which allows access over dangerous ground.
Combat is definitely not Enslaved’s strong point – which is odd considering Heavenly Sword was all about the fighting. The melee feels a bit cumbersome, and a lock-on feature is sorely missed as things can get very confusing.
Collecting ‘Tech Orbs’ that are scattered about allows you to purchase upgrades that will better key areas of your staff, or increase your health. If I’m being totally honest I found these upgrades a bit boring, and just ended up maxing out my health and shield.
The enemy Mechs you meet throughout the game are an odd bunch. The generic grunts are boring as hell, both to look at and to fight, but every time you are on the verge of becoming disinterested Ninja Theory pulls a surprise out of their hat and introduces one of the more gruesome varieties. I won’t spoil them all here, but I will say being tracked down by a giant Mech dog was one of my more unsettling game experiences of 2010.
By far the highlight of the game though is the story and character development. Alex Garland provides a compelling adventure which is complimented wonderfully by Nitin Sawhney’s musical score. Watching the relationship between Monkey and Trip develop is a genuine pleasure and one of my highlights of the year. A special mention also needs to go to the quality of the voice acting as it never misses a beat, or dissolves into hammy overacting as it did in some parts of Heavenly Sword – that game was the tester, whereas Enslaved is the real deal.
So that’s it then right? Awesome game – ten out of ten. Alas I wish that were the case – but Enslaved does have a few flaws that stop it from reaching greatness. The camera is appalling, and in the heat of battle it will frequently freak out, spin around and face anywhere but where you need it to. There are also a few occasions where you have to defeat wave after wave of enemies – and it feels like these sections could have been made a lot shorter. Having to defeat so many enemies in a row is boring and a lesson in frustration.
There are also a number of visual glitches such as screen tear and textures popping in and out of existence – and whilst this doesn’t bother me I know it’s a problem some people like to be made aware of. What does bother me though is some horrendous slowdown towards the end of the game when things get crazy. I appreciate there is a lot happening on screen, but I have seen games deal with a similar amount without any bother at all. Top marks for ambition though – the end level is a peach!
- Fantastic visual style
- Great musical score
- Compelling story
- Character development
- Nice combination of puzzles and platforming
- Appalling camera
- Combat can get repetitive
- Lots of glitches
I’ve agonised over what score to give Enslaved. I desperately want to give it a ten purely for its fantastic story, but a fantastic story does not a good game make – it needs the gameplay to back it up and that’s where Enslaved falls down in places. What we are left with is a flawed masterpiece, but one that you definitely need to play.