Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Ninja Theory
by: Sam "Samoza" Tyler
At the recent Eurogamer Expo I was given the chance to play a variety of third person action games, but the one that stood out was Enslaved; a retelling of the Ancient Chinese fable of Monkey. The similarities between Enslaved and ancient mythos begins and ends with the lead character being called Monkey. This game is an all out action platformer that pits the heroic Monkey against an army of Mechs who guard the dead cities of America. Alongside him is a young woman named Trip. At the start of the game you both escape a group of mysterious slavers, but whilst Trip appears to be free, Monkey is not. Whilst out cold, Trip fitted Monkey with a head device that will kill him if she dies, as she feels she needs his physical strength if she is to survive in the wilds. This results in a game mechanic centred on keeping yourself (Monkey) alive, ultimately by keeping Trip alive.
The male and female lead mechanic evokes memories of Ico, but the game also has touches of Beyond Good and Evil, and Uncharted 2. All of these games are traditional computer games at first glance, with their platforming and/or shooting mechanics but they also created characters you care about and a story that draws you in. Unlike these three games Enslaved does not quite become a master class in story telling, and even with the involvement of The Beach and 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland, the narrative is pretty linear. However, this does not mean that the characters are boring. Monkey and Trip have a great relationship that builds through the game. On the introduction of Pigsy, a humorous and chubby recluse, there is a lightness in the game and the relationships mature wonderfully.
Many gamers don’t really care about storytelling in their games, which is a shame. This trend is noticeable in the countless faceless shooters that dominate the modern gaming market. The fact that Enslaved makes you care about the characters is a real bonus and adds to the impact of events later in the game. Graphically, Enslaved is not as good looking as the previous effort by Ninja Theory, Heavenly Sword. The multiformat Unreal engine is far jaggier than their own PS3 engine and the textures pop into existence a few sections after each cut scene had started. However, for a game that uses the Unreal engine, Ninja Theory are able to give Enslaved far more tones of light and colour than the usual grey/green (greyn) palate the engine usually provides.
In terms of gameplay, Enslaved falls just short of excellence in several areas. Combat is fun and solid, but gets repetitive. Level design is awe inspiring on occasion, but you get the feeling the game is a series of set maps, rather than a cohesive whole. The platforming is the strongest element of the gameplay as Monkey’s natural athleticism means you bound around the level with ease. Unfortunately, the repetitive animations end up jolting your sense of pleasure. In all these areas Enslaved does a good job, but it fails to innovate in any of them.
It is this slight lack of polish that makes Enslaved fall short of being a must buy. Ninja Theory has obviously learned a great deal from Heavenly Sword, but they have yet to mature to the standard of true AAA. In terms of voice acting and face capture technology they are at the forefront, but the likes of story telling and gameplay need to be improved to the high standard of their character development if they are to match Heavy Rain or Uncharted 2. If it were not for the harsh monetary climate of today I would encourage Ninja Theory to return to Sony exclusivity, as the Japanese giants are known to nurture the type of work that Ninja Theory is attempting, yet just failing, to achieve. Despite Enslaved falling short in a few areas the package as a whole is an excellent action platformer that any fan of Uncharted, Tomb Raider etc will enjoy immensely.