The ancient Chinese tale of Monkey has inspired many a project. Damon Allbarn and his Gorillaz associate Jamie Hewlett turned it into an opera. In the 1970s, a TV producer turned it into a genuinely bizarre (but much loved) TV show. And now, with the help of Alex “The Beach” Garland and Andy “Gollum” Serkis, Ninja Theory have given it a post-apocalyptic flourish – but of course – and turned it into a game.
And not just any game. It is, without doubt, one of the most astonishingly beautiful games I’ve ever played. This post-apocalyptic vision is not your common-or-garden greys, browns and general nuclear washout shades. This is a more accurate portrayal of post-apocalyptic life, with Mother Nature steaming back in and reclaiming urban life: in this case, the instantly recognisable architecture of New York – albeit a New York covered in grass, flowers and really quite impressive trees.
What’s also impressive from a gaming perspective is the portrayal of the characters. Thanks to stop-motion techniques – and that man Serkis in particular – and Garland’s imagination and screenplay, the main characters are beautifully realised, move convincingly and have fully rounded personalities and foibles.
Serkis plays Monkey, the character that you, the player, control. He’s a rough and rugged type, the sort of character who can climb walls, lift heavy things and, when necessary, fight. And it will be necessary - oh yes, it will be necessary – because whatever the event was that’s left the world covered in foliage and means survivors are getting traded as slaves and shipped off to the west by some mysterious group, has also left assorted “mechs” around the crumbling ruins of the Big Apple. And you, Monkey boy, are the one who’s going to clamber up walls, run along ledges and beat seven types of oil out of them all.
The fighting mechanics, while a bit button bashing, are decent. The graphics are impeccable. The production values would put James Cameron to shame. The story and script are clearly superior to so much of the game world. There’s just one problem: I just didn’t like Enslaved as much as I’m clearly expected to.
It’s not that it’s a bad game. Far from it. There’s a fluidity and variety here that will blow you away, with a few twists that give great originality. As Monkey, your mission is to protect Trip, a young girl who, thanks to her technology skills, has managed to escape from a transport ship carrying her to a life of slavery. You’ve also escaped the same ship, thanks to your brawn. Trip is smart and knows a good ally where she sees one, and she’s only going to survive the journey home with a decent bodyguard: you. That’s why, when you were unconscious after crash landing an escape pod in the opening level, she sorted you out with a headband that inexorably links your life to hers. If she dies, you die, which is a pretty good incentive for fighting off mechs when then appear. The headband will come off when you get Trip home.
The headband also enhances some of your abilities, when coupled with Trip’s techy skills, and means you can also call on her to assist in tough scenarios. She can, for example, provide and holographic decoy to draw fire while you find a way to flank the offending mech(s). She can also zap mechs with an electro-magnetic pulse that renders them useless for a few seconds to buy you extra time, or commandeer a dragonfly to zip ahead and broadcast back locations of mines and bad guys directly into your head. Mind you, she’s not terribly physical, so you’ll often have to throw her up to higher ledges or across big gaps. This teamwork element is a neat touch, bringing a new depth to puzzle solving, and putting you in a position where you can get the jump on certain mechs, identify their weakspots and sometimes utilise bits of their hardware for your own advantage.
It’s a shame then that the controls are so... well, I hate to use the word but it’s as apt as they come so here goes: meh. This is no Bayonetta, where the controller felt like a fluid, dextrous and natural extension of your hand. No Assassin's Creed, which gifted you the ability to scale whole cities with a single button and still remained challenging. There's nothing to write home about here, which is a shame, considering the game's emphasis on platforming. The best it can muster is a shrug.
Enslaved’s impressive cinematic values means that the camera whizzes around like you’re in an action movie. This is frequently annoying when trying to move across the environment (and often when you have very limited time before bullets start coming your way once more). I also struggled with the “jump” and “roll” functions being assigned to the same button. It’s annoying trying to leap over a wall and seeing Monkey instead do a forward roll at its foot at the best of times. When you only have a few seconds to save Trip (and thus your own life) from attacking mechs, the gymnastic confusion is the sort of thing that’s seen controllers hurled at walls in the past.
As for the combat, this has some variety – Monkey’s stick, for example, develops from basic head-bashing item to sophisticated, grenade-firing device while a mastery of takedowns will improve your chances – but is mostly of the button-pummelling type. Overall, it's a little jarring to see a game so beautifully rendered and realised, hampered by nondescript gameplay mechanics.
- The look - if you can remember that "wha-" moment when you saw the abandoned sub in Uncharted, stand by for an entire game's worth of those.
- The story - amazing what a difference a decent script makes
- The acting - as games develop this is going to become more important, and Serkis (as ever) shows the way
- Repetitive - while gameplay has some variety (chases, transport-handling and stealth all play a part), a lot of Enslaved will give a sense of deja vu
- The controls - "run, run, run, now jump and - no, you little bastard, don't forward roll, you're going to di- oh too late" is a line that will be heard in many houses in the coming weeks
- The camera - very slick, very cinematic but frequently bloody annoying
The Short Version: While pushing the envelope (and then some) in terms of graphics, I'm not convinced Enslaved is a game you'll go back to. Sure, it provides a reasonable challenge for a good number of hours (although many of the solutions are clearly telegraphed, with the ledges and pipes you need to climb, for example, clearly marked) and the story is well told, and to be fair, it grows on you considerably. It's just that the paradigm-shift we were led to believe was coming hasn't quite come off and, for all its polish, it's really just a very smart platformer. Maybe expectation was too high? It's still worth every one of its points below but when you're expecting a ten, anything less seems like a disappointment.