There are five distinct mission types in most modern shooters: walking about the place straight-up murderin’ stuff, sitting’ on an AI-piloted vehicle while straight-up murderin’ stuff, piloting said vehicle yourself while straight-up murderin’ stuff, solving puzzles (can one straight-up murder a puzzle?), and finally, escorting an AI character from point A to point B while… well, you know.
For good reason, the latter is generally the most feared and reviled task of the five as the AI invariably thinks its job as escortee requires some combination of hiding from you, absorbing lethal doses of bullets and getting stuck on bits of scenery instead of fleeing when required. Were the tale about lemmings being suicidal actually true, these levels would be akin to babysitting the Joy Division fans of the lemming universe.
However, none of this dissuaded those nutters at Ninja Theory from constructing an entire game around the ‘keep this thing you have very little control over alive’ concept, but it works because the experience is closer to having a patient, game-savvy mate on the couch next to you controlling the AI, and on top of that you don’t even have to share your nachos.
Proving that video game makers need to think harder about protagonist’s names, you play Monkey, because you are super dexterous and awesome at climbing (despite resembling a 150kg bodybuilder). Personally I would have called him Beefy McPointyhead due to his ridiculous haircut, but Enslaved is based on a classic Chinese novel called Journey to the West, and as Shakespeare knows, you can’t mess with the classics. [An aside: the novel was also the inspiration for the great late-70s show Monkey, which also featured a staff-wielding monkey as protagonist.]
Monkey is your typical douchebag action hero – gruff and grizzled with a bass woofer for a voice box and a cut-the-crap attitude, but (shock! horror!) he might actually have a heart of gold, or at least chocolate. The game begins with Monkey imprisoned on a spaceship, but when another passenger’s attempt at escape gives him a chance at freedom, he grabs it with both hairy-knuckled hands.
That other passenger is Trip, a smokin’-hot female computer nerd (obviously, some suspension of disbelief is required) who, following your mutual escape, slaps a hi-tech slave headband on you, binding your destinies; if she dies, you die. She wants to get back home, and hopes you are going to get her there, helping her navigate post-apocalypse New York, a city littered with hostile mechs and conveniently-placed handholds.
Though it may seem your only option is to kill Trip (and thus yourself) out of spite for making you wear something as effeminate as a headband, it does divert some attention away from your hair and allow you to detect enemies from afar, so don’t be too rash.
Trip isn't the only attractive thing in Enslaved - everything looks good. The city you navigate is slowly being reclaimed by nature, and the mix of crumbling concrete, twisted, rusting iron and vibrant greenery is unique and often breathtaking. Enemy mechs also look great, are animated well, and are torn apart in spectacular fashion by Monkey. Cutscenes are also of a high standard; the voice acting is decent and the facial animations are great - nothing looks fake or is too over-the-top.
Similarly, the sound design is sweet; failing structures creak and crumble as the wind whooshes through trees before a mech shrieks and its servos crackle to life with an electronic buzz. Even the score also deserves mention here: it slithers from understated to tense to epic, but never intrudes. Sudden shifts in volume and urgency are the easiest way to scare an audience or change a gamer’s state from relaxed to panicked, but such cheap tactics are rare here. Instead, the graphical clout does a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard, and the score plays a supporting yet no less vital role.
Unfortunately, the game is less masterful in other areas, notably gameplay. Monkey responds as if you are yelling commands at him across a windy ravine – at best he is slow to react, at worst he gets confused and simply does nothing. Obviously this affects combat timing, and although an adjustment can be made to compensate on the part of the player, it means you won’t try and sneak that quick hit in before blocking another onslaught of blows from your adversaries.
Monkey is also one of these guys who struggles to turn around on the spot and, like a yacht, must make a small semi-circle instead, which is not a great trait when you are tip-toeing through a minefield or when a lot of the game involves standing on the edge of cliffs. Except that – interestingly for what is largely a platform game - cliffs don’t pose a problem because they are impossible to topple over. Should you try to make a leap that you cannot land safely, Monkey simply refuses to try. Combine that with all possible handholds being highlighted for you, and swinging through the game environs becomes easy and looks spectacular yet is ultimately unsatisfying. This also means that should you be unsure of where to jump to next, a mashing of the jump button and a slow sweeping arc made with the analog stick will usually see you right.
Enslaved also has a repetition problem, of both enemies and scenarios. The cycle: you encounter an obstacle such as a turret or seemingly impassable object, a cutscene gives you a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area highlighting enemies as well as items of interest that may help you get past, you platform and punch your way to victory, and then the next puzzle is presented. Even intriguing level designs don’t stop the feeling that you are essentially performing the same task over and over.
Things only really deviate from this recipe during the admittedly cool boss fights, or when Monkey whips out his cloud – a fun wee hover board that is only available during certain sections of the game, for reasons that aren’t really ever explained.
Combat is initially fun but quickly follows a similar routine: block the mech’s first running attack, use your staff’s powerful strike to break its shield and stun it, then mash the heavy attack button until it resembles a newly-opened bucket of LEGO. Alternatively, shoot a freeze or plasma ray at it so it doesn’t get so close that it can mock your tiara. You can pump up both your ranged and melee attack damage as well as your health and shield strength via tech orbs which are found damn near everywhere you look, but the number of moves available to unlock reminds one of Streets of Rage rather than God of War. This feeling of repetition is compounded by overly-long levels and the mere handful of different enemies you encounter.
A big deal has been made about the writing in this game – The Beach author Alex Garland co-wrote the script – but while the narrative is enjoyable, the dialogue is just as preposterous as 95 percent of videogames out there, particularly when the comic relief character shows up (who is fat, of course).
Speaking of celebrities, it’s worth noting that Andy Serkis lends his King Kong-honed ape-aping skills to Enslaved too – he was motion-captured for the role of Monkey and, in a world first for a monkey, also co-directed the cutscenes. His work gives the game much of its charm, but even Gollum himself can’t push this 12-hour puzzle-shooting-platformer adventure past ‘above average’ and into ‘great’.
Hopefully a sequel that expands on what is available here will do just that.