I hadn't heard of Enslaved at all, until just before the release of its demo. I think it was a week or two prior to that, maybe even with the announcement of the demo, that I started to look into it. And the more I looked, the more intrigued I became.
If you're anywhere around my age (and I'll be hitting 40 later this year), you'll have watched the well-remembered TV show, Monkey. And that was probably your first exposure to what is regarded as a classic Chinese story, called Journey to the West. It centres around three main characters: Monkey, Tripitaka and Pigsy. And here's where the point emerges: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a futuristic re-telling of that classic tale.
Not quite a romantic walk in the park.
Enslaved kicks off in startling fashion. The first level serves as both a tutorial and an introduction to the two main characters, Monkey and Trip, both of whom you will play through the game, although mostly you'll be Monkey. You're on some kind of flying craft, possibly a spacecraft, that is on fire, breaking up and heading for a crash on a dystopian futureworld. Monkey appears to be a prisoner, but manages to escape from his prison pod, whereupon he sees Trip (a young woman in this iteration of the tale) making a desperate bid to escape. Naturally, Monkey wants in...
Awww... look at her. You'd want to look after her, too...
That first level is a thrilling race against time, with you desperately scrabbling to get to the relative safety of the escape pod before either it launches or the giant craft crashes. Of course, with it being a video game, you can just restart if you fail. But there's a really frantic feel to proceedings as you throw yourself onwards, making terrifying last-ditch jumps and grabbing for tiny handholds.
Hey! You! Get off of my cloud!
Now, that all sounds far more exciting than the actual gameplay... in truth, you can't actually fail jumps or miss handholds. You can be too slow in performing them, at which point you fail, but you can't miss them. I know that a lot of people complained about this "hand-holding", preferring instead to have the platforming left entirely to their own skills. I came to love this method, as it allowed you to play the game and still concentrate on the surroundings (which are gorgeous), and the characters and story (which are excellent).
Monkey, you're a fine figure of a man... just like me.
As I've said, the story is cribbed from an old classic, as are the characters. But just taking those characters and plonking them into a videogame is not a guarantee of success. It still takes a lot of skill to work them into something you actually believe in. Fortunately, an amazing job was done with all aspects of the characterisation. The protagonists' expressions are wonderfully evocative and their lines are delivered superbly, as you would expect of the top-notch actors that were hired for the parts (the casting of Pigsy, in particular, is incredibly inspired and I burst out laughing when I realised who it was). You believe in these people, and it's fair to say I felt a genuine emotional involvement in the development of their plight.
Surfing with the alien. Oh, OK... I'll stop now.
It's a pretty lengthy game, although the relative ease of many aspects of the gameplay should see seasoned veterans ploughing through it in fairly short order. But I think that would be missing the point. This is a game you want to absorb... it's all very well comboing a load of mechs into oblivion, but if you don't take the time to see why you're doing it or where the story is going, I can't imagine it would be half as satisfying.
I've got your back...
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a superb piece of entertainment, which successfully places a good story into a good video game, and with the enhancements of superb production values and acting and the most believable character faces I've ever seen, the whole thing meshes into more than the sum of its parts. Even though the actual gameplay is quite simple, it's the combination of the elements that make this something special, and I hope that Enslaved becomes an important stepping stone in the evolution of story-driven video games.