It has been a derivative year for games. But it’s also been a great year for games. Old material doesn’t mean a bad game, and even when titles like Darksiders were dramatically close to plagiarism, they remain some of the most enjoyable entries this year. We’re seeing established franchises rehashed into new ideas, we’re seeing old ideas rehashed into established franchises and in case you haven’t caught on to the pattern, once in a while we’ll see old ideas rehashed into new franchises. Even in that tight relationship, there is some in-between, but it could be so semantically that even under a magnifying glass the details would be fuzzy. Ninja Theory’s Enslaved is an ‘adaptation’ of one of China’s earliest exports: fables. Specifically the Journey to the West, but I would argue that it’s a more accurate ‘adaptation’ of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia series. Even if it’s monkey see monkey do, does this monkey shine?
I remember being at an arcade, playing Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and pulling off SonSon’s special, the one where she turns into a giant ape and spews fire. The kid behind me commented, “Well, that’s a lot like Dragon Ball”, to which I responded that it’s more than a coincidence since both are based on the same thing. He was snarky and skeptical, and told me he thought I was wrong because “Dragon Ball is pretty old, man.” The story of Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, and his disciples has been retold many a time, from kung fu epics to crappy TV movies, and while Odyssey to the West may strip some visual cues, the transformation of ‘traveling to India collecting sacred texts’ to ‘traveling to Nevada to beat up robots’ is a questionable one. There are characters named Monkey, Tripitaka and yes, Pigsy, but I’m willing to bet it was an angle used to get our attention. In which case it worked. And I’m glad for it.
‘Odyssey’ isn’t ‘Journey’ but being more liberated from the confines of an adaptation, Enslaved still develops its own brand. You are Monkey, a scarred, jungle raised badass who has found himself captured by the mechanical race of slavers responsible for crappying up the planet. Everything’s going awful until Tripitaka, or Trip for short, uses her tech wiz to sabotage the slave vessel, crashing it and you into a ghostly New York City. You aren’t free yet because while out cold, Trip outfitted you with a ‘crown’, the same device used to force humans to work for the machines, modified to force you to help Trip get back home. It’s never explicitly explained to you how the world came to its knees, but the remains of NYC are littered with some well placed, if not at all subtle hints. The tale keeps itself very level headed, feels like a restrained Tank Girl at times. Characters, while not impervious to cliché, don’t fall victim to extreme archetypes, and what most other games would have taken as a cue for ‘protagonist be angry now’ instead pans out sort of sanely. Even in the post-apocalypse, nothing feels necessarily absurd, and having been penned by Sunshine and 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland it should not come to a surprise that what could have easily felt flat instead has some surprise amount of sophistication.
The world’s been cleaned out, and you get to traverse along what’s left of it. Plants and brush now dominate the Big Apple, with heavy chunks of debris found within. When you aren’t in derelict former utopias, you will explore environments that lean towards whimsical sci-fi and fantasy, acid junk swamps, cliff-hugging villas and secret weapon factories. And all of the above is very easy on the eyes. 2010 seems to be ending on the dawn of colourful games, and this may be one of the titles leading the charge. Foliage usurps what could have been the glooming remnants of humanity and instead makes you wonder if perhaps the planet sans population would be more aesthetically pleasing. The character animation is astonishing, flat out. Monkey moves with legitimate grace, constantly, and his scampering pseudo-parkour is worth great admiration. The facial animations and dramatic gesturing is constantly striking. When Monkey finishes off the last of an enemy with great chutzpah, the game slows down and zooms into his face blasting with rage, and it’s the sort of image that makes you want to toss him a beer through the screen. Like Garland giving the narrative chops, this should also come as no surprise, as not only the motion capture but game direction were handled by mo-cap wizard king (and monkey business vet) Andy Serkis.
So Ninja Theory has put a lot of A-list talent into the cosmetic qualities of Enslaved. The paint job shimmers and you should listen to ‘er purr, but what’s under the hood? The best way to describe Enslaved is that it plays like the easiest addition to the Prince of Persia series never made. Much like Prince of Persia, Enslaved is mostly made up of environment traversing, up walls and about obstacles, broken up with segments of combat and so few puzzle sequences you can count them all on a single hand. But unlike Prince of Persia, even the last more forgiving one, you will not find yourself dead due to a miscalculated leap or poorly decided wall run. In fact, you won’t even be given the opportunity to. Even though wall navigating is the bulk of the game, you are pretty much guided by the hand the entire way. You can only jump in the direction that there is something to jump to, and there is typically only two ways, the right way and backwards. While this would have logically put Enslaved at the bottom of the Persian hill, there is something to compensate. Prince of Persia, even ignoring time modifications, felt riddled with déjà-vu. We loved the initial thrill, but after a while running up a pillar jumping to a wall with swinging saw blades ready to shear you down somehow became tedious. Enslaved does a really great job of giving you consistently different playgrounds and obstacles to make your way across. It makes for perfect pacing; material is kept constantly fresh, and at the sacrifice of difficulty the lack of personal failures also means you are rarely forced down the same route twice. I also want to commend the level design, because it goes beyond structural design and into human design. Getting lost isn’t impossible but where to go next is always seems obvious from the points you are coming from. If there’s a main area with a handful of tasks to be done, the road to the next step ends up right in front of your face after completing the last, inflicting a ‘how did I not notice that’ feeling.
This just leaves the combat, which is neither unremarkable nor extraordinary. Monkey has a few basic abilities, each with some upgradable variety. He has a fast attack, which can be held down and charged for a stun attack, and a heavy attack, which compliments well with the former for great combos and spacing moves. Oh, and his staff also fires like a cannon, shooting bullets of the ‘hurt’ and ‘stun’ variety. Where Enslaved decides to be less boring than Prince of Persia’s combat is not from what Monkey does but what those around him do. There are about a dozen enemy types, each hate you equally but can be exploited in different ways. For example, some have guns and can shoot you, some shoot bolts of electricity and some will explode when provoked, but if you can bash their metal faces enough Monkey will be able to turn their offenses into the woes of their comrades, taking their guns, having them emit an EMP or just lopping their explosive corpse. Trip doesn’t do much but one of the few things she does comes in handy quite frequently. She can emit a decoy which distracts everyone for a certain amount of time, letting you get into either a better position or some sucker punches in, while the guilt of having her become the center of attention may or may not get to you.
Enslaved is a front runner for most overlooked title of the year. Even if we don’t talk about it now, we will be in years to come. It’s very short with few extras, it’s actually a worse adaptation of Journey to the West than Dragon Ball, but what it does do it does very well. The graphics are spectacular, the controls are tight, pacing is fresh, animation is stunning and voice acting is top notch. If you’re a veteran PoP fan who’s been frustrated by the series’ perpetual underwhelmth , Enslaved isn’t something you should let scamper by.