Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (2013)

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The little camera at Trip’s ear is actually a dragonfly – one of many nifty gadgets that she employs throughout the game.

 

Like many naïve freshman excitedly attending our first psychology lecture, I firmly believed that I would become the new Freud, albeit with a lesser obsession with sex. Yes, I thought, I was seriously into stuff like Silence of the Lambs, Law and Order: SVU and Sherlock Holmes-type-of-deals so I should have a significant head start into the complexities of the insane than all these other airheads around me. Also, I had devoured every crime fiction paperback in the house, and I had the 95% sincere aspiration to, you know, help people who are, like, depressed and stuff. You can therefore imagine my disappointment when our  sour-looking professor, complete with chequered bowtie, bottlecap spectacles and donning a haircut that could only be described as Einstein vs. weed hacker, squinted at us and announced that criminal psychology and diagnostic psychoanalysis would only be covered at postgraduate level. This would most probably be at masters level which means that you can only begin to dabble in this highly interesting field about five years down the line IF you make it into grad school.

For a freshman who just left escaped high school, that feels a lifetime away. It is much like attending your first karate lesson and discovering that it will be ages before you start kicking through blocks of ice or doing push-ups with a bearded, martial arts master sitting on your back with a smirk. Instead, you get some ponytailed, slightly pervy guy with a tattoo addiction asking you punch the air while being careful not to ‘hurt’ each other. Yet ever the obstinate optimist, I thought, hey, maybe we get to learn some other cool stuff in Psych 101 about schizophrenia, mental asylums and how dreams work at least! Wrong again. Our first half of the year we mainly focused on how babies and children develop psychologically. While I am sure this is arguably a fundamental field, it doesn’t escape the fact that it was boooooo-riiiiiiing!!!! There are only so many times that you can bear to hear “watching too much TV and having Iron Maiden playing in the background while breast-feeding will surely lead to either the stripper pole, crack pipe or both.”

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Yes… I can see it… IT’S AN ABANDONED STEROID FACTORY!!!

It may not shock you to learn then that I ended up dropping Psychology with haste. Yet what did stick with me from endless papers on Ericson’s 18 developmental stages (or something) and the effects of stress on erectile dysfunction was this: the mind is just as powerful as the body, and they are inseparably connected. We tend to think that our eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin are constantly feeding us externally acquired sensory information and our mind processes this in the same way a CPU processes data fetched from a hard drive right? In actual fact, we see THROUGH our mind, we feel THROUGH our mind, we taste THROUGH our mind, etc. Sensory perception is not possible if there is no mind and this is why pizza might taste less delicious on the day you get dumped: your taste buds are in mourning my friend.

It is for this reason that when I say the word ‘Apocalypse’ you tend to imagine a barren wasteland with decrepit skyscrapers, weed-ridden houses and fleshy zombies stumbling around. My point is just that our minds have a profound influence on the way sensory information is processed, but at a level of such subtlety that we do not always know when it happens. We therefore come to expect certain things because our minds highlight certain patterns for us in what we taste or touch and when that pattern is broken or reversed, we are all “Whoa did you see that!?”

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West in many ways represented one of those moments where things ought to have fit in a particular pattern, but somehow play a mind game with the player. On the one hand, we had a typical Ninja Theory game in which the formula made from excellent character representation, vivid action sequences and evocative story telling was once again the key areas of focus in their game. Up till this day you can still look at any bit of work from this lovely band of Brits and notice that these common denominators appeared every time throughout the handful of IP’s that they have lovingly produced. On the other hand, we had an IP that took on a few tried and trusted tropes and gameplay elements and turned them on their head. We clearly have an apocalypse that is taking place, yet what was with the unmistakably colourful artistic style, absence of Zombies and surprisingly spritely character dialogue?

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Must not fart… must not fart…must not… o man…

So here’s the skinny. You played as Monkey, a staffslinger built like a brick s*** house who was enslaved by sexy, red-haired tech junkie, Tripitaka. After fleeing from a crashing slave ship together, Monkey was wrapped around Trip’s pinkie by means of a deadly headband which will end in death-by-migraine if he as much as thought of throwing poop at her. In so doing Trip cunningly found herself with some serious muscle to chaperon her to her home village through the remains of what appears to be New York, and, naturally, the two came to find something beyond friendship in each other.

However the journey home is not a simple trip down route 62 with a few stops for coffee at the service stations. An undisclosed cataclysmic event has decimated the earth forcing the last remaining societies to flee the cities and live in fortified settlements. The duo must consequently scale dizzying heights and hike over hostile terrain guarded by sinister robotic entities called mechs. Monkey’s back story is never explicitly revealed to the player, but he embodied the thin-skinned lone wolf persona well enough that we could easily fill in the gaps. Trip on the other hand was the conscious nucleus of the game, and it was in actual fact through her experience of the dystopian remains of human civilisation that Monkey’s character arc took shape. This is clear in a particularly evocative scene where the player can glimpse the emergence of Monkey’s more humanly side.  Trip helps him to appreciate the miracle of a few goldfish who managed to survive the cataclysm in a closed ecosystem that formed in their tank. Our hero and heroine are later joined by the porcine gearhead Pigsy, a friend who helps Monkey and Trip on their quest to get closer to understanding the cause behind earth’s decimation. I cannot go into too much detail on how Pigsy came into the story without some major spoilers, and seeing as storytelling has always been a core strength of Ninja Theory, I’d rather you experience this one for yourself.

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Now I know that this IP does not make a concerted effort in trying to retell the story it was named after, but I find it confusing that so many critics nailed the game for taking certain liberties with Wu Cheng’en’s classic 16th century story. It is named Odyssey to the West. Not Journey to the West. Why on earth did people get the idea that this was supposed to emulate the book by every measure? Remember Me was not a love story, Watchdogs does not contain superheroes and American McGee certainly received no such flak for his dark and macabre renditions of games based on Alice in Wonderland.

After that being said, there were a few plot holes here and there. I could not, for instance, actually connect the dots between the slavers and the mechs. And who is enslaving the humans anyway? The mechs or the slavers (which, coincidentally, appear kinda human themselves)? What started the war that caused the earth to be in the decrepit and crumbling state that it finds itself in? And while I will not spoil it here, WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED IN THE END!?!? The game sometimes blurred the line too much between open-ended plot ends and letting the player work out the rest which resulted in quite a few unanswered questions in the overall story.

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Never mind. These are but a few grievances that could be overlooked in the broader scheme of what the game was willing to offer. Especially considering that the player is treated to a performance by who is unquestionably the godfather of motion capture, Andy Serkis. Serkis, who interestingly has Iraqi ancestry and for the umpteenth time plays an ape-themed character, upheld his reputation in Enslaved as the most versatile actor that I can think of. His uncanny ability for bringing a bunch of dead pixels to life really has the potential to make us understand how relating to a character can be far more valuable than painstakingly rendered, but ultimately soulless, character models. Considering that we had a development studio who specialises in character representation through motion capture acting, I often find myself wondering why Serkis doesn’t own the frikkin’ company already!

Andy himself remarked in an interview that a game with only two central characters over more than ten chapters is a monumental task considering that the player could easily have tired of their constant on-screen presence. A studio such as Ninja Theory remains one of the few that could have pulled this off given their unique ability for animating (as in bringing to life) the leading lads and ladies in their games and thereby making them so damn interesting. Say what you want about DMC: Devil May Cry, Dante has never looked more naturally alive to me. Team ICO is the other team that springs to mind here. Moreover, the recently released developmental diaries of Ninja Theory’s latest creation, Hellblade, reminded me of the fact that this is a studio that takes the realism of its characters very seriously indeed. Kudos to you guys, cause the overall effect is rather brilliant.

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And what would a game with painstakingly detailed facial expressions and character animation be without a rock-solid engine to pull it off? Cue Unreal 3. I sniggered a few times at the funny little semblances between Gears of War and the familiar over-the-shoulder view with how Monkey holds a rail gun or fires his staff. Still, the use of the Unreal Engine had yet again procured a game that was astonishingly beautiful. Monkey and Trip traversed expansive, colourful and lush environments which despite standing in direct contradiction to the game’s actual setting, still managed to impart a somber and serious undertone. The duo walked past crumbling skyscrapers which were covered with red flowers the one moment before Monkey surfed the swell on his ‘Cloud’ under a bright blue sky the next. (Did I get the surf lingo right?)

Even the mechs were rendered in an almost simplistic and juvenile personification, yet they still managed to be intimidating and grotesque thereby making every encounter with them quite exciting. Disappointingly, the graphics settings suffered terribly from the dreaded ‘consolitis’ in its PC rendition, but our internet has yielded some clever .ini tweakers amidst the onslaught of retch-inducing Adele music videos and speeches by Adolf Hitler. Yes I just used them in the same sentence.

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I’m telling you I have no idea what you are talking about! I have never stolen from the government!!

Another interesting aspect of this game was the gameplay itself. The combat was certainly complicated and intensive enough to have kept the skill freaks happy (complete with upgradable skill tree). Monkey whacked the Mechs right in the RAM modules with such style and flair that Darth Maul would have been proud, and the close up cut scenes of his scrounged-up face as he literally chopped the poor robots in half was immensely gratifying.

However, the actual platforming was something else entirely and this is where things again get weird. It was- wait for it- easy. “What!?” you may rage, “A game built around the mechanic of platforming that takes away the challenge? Preposterous! Now take away your triple A nonsense and leave me and my Super Meat Boy in peace you fool!” True, one of the biggest gripes that players and critics alike had with the actual gameplay side of Enslaved was the fact that it was very difficult to screw up a jump or miss a pole to swing from. Whenever you reached the edge of a platform from which a fall or jump would potentially result in Monkey’s internal organs seeping from his ear-holes, he sort of stumbles to a halt. Alternatively, as long as you pressed the jump key at some point before you reached the end of the pole/ledge/jutting piece of metal, Monkey would reach the destination with such perfection that you would think you are most adept platformer in the universe. I can imagine that a game in which you could simultaneously take a gulp of coffee with your one hand and at the same time make Monkey jump effortlessly over a giant robot is bound to leave some players with a feeling of repetition and boredom.

Yet this was not the case for me. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I played this game after doing a completionist run in Tomb Raider: Anniversay or tried to do a few side quests in Badland. Either way, I took great comfort in the fact that I could experience a game in which I could focus on the game’s story and character representation as opposed to fleeing to Reddit and Steam FAQ’s to find out how to make it to that damn ledge that requires that extra millisecond of reaction time.

I ended up liking the smooth flow of Monkey’s movements and the sense of surprising agility that came with controlling him. This kind of flow in terrain traversal comes close to the experience of Prince of Persia games and every time I imagined one of these games being remade with the Unreal Engine I got a such a spellbound, glazed look in my eyes that some people thought I forgot to take my attention deficit meds. Even the upgrade currency, or ‘tech orbs’ are in such an abundance throughout the game that it would actually be hard to complete this title without a fully upgraded Monkey. Besides, any time I felt even the slightest craving for more challenge, I played Styx: Master of Shadows for a bit and it was not long before I ran crying back to Monkey and Trip for consolation.

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I had a dream once. I had an obsession with this golden wring with weird markings on it. Kept calling it this name… ‘my… something’….

So in closing, I was thrilled when I heard this console exclusive was finally going to get a PC makeover. Ninja Theory publishing a modern PC release!? I had to see it for myself.  I definitely would not recommend this game for everybody. In fact, Enslaved occupies that gorgeous cult niche for gamers who desperately want to take a break from pumping exo zombies full of lead or abuse from a parentally deprived eleven-year-old noob. But for the rest of us, Ninja Theory has taken what could have turned into a drearily protracted escort mission (*nudge-nudge* Amy), and have instead produced for us characters that you will really come to care about. Their perilous journey and meaningful dialogues about the feebleness of modern society really pulled the player into their lived reality, and the evolving bond of trust and care between two flawed but relatable characters was heart-warming to behold.

I also loved the extra game that came with the Steam download called Pigsy’s Perfect 10 which is meant to give the player a comedic digression into the daily adventure that has become Pigsy’s life out in the wastelands. It plays like a genuine effort to fill in the blanks around his character rather than a tacked-on bit of fluff to add some cheap longevity to an IP. I am sure Feminist Frequency would have a field day with the idea of having a game in which the only playable character in the game is a beefy male who has to act as a guardian of a somewhat scantily dressed female NPC (and to add insult to injury, you can make her move through his command). Yet, focusing on this flaw would only serve to blind the player to the fact that developers chose characters that would make you forget that you are not actually looking at real people, but a bunch of polygons that are no more alive than the CD they have been burned on.

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