Thursday, June 20, 2013

Enslaved: An Odyssey Worth Taking

Ninja Theory’s futuristic, action adventure tale Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is the annoying kind of game that’s neither really good nor really bad, occupying that cursed realm of entertaining mediocrity that lends itself to drab and boring blog reviews.  On the one hand it offers decent graphics and a relatively interesting story, making it a fine product to watch, but on the other hand it’s handicapped by limited and repetitive mechanics, failing its burden to present an especially refined gaming experience.

Enslaved is supposed to be a science-fiction, post-apocalyptic retelling of an old Chinese folk tale, but I also noticed prominent echoes of the original Shrek throughout the game’s story.  150 years in the future, the earth has been ravaged by warfare and civilization been decimated at the hands of slave-drivers and vicious combat mechs.  The player controls Monkey, a drifting lone wolf who escapes a slave ship with a strange girl before it crashes headlong into the ruins of New York City.  Dazed by the hard landing, he awakens to find that the girl has strapped one of the slavers’ bands to his forehead.  The headband is an advanced piece of technology that subordinates Monkey’s will to that of the equipment’s programmer, Trip, who needs his guidance and protection to return to her self-sustaining community of “wind farmers” in the west (yeah, it has some veiled greenie undertones).  If Monkey tries to flee his captor or allows her to perish, the headband will administer a lethal shot to his cerebrum; he is, in effect, enslaved to her wishes.  “It seems I don’t have a choice,” he mutters, to which she remorsefully answers, “Neither of us do.”  Thus our acrobatic, ruthlessly violent Delivery Boy and his technologically savvy Princess embark on a dangerous journey across an America overrun by machines and consumed by nature.  Eventually they’ll join paths with a boorish but loyal cohort named Donkey – eh, Pigsy – whose machinery can aid them in their noble quest.

Enslaved’s writer, Alex Garland of 28 Days Later fame or lack thereof, finely manages the dynamic between the game’s central characters, which evolves from open hostility to mutual reliance and ultimate compassion for each other.  The character development stands out among other video games for its depth.  Monkey lives by a philosophy of grizzled and cynical realism that’s countered by the optimism and youthful hope of Trip.  The journey they share forces both protagonists to reevaluate their views.  Monkey’s encounter with Trip initially confirms his bleak worldview and hatred of mankind, but as their animosity turns to friendship he realizes that his former, universal pessimism was misplaced.  On the other side, as death and tragedy confront the two on their Odyssey, Trip discovers that her quasi-communist upbringing was a bitter fraud, a mask that sheltered her from the darkness of the real world.  The relationship between liberty and servitude is also explored through the story.  In the past, Monkey has led a life free from bondage but devoid of meaning, an existence that serves no purpose higher than his own survival against the elements.  When circumstance acquaints him with another person and mandates that he hazard his own interests for hers, Monkey comes to realize that his former, self-centered lifestyle was less noble than one given in service to another man, and that freedom is a mere vanity unless the individual employs it to a cause greater than himself.  Trip also misapprehends the principle of voluntary servitude when she forcefully enslaves her fellow man to escort her home, making a pragmatic decision upholding her selfish desires instead of a moral one respecting the liberty of others.  Neither traveler is likeable at first, but the player grows to care about them as they mature in wisdom and moral character, forming a committed fellowship and overcoming their original strife.

The most controversial part about Enslaved’s story is undoubtedly the ending, which seems at once thought-provoking, incomplete, and rather out of place.  Without spoiling everything, it calls into question the conflict between blissful ignorance and painful knowledge: ought one to take the blue pill and believe a beautiful lie or take the red pill and have a horrible truth weigh on his mind?  The concluding cinematic is certainly Matrixy in concept and imagery, but this philosophical topic is only introduced in the final 10 minutes, so it feels tacked-on and inconsistent with the story’s overall thematic direction.  The effect is that the ending steals the narrative spotlight from the two protagonists who have so far dominated it to focus on a lofty train of thought that lacks the sufficient buildup to be truly provocative, leaving players with an ambiguous resolution to the fates of Monkey and Trip.  Whether or not this will bug you depends on if you tolerate stories that are open to interpretation or demand a clear explanation of every conflict’s outcome.

As far as post-apocalyptic stories come, Enslaved is a remarkably vibrant and pretty vision of the future.  In contrast with Fallout- or Book of Eli-type stories that depict gray, lifeless plateaus devastated by human weaponry, the art designers at Ninja Theory imagine an earth where the absence of man has allowed plant life to overgrow and infest whole skyscrapers.  Textures do pop in and out regularly as the player traverses the game environment, yet it’s always tempting to stop moving and marvel at the beauty of the world presented in Enslaved.  The game’s characters were mostly created with motion-capture acting, and the animation looks fantastic save for some occasional facial glitches and lip-sync errors.  Andy Serkis is fine as Monkey and someone else I can’t disclose, although he’s honestly much superior in his more physical roles (Gollum, Kong, Caesar the chimp), and his co-star Lindsey Shaw is passable as Trip, despite her tendency to play the screaming, whiny damsel from some Indiana Jones flick.  The cutscenes and cinematic ‘finishing moves’ are what most impressed me about this game; directed in part by Serkis himself, the movie sequences of Enslaved have masterful cinematography and storyboarding.  The camera pulls back during action sequences, honing the full gravity of Monkey’s athletic, death-defying maneuvers or the sheer brutality of his oil-spraying violence against the machines, but zooms in during more emotional parts, allowing the actors to control the scene.  Enslaved is one of the more cinematic games I’ve ever played besides both Portals and Bungie’s later Halo installments.  If only it functioned better as a video game.

A strikingly vivid and gorgeous adventure, Enslaved is nevertheless weighed down by limited, monotonous gameplay.  Monkey has a total of about 16 attacks he can level against enemies, a paltry sum compared to the dozens of melee moves players can execute in either of the Batman Arkham games or practically any of the Star Wars lightsaber-focused titles.  The controls don’t always work properly, causing the player to somersault when he would jump or stop short when he would drop to a lower platform, although I did appreciate the usual inability to die by falling in Enslaved; the game has a lot of running and jumping in it, yet players need never dread an annoying plunge to their doom because they missed the mark by a fraction of a centimeter, an issue that plagues many other so-called ‘platformers’.  The computer-controlled enemies in Enslaved are nauseatingly stupid and never pose much of a challenge, often standing by and watching as Monkey pummels another member of their mech unit.  If you favor games that make you feel like a semi-invincible, unstoppable warrior, then you’ll probably enjoy this profusely.  If, however, you prefer to face A.I. opponents whose proficiency in battle rivals your own, then you’ll probably dislike the game’s combat.

Enslaved has the appearance and narrative length of a 2-hour movie, but inevitably loses steam as a 10-hour video game.  Still, for $10-15 it’s a bargain that’s mostly fun to play, fair to the eyes, and tells a decent story with a good dose of humor.  “I said this game is more incredible than my wildest dreams!”  “That’s not what you said.”

Final rating: 7/10

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