As Steven Moffat proved with his masterful updating of Sherlock Holmes last week, there are certain characters and stories that continue to engage regardless of how often they’re retold or adapted.
The story of Enslaved is based on Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century Chinese novel Journey To The West, a tale that has been retold multiple times in all kinds of media, including the oddball 1970s Japanese TV series Monkey and Damon Albarn’s stage musical Monkey: Journey To The West, which premiered three years ago.
Gamers with particularly long memories may dimly recall Capcom’s SonSon from 1984, which took the Chinese novel’s simian protagonist and made him the star of a side-scrolling platformer, complete with magical staff and flying cloud.
Developed by Ninja Theory, purveyors of 2007’s Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey To The West takes the 400-year-old premise into a distant, post-apocalyptic future, and recasts Monkey’s magic cloud as a glowing, surfboard-like conveyance, and his stick as a deadly weapon capable of firing the odd bolt of plasma.
Unusually, Enslaved‘s post-apocalyptic landscape isn’t one of dust clouds and crumbling concrete, but of ferns, trees and bracken. With the human population devastated, nature’s reclaimed the planet, and the game’s expansive green vistas are a visually striking, refreshing counterpoint to the headache grey futures we’ve been subjected to in countless other sci-fi games.
In terms of play mechanics, Enslaved is best described as a mixture of Ico and Uncharted, a third-person platform adventure that requires the player to cooperate with an AI partner who must be protected from harm, but at the same time acts as a decoy during combat sequences.
It’s the uneasy relationship between the surly, hulking Monkey and his diminutive charge, Trip, that forms the backbone of Enslaved‘s story.
Fitted with a headband that will shatter his skull should Trip come to harm, Monkey is at first an unwilling bodyguard and chaperone, forced against his will to aid his captor in her journey back home to the west. As the narrative wears on, however, the two begin to form an increasingly firm bond, their initially terse exchanges gradually mellowing to fond, lively banter.
From footage alone, it’s clear that Ninja Theory has invested considerable finance and creative energy in bringing Enslaved to life. Andy Serkis lends his distinctive abilities to the role of Monkey, and also acts as the game’s director, while its story was penned by 28 Days Later and The Beach writer Alex Garland.
While the game looks pretty in footage and sounds good on paper, it’s only when you get your hands on Enslaved that you begin to fully appreciate that its gameplay is more than a mash-up of currently popular genres. One only has to look at the debacle that was last year’s Dark Void to realise how easy it is for a game to amount to far less than the sum of its influences.
Enslaved is, in fact, a kind of tactical, cover-based fighting game, with shooting kept to a surprising minimum in the levels we played through. Enslaved‘s antagonists are clanking, mechanical beasts armed with rapid-firing lasers, and hopelessly outgunned, Monkey relies on his stealth and brute strength to survive, using cover to get close to his enemies between incoming blasts, before battering them to tin foil with his stick.
To protect Trip, meanwhile, Monkey can issue orders, telling her to wait in a specified spot until the coast is clear, or come running to his heel once he’s created a diversion. In our hands-on time, there were only two or three commands to choose from (selected from a circular menu, not unlike Mass Effect), but later levels will doubtless add more options as the game goes on.
When not under fire, Monkey must use his athleticism to traverse the devastated landscape, swinging acrobatically from poles and hauling himself up onto platforms in a manner that recalls the Prince Of Persia reboot from a couple of years ago. The style of Enslaved‘s animation is entirely its own, though, and Serkis has imbued Monkey with a genuine sense of weight and depth of character.
Trip is engagingly wrought, too, and while she lacks the minimal, ethereal elegance of Ico‘s Yorda, she’s no less vulnerable in high wire situations, and part of the game’s challenge involves finding ways to get her from point A to point B.
In one scene we played through, Monkey simply throws Trip on his back, leaving the player to guide them both through a deadly minefield. At all times, Enslaved skilfully balances broad, open play areas that provide plenty of scope for exploration with scripted sequences that recall Uncharted 2 in their ability to put the game’s hero in the most perilous situations, with rusting drainpipes and platforms choosing to break at the most inappropriate moments.
At all times, Enslaved‘s control system is both fluent and intuitive, slipping between flowing swings across platforms and outcroppings to balletic combat seamlessly.
In fact, it’s difficult to recall another game, other than Uncharted 2, that handles as well, or realises its natural environments with as much detail as Enslaved, and considering Xbox 360 owners were denied the opportunity of owning the latter, Enslaved is a real treat for the console.
Borrowing artfully from some of the best third-person games of the past decade, while at the same time including enough style and ideas of its own, Enslaved is shaping up to be an excellent blend of platform and combat genres, with a script and visual style that immediately engage.
If the rest of the game can match up to the flow and ambition of the sections we played – and the demo footage we’ve seen suggests that it does – then Enslaved could prove to be one of the year’s best console games, and Monkey one of the year’s most individual heroes.
Enslaved: Odyssey To The West will be released on 8 October for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.