Review: Enslaved: Oddysey to the West

When the word “odyssey” is part of a game’s title, there are certain things people expect. We expect a journey that will take us across a great distance, where we meet many strange, wonderful, or terrifying characters. We expect the hero, or heroes, to be challenged at every turn, where they start to question their own motivations and if they have the will to keep going. We expect a satisfying ending that will tie up most, if not all, of the themes and ideas running throughout the work.

 “Enslaved: Odyssey to the West,” then, is not an odyssey. It’s a journey from point A to point B, with a handful of promising, but unfulfilled, aspects in between. 

“Enslaved” is based on the Chinese classic “Journey to the West,” but it significantly diverges from the source material. It is set in a post-apocalyptic America where mechs left over from a global war still scourer the nation searching for human targets. A mysterious company called Pyramid hunts for humans as well for use as slaves.

Monkey, a large, overly muscled man, and Tripitaka, a slender and brilliant woman, are on the run from Pyramid after escaping one of the company’s slave ships. It crashed in a New York City overgrown with plants to the point that it is literally an urban jungle. Trip fits Monkey with a slave headband, which has the power to kill him if she dies, and asks him to escort her home. Of course, he complies.

“Enslaved” is composed of 14 chapters. Seven of them are dedicated to Monkey and Trip escaping New York. When half of a so-called odyssey happens in one location there is a serious pacing problem. It limits the game’s scope and the chapters themselves do not compensate.

In each chapter there is a specific goal: get to the ship, get over a bridge, get through a tunnel, beat a character in a climbing contest. These things are expected. After all, this is a video game and the player must have an immediate goal to pursue.

But “Enslaved” does not go beyond these immediate goals. It is always stressing the next step of the journey rather than the ultimate destination: Pyramid’s headquarters and the mystery surrounding the company. It is strangely limiting for a game that sells itself as a sweeping adventure.

There are times when it tries to get beyond the next fetch quest, but they fail to relieve that sense of limitation while highlighting some of the game’s story problems.

In a moment halfway through the game, Monkey and Trip are exploring an old mech factory, searching for a power source that will allow them to reach Pyramid. The characters move across a massive, possibly ten story tall, mech that was never finished. As they run across its gigantic arms a valley stretches out into the distance before it finally ends in a mountain range shrouded in mist. It is a striking moment reminding us that we are in an alien, destroyed world.

But it also reminds us that we have no idea why these mechs exist, who built them or why the world was ultimately destroyed. “Enslaved” takes place in a bizarre vacuum where past events are still driving the story, but we have no idea what happened.

There is a hint an in early level when Monkey jumps on a political ad. The word “liar” is spray painted across the politician’s face. It’s a very nice touch, but we are left wanting more of them.

Scattered across the levels are a series of floating masks and when Monkey picks one of them up the player is treated to a still image of a real life object, such as an airplane or intact piece of highway. Trip tells us that it must be a malfunction in the slave headband, but it never makes any sense to the player, or Monkey, what we’re seeing. In the very end it turns out that these memories belong to one man and Pyramid has dedicated itself to forcing people to wear the slave headbands and relive the man’s memories. Nothing leads up to this final act twist, so instead of an “ah-ha” moment we are left wondering “why?”

If their relationship were stronger, Monkey and Trip might be able to overcome all these problems. The lack of background or epic quality could be overlooked if the game was ultimately about their struggle and budding relationship, but that never happens.

Monkey protects Trip because he is forced to and she works with him for her own survival. This cooperation is one thing the game does very well. Trip’s powers are available on a power wheel that is easy to navigate and quick to access, which makes them very easy to use. She also stays out of the way during combat, thereby avoiding the worst aspects of escort missions.

There was one moment early in the game where we realize that Tip is actually a competent character and not just an upgrade machine for Monkey. The pair must get across a destroyed Brooklyn bridge while avoiding automated turrets. Trip fires up an old armored car and then completely loses control of it; forcing Monkey to run alongside it to avoid being shot to pieces. It was amusing to hear them yelling at each other and was a moment of genuine character development. We realize that they can work together and that neither of them is perfect.

But their relationship never pans out. When Monkey decides to stay with her even after he has taken her home, it does not feel like a momentous decision or the beginning of a real relationship. He simply says that he will stay and Trip accepts it. While understatement is always a good thing, the scene feels limp and the relationship plain.

Combat is enjoyable, but not enough strong or varied enough to save the game. Monkey has a fairly limited set of moves with his staff and fists, such as a punch, a stun move, a ground sweep and a shield. Upgrades, purchased with energy orbs found throughout levels, add a bit of variety but they do not add much to the overall game. For example, players can purchase a counter move, but it is difficult to time the attack and it becomes easier to simply beat a foe to death.

The strongest point of the entire game is the environments. Overgrown New York is lush and the colors are so oversaturated that they pop off the screen. A junkyard is suitably dingy, but still colorful with bright browns against a blue sky. The mech factory has that large vista and ruined floors. The world feels as though it were blown to smithereens in a war, and the bright colors really do set “Enslaved” apart from other post-apocalyptic games such as “Fallout” and “Rage” with their brown color schemes, even if they are in different categories.

Yet the problem with “Enslaved” is that it does not live up to its own promises. It fails to deliver a true odyssey, the characters have little development and it is difficult to say what kind of point the game is trying to make. When machines destroy the world and people are forced to relive a single man’s memories there is a sense the creators are trying to tell us something. But “Enslaved” ends with no resolution, perhaps the hook for a sequel that will never come.    

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