First Impressions: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

The concept of Ninja Theory's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West has been turning heads ever since it was announced: it's an action-adventure game based on an old Chinese folktale. The tale tells of a monkey and a sage tasked with finding wisdom in the course of their journey. The game updates that story to a woman and a brute, Trip and Monkey, wandering a post-apocalyptic New York. The twist: the player-controlled Monkey is under the influence of a slaver's headband, re-appropriated by the clever Trip.

While Enslaved's platforming and action definitely seem serviceable, the game's real depth comes from its characters and story. Not only is its world full of beauty and spectacle, but there's a solid literary foundation underneath.

The first level I saw showed off Enslaved's platforming action -- it's very reminiscent of Prince of Persia or even Uncharted. Monkey's jumps are all context sensitive, with a lot of quick camera cuts and flowing, stylized movements. The demo begins when Monkey leaves Trip on her own for the first time in the game and climbs a building, trying to figure out how to bridge a gap the two need to cross.

The game's world is impressively rendered -- while most post-apocalyptic environments in games are barren and brown, this is one where nature has had a little bit of time to grow back; in among the ruined gray buildings of New York is the bright green of growing plants and vegetation. Everything crumbles at Monkey's touch, and so most of the game's platforming is just moving at a quick pace, grabbing "clamberable" (as the developer told us) surfaces as quickly as they fall away.

Monkey soon encountered some mechanical creatures, the game's enemies, and entered combat. He carries a staff used for both melee action as well as a charged ranged attack that stuns. After a series of heavy and light attacks, Monkey took down the crowd of attacking robots, and then climbed on up.

At the top of the building, he found a crane and was able to lower it to create a bridge for Trip to move across. But all of the action attracted a "Dog," a huge four-legged robot that went straight after Trip. With Trip in danger, Monkey rushed back down the building to try and save his friend/captor before the dog got her.

His need to protect Trip isn't just cooked up by a cutscene -- the idea is that Trip controls Monkey with a headband that also connects their lives. If Trip dies, so does Monkey, and vice versa. But the connection can help, too -- Trip can heal and upgrade Monkey, and the two can use certain items and abilities in coordination with each other to stun or confuse enemies. The player controls Monkey, whose job is to save Trip, and in return, Trip will help both Monkey and the player.

That relationship is what makes Enslaved stand out already -- at almost every point in the game (from the platforming elements to the progression systems), the tie between these two characters is strengthened and enforced. And while it'll take more than a few minutes of a demo, we definitely got the sense that these are two strong, iconic characters leading this game, and that the designed at every step to solidify and add meaning to their relationship.

Monkey eventually made his way back to Trip, and after a quick chase scene that had him carrying her on his back, ended up in an old theater with sunlight streaming in on ruined seats and balconies. A little bit of exploration found a few robots on standby, and a little strategy for Monkey: Trip can use technology to create HUD elements for her partner, and while it became clear that moving too close to the robots would wake them up (leading to an overwhelming fight), a little poking around showed that there was a weakness to exploit -- if Monkey targeted a certain one of the robots first, as shown to him by Trip's HUD elements, he'd be able to take them down much faster.

He did so without much problem, and just as the camera turned around to reveal the theater's stage (and what certainly seemed to end with a boss battle with the dog), the demo ended.

Not, fortunately, before we figured out one more tidbit: The theater last played host to a production of Romeo and Juliet, and the actual chapter in the game was called "Wherefore Art Thou." That kind of literary background (not to mention the obvious reference to two characters from different worlds finding their way together) has us really excited to see more of Enslaved. We're told that we'll get to do exactly that at E3, so stay tuned.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.