Enslaved review: A barrel of Monkey

Justin McElroy
J. McElroy|10.01.10

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Enslaved review: A barrel of Monkey
It's embarrassing, but true: Every single reviewer tries to think of what they're going to say while they're playing a game. For me, it's like a mental first draft, constantly evolving as I play. "EFF THIS CRAP IT'S TOO HARD" gets struck through when I figure out what I'm doing wrong, and hilarious jokes I come up with about the main character's haircut become more refined as I go along.

As I sat down to write my review for Enslaved though, I realized that my brain had been so captivated, so entranced by the adventures of the brutish loner Monkey, that my mental slate was entirely blank. And that's saying something, because he's got one really stupid haircut.

Have you read Enslaved's source material, the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West? No, you probably haven't. I know I haven't. If you had though, you'd be familiar with the story of Tripitaka, a monk on a mission to ... well, the classical Trip is trying to retrieve Buddhist scriptures for China, but ours just wants to get home. She's just freed herself from a slaver's ship alongside our protagonist, Monkey, who is forced to help her on the journey -- thanks to a slaver's headband she uses to control his every action.

She chose her guardian wisely. The acrobatic Monkey is well-suited to the post-apocalyptic U.S. that the duo traverses. A combination of overgrown jungle and abandoned machinery have left countless hand-holds for our hero, and helping him effortlessly scale them is a real treat, especially for fans of similar locomotion in Prince of Persia and Uncharted.

The thuggish wanderer can handle himself in a fight too, with a staff that makes him a threat at both close and long range, thanks to a plasma blaster at the tip. He is, however, just one guy, and frequently has to call out to the otherwise defenseless Trip for a decoy that draws fire, so he can advance on the enemy. Knowing when to employ which strategy adds a compelling layer of depth to the encounters with bands of vicious mechs that now roam the earth.

So, yes, there are some extremely well-conceived central mechanics and some thrilling interludes that I wouldn't dare spoil. But the real reason that Enslaved is so easy to recommend is the excellent writing by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) and performances by Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw.

The dialog (and there's not a ton of it, mind you) between the two leads and late arrival Pigsy is so fluid, funny and endearing that pretty much every other game on the market should be embarrassed. It is, simply, the best example of this oft-neglected facet of game design since Uncharted 2.

By the end of Trip and Monkey's odyssey, I actually wanted to keep spending time with them and was sad that I would miss out on whatever they would do next. I realized that I had spent the whole game so wrapped up in these people that I had neglected to consider what I would write about them. That's right: For 12 hours or so, Enslaved had turned me from professional game critic to fan fiction author/cosplayer, and I couldn't have been happier about it.

The acrobatic Monkey is well-suited to the post-apocalyptic U.S. that the duo has to traverse.

Sadly, Enslaved is kept from its full potential by distracting (though not deal-breaking) technical shortcomings. The frame rate will often slow to a chug, and there's a persistent, annoying graphical stuttering (for lack of a better term) that often kills the fluidity of the action.

While I'm nitpicking: The controls -- while perfectly graceful when you're performing gravity-defying leaps -- can feel kind of clunky when you're just trying to get from A to B. Far too often, I found myself with enemy weaponry bearing down as I frantically tried to get Monkey to climb up a ledge he refused to approach.

It's a review, so I have to let you know about stuff like this, but please don't let it keep you from picking up Enslaved. It is (barring those missteps) a joy from start to finish. This is a beacon, a fine reminder that if you have talented people and a little respect for your audience, great storytelling in games can be not only possible but profound.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West provided by Namco-Bandai.
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