Format: Xbox 360 (Version tested), PS3
Release: Out now
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Ninja Theory
Within minutes of starting Enslaved, players find themselves dropped in the rubble-strewn ruins of New York. A New York so rich and vibrantly coloured that you’ll think someone’s fiddled with the contrast settings on your TV. Years of drab and dreary slices of post-apocalyptica have left us unprepared for Enslaved’s take on a world without humanity. Here, a real jungle has replaced the concrete one: luminously green foliage hangs thickly on walls, and blood-red, autumnal leaves sprinkle the streets.
Best of all, New York is merely the first stop on protagonist Monkey and his – not all that unkind, really – captor Trip’s journey across the devastated American continent, a journey which makes stopovers at locations that should be as familiar as the depopulated city, but like it have been crafted with similar aesthetic abundance. Even when the inevitable pools of toxic waste make their appearance, Ninja Theory hasn’t been able to resist dabbing them with bright splotches of colour.
A road trip story with a large dose of buddy movie thrown in, Enslaved is on paper a disaster: a game-long escort mission. As Monkey, players provide the forcibly recruited brawn to Trip’s brains, guiding her through the mech-infested streets of New York and the wastes beyond. Trip’s a fairly capable companion, staying out of harm’s way when she can, hitting mechs with a last-resort EMP when she can’t. Which is handy, because enemies pack quite the metallic punch.
Enslaved’s combat dangles constantly on the knife edge between thrilling and laborious. On normal difficulty, at least, the fabulously animated mechs (which look like gangly collections of razor blades and bowling balls but move with a lupine grace) can take just enough of a battering with Monkey’s staff that, when whole packs start pouring in, things can get overwhelming quickly.
Monkey has a collection of basic combos activated through a mixture of light and heavy attacks, as well as the ability to fire off standard or stunning energy rounds from his staff, but success is mostly about prioritising targets – rolling and dodging towards any foes that you can see are malfunctioning. These can be ripped apart with a takedown, granting Monkey a chance to hijack their gun-arms, or better yet a chance to fling their exploding body towards remaining enemies. Even higher priorities are the individual mechs which occasionally start a countdown that, on reaching zero, sends out a broadcast for reinforcements.
Frequently, Enslaved gives players a chance to plan these encounters, or bypass them altogether. When Monkey and Trip come across a room or route filled with dormant mechs, Trip will highlight their activation radius as a series of blue circles emanating from their core. On these occasions, players can plan an assault starting with the malfunctioning weak links, or attempt to creep past the group in its entirety – a strategy often complicated by the presence of a gun turret watching over the room.
When under fire, players can order Trip, through a menu accessed via the left bumper, to distract mechs and turrets with a holographic decoy. In turn, players must occasionally distract distant mechs themselves before ordering Trip to break cover. In truth, these sections are more successful than Enslaved’s out-and-out attempts at more typical puzzles, which are all variations on the switch-pulling, bridge-turning model.
When Monkey’s not fighting, he’s swinging, leaping and scrabbling around the environment in a manner befitting his name. Enslaved’s platforming is for the most part fairly easy – graspable surfaces are given an artificial gleam which helps avoid misguided leaps but turns these sections into vertical breadcrumb trails – and requires the presence of angry mech gunfire to avoid before truly coming alive. It’s these sections, however, which best show off Ninja Theory’s eye for a set-piece, as Monkey is required to scramble up collapsing scaffolding and leap from one crumbling surface to the next over drops that would make even Nathan Drake pause before peering over the edge.
Like the Uncharted series, Enslaved is also unafraid to make the case for a rollercoaster of a story, well told. Its cutscenes are frequent, but never overlong, and feature uniformly high-calibre performances from its cast – as Monkey, Andy Serkis gives an excellent study in the ‘beneath that gruff exterior he’s just a big softie, really’ school of likeability.
If there’s a flaw, it’s that the basic decency of both leads means their eventual affection for one another is never really in doubt, but, as with most odysseys, it’s not where they end up that counts, it’s how they get there. A good thing, too, because Enslaved’s denouement hurriedly takes Monkey and Trip to an environment completely unlike anything the game’s shown you before and serves up a leftfield plot twist in what feels like a truncated (and entirely non-interactive) epilogue.
It’s worth the trip, though, because for the most part Enslaved takes the cinematic flair and production values Ninja Theory showcased in Heavenly Sword and applies them to an experience no more inventive, but certainly better executed and paced. But Enslaved’s greatest achievement is standing out in the crowded field of me- too, colour-sapped videogame apocalypses, serving as a vibrant oasis in the otherwise murky brown wastes.