Tomorrow, it will have been two years since Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was first put out on store shelves. Just two short years and yet it feels like ages ago. 2010 was littered with AAA sequels like Fallout: New Vegas, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Rock Band 3 bumbling about the freshly Kinect-laden November, but standout new IPs were easy to come by in the AA and indie arenas. You could find gems like Vanquish and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Darksiders among the Call of Duty: Black Opses and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnames.
October was also overloaded with a Diablo III-heavy BlizzCon and shortly followed in February by the Japanese release of the Nintendo 3DS (North America saw the new handheld in March). And then throughout 2011, we saw even more landmark originals like Magicka, Bulletstorm, DC Universe Online, L.A. Noire, and so on and so forth—and all of those were by the end of June! The 2011 holidays were even more packed than before (one word: Skyrim), and then we still have to go through 2012.
What I’m saying is that a lot has happened since Enslaved first came out. So much, in fact, that I felt it necessary to revisit the underappreciated Ninja Theory title to prepare for the two year anniversary. I recall genuinely loving the game the first time I played it. The question is: does it hold up?
Right off the bat, from the moment the game starts, I’m reminded of why I was drawn to it in the first place: the visuals. Just stellar art all around. The post-apocalyptic urban jungle takeover look has been done so many times (see: Crysis 2) but never has it felt so…right. The buildings feel empty but everything around it feels alive, a key aspect missing from most other titles utilizing this milieu. Human constructs have decayed in a believable way, but it’s perhaps most disturbing how it feels like the most monolithic and impersonal bits have held up the best.
This gives way, though, to allow the cleansing, inspiring, soothing greens and reds to creep up and overtake the industrial slabs. I can feel the painful, wistful longing from the artist for a place that never existed, that place where he’d escape to whenever he got bored in class or couldn’t stand looking at the overcast, rainy skies any longer. It’s that conflation of those idyllic meadows he yearned for and the oppressive urban framework he was escaping.
You can even see it in his concept art. Ninja Theory’s visual art director Alessandro Taini has a blog where he puts up most of his art from their projects, so you can see old stuff from Heavenly Sword and Enslaved but also catch a few glimpses of the upcoming Devil May Cry reboot. Though completely different mediums and of wholly incomparable fidelities, both the in-game art and this original concept art are evocative in similar ways.
I’ve already told you I’m all but dead inside, but the way Enslaved‘s art can make me feel like I’m being wrapped up in the infinite future’s lush, vibrant embrace in the face of a cold and uncaring reality is still unbelievable to me. There are some spanning vistas in the game as well as in Taini’s art that can quite literally give me goosebumps as something deep and untapped within me bubbles up with vague sensations of immense possibilities. There are glowing wisps all around me and I’m trying to reach out and grab them all, but they pass through my fingers as if they were just air.
I know there’s something, though, something worth searching for, and Enslaved can make me feel like I’ve found it.
The actual gameplay, if I recall, was fairly divisive. Some people thought it was bland, others serviceable, but I found it quite fun if simplistic. Combat was basic crowd management of groups never greater than three or four active opponents; stealth was a light mix of pattern recognition and risk mitigation; and traversal was straightforward point-and-jump. Nothing special but also accomplished with aplomb. Enslaved never second-guessed itself in how it played, refreshing given how often it feels like some games are unsure of how to handle themselves.
It’s all ancillary, though, to the story of the game. An early concession made is that since Trip isn’t as climbing-capable as Monkey and he can’t leave her unprotected for too long, he carries her on his back for a good portion of the game. It’s a bit similar to how you hold hands with Yorda in Ico, but also totally different. In Ico, it’s more of an active process of guiding Yorda around and it’s your responsibility to lead her around as you explore her world. It’s not that you have to protect her; it’s that you want to.
In Enslaved, flip that around and you’ve got the right idea. At least, that’s how it starts. You don’t want to protect her but you definitely have to. Her life is your life. Keeping her alive means you are keeping yourself alive, so what better way to guarantee that than to just keep her with you at all times? I mean, if she’s on your back and you fall off a building, so what? You’re both dead. If she dies on her own, though, god dammit that’s her fault.
But around the midway point, things…change. The situation turns from a not-want-but-need to a want-and-need. Trip is no longer my warden but instead the other half of my being. She becomes indispensable in simply moving around the world. She does everything Monkey cannot. She can hack doors, create decoys, explore narrow openings, and warn me of landmines and enemies. Trip is not my captor but my partner. The fact is that even if she were to die and Monkey was not wearing that enslaving headband, he might as well be dead. He simply cannot accomplish the same things as when Trip is by his side. She has become a physical necessity to him, and by extension, to me.
With the art clawing away at something deep in my brain—a wall cordoning off all those fantastical, imprecise flights of fancy—and a relationship as powerful as I’ve ever seen in a video game, it’s hard not to admit that maybe I do have a few soft spots left in me. I mean, if Enslaved can break down my impenetrable fortress of stone cold manliness, just imagine what it will do to the rest of you emotional rubes (just kidding, I love you all very much). Take the ending as you will—I found it interesting—but Enslaved is an odyssey always worth taking.
Hopefully you’ve played Enslaved: Odyssey to the West by now. If you haven’t, then what’s wrong with you?! Probably nothing too severe, I hope, but you really should play it. Has this convinced you or do you now think I’m just a pretentious jerkwad? And if you have played it, do you agree or do you also think I’m a pretentious jerkwad? By all means, have at me!