Sweet Bondage: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Review

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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Ninja Theory
Systems it’s available on: Xbox 360, PS3
ESRB rating: M for Mature
System reviewed on: Xbox 360

You know what I like? I like “new”. And Enslaved is full of new. Oh, I know that people might poo-poo it at first blush: “Oh, it moves like Prince of Persia.” “Oh, it looks like Uncharted.”

Of course, Enslaved has influences. Just about everything that exists (especially in 2010) has influences. What you do with them is where the new comes in. And, whether their presence is direct or coincidental, Enslaved synthesizes the familiar in a strong, fresh experience.

People are going to compare the opening of Enslaved to the opening of Uncharted 2, and, yes, there’s some similarity. The hero in each is escaping a massive, crashing conveyance by means of utterly impressive platforming. But, Enslaved leaves the recognizable reality of Uncharted far behind and even as Monkey’s leaping and grabbing and fighting, you’re getting told about a world, about a history.

I talked about the story a bit in my preview but the short version if you’re in the dark: in a future where giant airborne slave ships abduct people, one such captive named Trip escapes and compels Monkey–a super-strong, super-agile loner–to help her make it home safely. Monkey’s obedience is secured by way of a pain-inducing tech headband she’s attached to him. If he wanders to far from Trip, he’ll throb with pain. And–because the headband ties their two life signs together–if she dies, he dies. The slavery subtext of Odyssey to the West is grim, and the game doesn’t make light of what it’s done to the world.

The milieu of Enslaved feels more than lived-in. The texture of it feels sand-blasted, painted over, then baked in desert heat and then sand-papered. The visual design–which looks amazing throughout–holds a history of breaking down and starting over in its pixels. You don’t need to be told about the multiple world wars that must’ve happened as all the debris tells that story. With the weight of all that, it almost explains Trip’s indenturing of Monkey. In a world this scarred and paranoid, a slip of woman enslaving a gruff bruiser to help her make it home almost makes sense. Almost.

The key themes of Enslaved are freedom, limitation and the symbiosis between the two. And that sensibility comes out in the design, too. Even though she’s trapped him, Trip can heal Monkey and upgrade his abilities. He, in turn, can command her to project a decoy to draw enemy fire or tell her to run to cover while he draws the bad guys’ attention. The AI co-op mechanic sets up a nice rhythm that bounces back between Trip and Monkey. Thankfully, Enslaved isn’t too pedantic about giving out hints, so you’ll actually need to figure out if it “distract then move” or “decoy, then distract, then fight” in certain instances.

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