Enslaved: Odyssey to the West First ImpressionsBy Sterling McGarvey - Posted Mar 29, 2010
Ninja Theory, the team behind heavily touted PS3-exclusive Heavenly Sword, has been hard at work on its next game, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, for some time. Prior to last week’s demo with Namco-Bandai representatives and Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades, the only thing that gaming world knew about Enslaved was its title and publisher. With this first look, I’m convinced that Enslaved -- even in the early stages that it’s in right now -- is a game to keep an eye on in 2010.
Anyone who played Heavenly Sword -- or at minimum, has watched some gameplay videos and trailers -- might’ve noticed Ninja Theory’s predilection toward creating lush, colorful game worlds with slight Asian influences. And Enslaved keeps that tradition alive in its own unique way. It’s a post-apocalyptic retelling of “Journey to the West,” the classic Chinese tale that’s been reinvented in a variety of ways, ranging from the PlayStation RPG Saiyuki to "Dragon Ball." In this revamp, the heroic Monkey still has an attachment to control his behavior, but in this case, it’s the good ol’ sci-fi “explosive collar,” which is always a reliable vehicle for driving the story.
After nukes have nearly wiped out humanity, North America’s population has reduced to 50,000, and is divided into distinct tribes: community and survivalists. Antoniades described the communes as “techno-hippie enclaves,” where humans have banded together to use technology to survive, repopulate and live in harmony with nature. Survivalists are nomadic and scattered. Monkey is very much a stoic survivalist. He’s captured by an android slaving ship bound for the west, a place where no humans return. He gets a slaving headband attached to his forehead, which controls his every movement at the penalty of death. Fortunately, Trip, a young commune member, is aboard the ship, and with her savvy, she manages to hack the slave ship and crash it over the remains of Manhattan. Trip’s not as strong as Monkey, but she’s clever enough to get them both off the ship in one piece. She’s also savvy enough to hack Monkey’s headband so that he’s forced to return her back to her homeland.
Enslaved’s gameplay (and its story) are heavily driven by the unlikely bond between the two. Many gamers compared Heavenly Sword to God of War upon first glance. There are certainly some similarities, even if the former wasn’t a clone of the latter, per se. The symbiotic relationship between Monkey and Trip reminded me, if only superficially, of the interdependency between Ico and Yorda. Will Enslaved be an envelope-pushing techno-futuristic rendition of Ico? Probably not in the literal sense. But the demo certainly evoked it in subtle ways.
In the first scene Antoniades showed off, Monkey and Trip have to traverse a series of gutted high-rises to reach a construction crane for a vantage point. In this section of Enslaved, the enemies are all sentry droids. Trip scans the area for sentries, which are triggered like landmines by motion sensing. For the sake of showing off combat, Monkey trips the sensors and brawls with four sentries. One of the enemy types has a timer above its head that projects a hologram that counts down from ten seconds. If Monkey can’t destroy it, the droid will summon more reinforcements. At the end of the brawl, Monkey gains a weapon of limited ammo. And that’s key to many of Enslaved’s encounters: ammo is scarce, so it’ll take some clever gameplay to get past the many deadly robotic turrets that litter the landscape.
I noticed that in the next enemy encounter. Since Trip has plenty of tech know-how, she uses a hologram to distract mechanical enemies as Monkey runs to flank a machine-gun nest. Apparently, she has even more tactics at her disposal which Antoniades couldn’t detail during the demo. But the point was established: she’s the brains of the operation, and Monkey’s the brawn. After beating enemies, Trip scans them to pinpoint weaknesses so that Monkey can hijack their best attributes, such as weapon attachments.
I also noticed that that Ninja Theory has incorporated light platforming elements that resemble the traversal recently seen in games like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed to drive the non-combative action. Antoniades also indicated that unlike the team's previous game, traversal and teamwork will take precedence over action and brawling. While a great deal of Heavenly Sword's charm came from the way it threw legions of enemies at you, Enslaved will minimize the number of combatants and instead focus on their durability and how you can outsmart them.
My biggest takeaway from Enslaved, however, wasn’t the gameplay, it was the presentation. Even in its alpha stages, where the framerate wasn’t always secure, the voice acting was all MacInTalk placeholder, and the facial animations still weren’t in place, it’s a good-looking title. “We wanted to create a post-apocalyptic environment without greys and browns. That’s been done already,” Antoniades said, “and instead, we want the environments to show off a world in which nature is stronger because humans aren’t inhabiting the world; nature has moved on.” And that’s key to Enslaved’s unique look. It’s colorful and bright. Amidst the hollowed shells of urban decay, there are trees atop high-rises, and former office buildings that are loaded with bright emerald swaths of grass and moss. I’m not sure that the entire game will reflect that look, but it’s an impressive aesthetic nonetheless.
Antoniades also promises that the voice acting and animation, once in place, will trump the efforts the team worked on in Heavenly Sword. As with the prior game, actor Andy Serkis is involved in the project, and will be playing Monkey. Although the facial animations weren’t set in stone, he showed me a behind-the-scenes video of Serkis’ mocap session. If that level of detail will be in the final product, it could be a very impressive-looking game.
Again, this demo was the first time that Ninja Theory has showed off Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and there’s plenty to still execute. But if the game plays and looks as smoothly as the developer is promising, the game could be one of 2010’s big surprises. I was promised that the game will be ready for a first hands-on come E3, so keep an eye out for this one amidst the tidal wave of games coverage come June.