There's a moment toward the opening of Enslaved where one of the two main characters chances upon an ancient aquarium -- a towering glass encasement teaming with sea life in the midst of a lifeless city. After several hours of fluid platforming and straightforward, beat-'em-up brawling, that small splash of character, that tiny dollop of emotion, was enough to demonstrate that Enslaved isn't simply content to be both attractive and fun. It wants to be moving, as well.
Prior to my first experience with Enslaved, there was little about the title that initially caught my attention. Whether this was the result of uninspired marketing or simply an overall lack of awareness on my part, I can't be certain, but having recently played the game for an involving few hours, I can confidently say that Enslaved promises to be one of the more interesting games released this year. From the carefully crafted characters, to the seamless platforming sequences, to the companion mechanic and the solid battle system, there's nothing about the lush, overgrown levels that isn't immediately appealing.
In fact, if the title has any discernable weakness, it can be found in the opening few moments. Your character Monkey wakes in the confines of a small, metal pod aboard a massive -- albeit rapidly crashing -- prison vessel. Beyond the fogged-up porthole, you can vaguely spy a nimble young woman, presumably an escaped prisoner, slipping quietly away from the chaos. You're a thick-necked, muscle-bound brute with a Final Fantasy haircut -- the futuristic, sci-fi progeny of the cast of Jersey Shore -- and from the very first moment that we meet him, there's an immediate dislike of the character. He's a roughneck with a dumbed-down, gommbah accent, the kind of guy with whom you'd hardly want to spend 12 hours saving the universe. And the moment your prison pod blows away from the wall and you're free to move around, the camera jolts and angles in such a way that running in a straight line down the very first corridor seems damn near impossible. It's maddening. A bad first impression.
Jump ahead five minutes, however, and you're 100% invested. The ship is dramatically tearing itself apart, fiery explosions ripping away massive portions of the vessel. The level itself has opened up considerably, the camera now steady and fixed behind the player. Combat proves incredibly responsive, filled with a sense of both impact and weight, while the platforming is surprisingly fun and failure-free. There's a real sense of urgency as you rush for the last escape pod. There, you encouter your fellow escapee, the lovely, tech-savvy Trip. Unfortunately, she jettisons the pod while you're still outside, pounding madly against the hull, holding on for dear life. You plummet into the wreckage of a post-apocalyptic New York City -- buildings now covered in rampant vegetation; urban jungle reduced simply to jungle - and when you wake, you've been tagged, fitted with a helmet that enslaves you to Trip, your new de-facto master. Defend her against the patroling robot mechs and return Trip to her village alive and she'll set you free. Wander too far or allow her perish...and you die.
It doesn’t take long for Trip and Monkey to strike an awkward partnership. The more you find yourself invested in Trip -- innocent, capable, vulnerable -- you likewise find yourself warming to Monkey, who slowly proves to be more than just another clenched fist.
Much of the game demands some careful, strategic teamwork with Trip, guiding her through a variety of situations such as bypassing gun turrets or crossing a seemingly impossible mine-field. The left bumper will bring up a series of commands which become increasingly more complex as your relationship grows. In the first few levels of the game, you'll be able to use the left bumper to command Trip to run for cover or manifest a hologram to distract nearby gunners as you circle around for the kill. An hour later and Trip will offer you upgrades for collected experience orbs hidden throughout the environment, meaning that exploration of the overgrown New York is key to making Monkey a more efficient knight-errant.
Combat is relatively familiar with quick, rapid attacks mapped to the "X" button and slower, heavier attacks charted to the "Y" button. You can jump, dodge and cling to nearby hand-holds with "A" while interacting with the environment using "B." The right trigger will summon an energy shield to block enemy attacks. Your metal baton, the game's primary weapon, can also discharge a deadly plasma bolt. Each of these can be upgraded once Trip allows you access to the tech, offering a robust -- and seemingly affordable -- series of customizable skills. The platforming is equally intuitive, if somewhat by-the-books, and while the game won't let you attempt a leap you can't make successfully, this can often make the platforming portions a little too easy.
Factor in the gorgeously illustrated, beautifully lit environments -- as well as two characters whose deepening relationship actually demands your care and attention -- and Enslaved is shaping up to be one of this year's most enjoyable and surprising releases. Check back for our full review when Enslaved hits stores on October 5, 2010.