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Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
by Parker Scott Mortensen

Everything in life is harder when you’re dating someone. Having a girlfriend or a boyfriend tethers you to another human being in some way, but never the same way twice. Every relationship I’ve had has been different. I’ve had relationships where I was scared and in need of attention and validation, and I’ve had relationships where the need to reaffirm my love felt obnoxious. I’ve cared for girls who didn’t care back, and I’ve cared for girls who didn’t need much attention at all. Each relationship changed the fundamentals of my life, restructuring my habits and routines to include a foundation that integrated another person, one I cared about in some way.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a game that could take the genre of linear action adventure, established by games like Uncharted, and reorient the paradigm around the relationship between two people, but it never achieves that experience in any meaningful way. It follows a man and a woman, Monkey and Trip, as they escape a slaver airship in post-apocalyptic New York city and make their way to destroy the slaver headquarters.

I find a large portion of Enslaved to be similar to the Uncharted series. Enslaved maintains its pace by mixing platforming, puzzles, and combat so that one element never overstays its welcome, analogous to Uncharted, linear to the point where every bit of gameplay is a step to the bait of a new cutscene. The best part of Uncharted’s most recent outing, Uncharted 2, was watching the progression of the relationship between Nathan Drake and his lady friends, Chloe and Elena. Disappointingly, the conceit of Uncharted 2 was that action was paramount; that players would play no actual part in the development of the conflict between Drake and Chloe, or in how Elena and Drake would grow more attached, but instead would spend their time shooting militant Russians, climbing crusty walls and discovering buried treasure while the character interaction took place tangentially around them.

The growing relationship between Monkey and Trip is more evident in Enslaved than the relationships in Uncharted, but the surrounding mechanics are less enjoyable. The result is that the relationship stands as the most interesting thing in Enslaved. Monkey and Trip show quiet signs of budding intimacy and love, and while these become the most rewarding parts of the game, they are often obfuscated by video game tropes and repetitive mechanics.

Mechanically, Enslaved is uninteresting. For combat, there are two attack buttons; one for quicker, lighter hits and one for slower, more painful hits. The only difference in varying between either type of attack is time, so the result is that you may kill someone only slightly more quickly if you’re putting in the effort to pay attention. There are also buttons to block and dodge, and sometimes you’ll be asked to hit both buttons together for a wide attack that gives you more space to fight, though none of those options are ever necessary.

The most fun is in mashing the attack buttons and watching as Monkey whirls his staff, clanking against the metallic enemies. In true video game fashion, you’ll have to repeat this process again and again against faceless mechanised robots, remnants of the apocalypse. It’s fun to bang on them for a while, but without any need for higher-level mastery, the flourish of watching Monkey smack things dies quickly.

The platforming and puzzles in Enslaved are also mostly fuelled by the fun of watching Monkey perform them. Unlike Nathan Drake, Monkey (true to his name) can swing and climb more nimbly and spryly, making gigantic, drawn-out jumps, and the animation is all is wonderfully nuanced. With a little timing, you can jump from handhold to handhold more quickly and fluidly. But, like Uncharted, the platforming in Enslaved is so linear that its only real claim is to show you more pretty parts of the environment. Similarly, the puzzles are less of a puzzle and more of a mathematical problem: the answer to every stumbling point is a matter of the order of operations, figuring out which lever to pull first, which to pull last.

Enslaved is admittedly really pretty to look at - it’s the most lush apocalypse I’ve ever seen - but a game about two people shouldn’t be about its graphics, and it certainly shouldn’t be about the nuances of smashing into robots or the fluidity of scaling a wall. They are mechanical operations that require massive repetition. In Uncharted, these mechanics are also repetitious, but they're mostly kept fresh by the changing context of the environment and the story cutscenes that bookend the snippets of action; in Enslaved, this isn’t enough. Uncharted has the money behind it to make the repetition fun - Enslaved doesn’t, but pretends it does.

Where the mechanics of Enslaved prove most entertaining is when they’re put in the context of Monkey and Trip’s relationship. One of the longest combat sequences is in the chapter where Trip finds her mountain home abandoned and rushes off ahead of Monkey, leaving him to fight waves and waves of mechs. It’s arguably one of the most repetitious parts of the game but also one of the most intense and memorable.

Without the context of needing to reunite with Trip, the scene would be like most other parts of the game, where the most interesting bit is watching the fight play out through the pretty graphics (which, in this case, are a backdrop of sunrise high in the mountains). It’s admittedly nice to look at, but if it’s beautiful to beat through hordes of robots set against the cream-coloured twilight of morning, isn’t it more beautiful to do it all in the name of someone you love?

As the game begins, the conceit is that Monkey is physically tethered to Trip by a slave headband; straying too far from her will kill Monkey, and additionally, if Trip dies, Monkey dies - it’s fodder to establish the sort of relationship two people grow out of forced physical contact, but the mechanic is never really developed in any interesting way. The combat and platforming that take place at the beginning of the game are as complex and difficult as the combat and platforming at the end of the game. There is no restructuring of basic concepts to include the safety of another person, no acknowledgement for the presence of a loved one. If there’s a relationship growing in Enslaved, there’s certainly no evidence of it in the gameplay.

And so, the best parts remain the unplayable. At the end of the game Monkey and Trip discover (via cutscene) that, the entire time, the slaves they had been trying to free were trapped in an alternate reality, living lifelessly in the real world but thriving in the memories of a single man, the slaver, who had lived before the apocalyptic war and wasn’t actually responsible for the death of Trip’s family. His world is ours, a place where people still get married and where children go to school, where we drive cars and ride horses and see plays and listen to music and pay taxes. Monkey looks into the old world before deciding to destroy it, and finds it overwhelmingly beautiful. Seeing Monkey become engrossed by the alternate reality, Trip destroys the machine powering it, destroying the world and cutting the power, freeing the slaves. As the lights of the complex flicker off, Trip buries herself in Monkey’s arms, looks up at him and quietly asks whether she has done the right thing.

It’s a beautiful note to end on, one more dissolute and licentious than you’re typically fed in a video game. There is almost always a firm end to a video game story; whatever you’ve spent the last ten hours doing is coloured in triumph, validation that all your time spent was worthwhile. In Modern Warfare 2, this came as a dagger to the forehead; in Uncharted 2 it was the evil Russian’s demise; in Pac-Man it’s the flicker of your high score on the leaderboard.

In contrast, the only steps forward in Enslaved come through the relationship between Monkey and Trip as the rest of the world falls apart. Extrinsically, nothing good happens, from Monkey killing hundreds of mechs, to finding Trip’s family dead, to the disintegration of Trip’s relationship with the amatory character Pigsy. The only thing remaining as the curtain falls on Enslaved is Trip and Monkey, holding onto one another in the dark, wondering if it were all even worthwhile.

The image is a strong one, but not one you’ll participate in. The most frustrating thing in video games is the tendency to take control away from the player the moment things start to get heavy with emotion. When it’s time to get emotional, it’s time to put down the controller and watch a cutscene. I don’t want to watch Monkey and Trip hold each other, I want to be the one to recognize that someone I care about is scared and initiate the moment of embrace. When I’m playing Enslaved, I’m whacking robots with sticks. When I’m watching Enslaved, I’m finding two people develop feelings for each other.

In its emphasis on relationships, Enslaved depicts the blossoming of quiet affection that transcends shared hardship. Otherwise, it’s a mechanical and repetitive action brawler and platformer. The latter experience will inevitably wither in relevance while the former may stick in our minds forever. Only when the line blurs between the two does Enslaved stand a chance of becoming something that you might not be ashamed to show to someone you care about.

6/10 [?]

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- Parker Scott Mortensen

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