It is with this sentence in mind that nearly all of the work produced by Ninja Theory needs to be considered. Serkis makes an interesting point and is without doubt the direction the main stream of the gaming industry is funneling into. Games are becoming visceral, exciting moments of entertainment that combine clever mechanics, technical ability with the experience of taking part in something momentous and invigorating. It has been an inevitable shift as the consoles have grown up and spied the world around them. They have seen where the money goes. Of course this doesn’t mean that all games follow suit. The good thing about a herd is that is easy to set yourself apart when you strive or achieve something different.
Ninja Theory have been one of the those developers not really travelling with the herd but hoping that some of their pioneering work will make all of our experiences with games that much more authentic, engrossing and tender. The first signs that anyone saw of this was in Heavenly Sword an early PlayStation 3 release which contained cut scenes of such detail and honesty it was easy to believe that this method of “performance capturing” that Ninja Theory were essentially revolutionary in their approach to game titles, and it could be what we see in games from there on in.
It has been three years since Heavenly Sword and Ninja Theory have a new showing of their vision for the medium: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is (another) re-telling of 16th Century Chinese Novel Monkey: Journey to the West. What has been turned into both a TV show and an Opera by Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn now has a game to add to its legacy as a 400 year old myth.
Enslaved is a slightly modern retelling of that Monkey myth. The Monkey is now only simian by name and the West is in North America where the two characters Monkey and Trip are heading after escaping from a slave ship. Set in a post-apocalyptic America, Monkey and his female companion set out to seek her former community, to take her home. Even if at the start Monkey isn’t all too willing.
The opening hook of Enslaved is that after escaping from the slave ship on your own, Trip sees Monkey as her only hope in making the journey back to her family as the world that once was is littered with inactive “Mechs”, machinery replacing the magic and demon attackers of the original Journey to the West. So because of this danger up ahead Trip places a slave band on Monkey’s head and now has an air of moral and physical control with the simple command that if her heart stops beating, so does his.
The first thing that surprisingly grabs you about Enslaved is how wonderful and vibrant New York, in particular, looks after its end. Weeds are growing through cracks in walls; flowers are taking back the city. Limp torn flags hang in the wind defenseless against a permeating backdrop of lush greens and tangled foliage. It is almost like an act of kindness to the landscape and makes exploring the city a pleasure. The wasteland of the destruction is there in the game, but these opening few chapters just highlight a wonderfully energetic post-apocalypse.
In turn there is nothing nonchalant about the story either. Driven, emotional and utterly absorbing it is a testament not only to the studio for taking the time to really tell the story through the characters. Making an animated character look alive on screen is just more evidence that for a game to really be effective as a narrative it needs a human drive. And there is no one better in this instance than Andy Serkis. From Gorilla to ill-formed ring lover Serkis has really had more of a glimpse than any actor dare into the positives of performance capture. Where each facial movement of the characters are mapped out as the cast literally perform the whole game as if it were a film.
The effect this has on a cut scene that is rendered in game is really only seen to be believed. Characters exude real thought and passion. Relationships blossom delicately and subtly. Smiles of doubt are picked up, frowns of worry are only magnified by their graceful precision of an actor that is truly feeling his role and playing it out with another actor playing their role to perfection as well.
It is weird to be critiquing a character’s performance in an in game cut scene but that is the standard of the scenes in Ninja Theory’s work. It is almost arresting but yet comforting to know that what you are watching are not just links between actions but a story unfolding before your eyes and you’ll be racing along to get to the next one before you know it.
However it is in the success of Enslaved that it also comes to its downfall. Enslaved has a story that doesn’t feel too contrived, thanks in part to Danny Boyle best friend Alex Garland. Acting that is nothing if not sublime and visuals and sounds on par with any big blockbuster game this autumn. The problem is that all of these elements take up a lot of time and indeed a lot of money. The direct consequence of this is that you get one of the most encompassing video-game performances of the year but also one of the biggest disappointments in terms of technical game mechanics.
What you’ll spend most of your time doing in Enslaved is climbing up environments, making huge jumps and fighting off mechanical miscreants who want to stop you in your way. For the most part the climbing is fluid and an interesting way of seeing the landscape, and also the combat is simple but satisfying. Indeed with both of these Trip is unlike any other “tag along” NPC and actually is very useful in helping you fight and traverse tricky ledges. Staying mostly out of danger and never being a bother Trip can create a distraction to keep enemies off your path and also scan ahead to see what dangers and which pathways are safe. Failing all that, if she is still annoying you, you can always carry her on your back and stop any whining.
The issue is, is that there is so much going on with the animation and environments that the stuff that really should be gripping you to the game just does not seem to work. Walls are scaled just by pressing a button and a direction, which is fine until button registers fly out the window and Monkey just sticks to a wall. The key to making a gaming mechanic like that work is being able to incorporate rhythm as well as exploration and the technical side of this game-play just never really feels as complete as it should.
Also the combat is mostly clunky and un-involved. To fight you use Monkey’s staff which can fire plasma, stun enemies and generally clout them round the noggins. Trip comes in handy again, providing upgrades for your weapons and health making some tricky fighting moments that little bit easier.
However, no matter how powerful you are if the combat doesn’t succeed on a mechanical level it’ll never satisfy as it should and in Enslaved it starts to become routine very quickly. There are some tactics that can be employed as some Mechs have shields that need to be disabled before you can strike them. Though all these game-play elements that is usually the most natural part of a game feel the most contrived. If you get hit by one Mech during his attacking animation, most of the time you become locked in it and there is no blocking it. To be fair none of the problems are real experience breakers but when Ninja Theory have one thing of Enslaved working absolutely perfectly any jolt in the experience feels like a smack in the face.
Sometimes lips and voice will go out sync, screens will tear and the frame-rate can also drop severely during heavy battles. All these then are nothing but obstacles though to Ninja Theory, who again have put all their time and effort into essentially only concentrating on half a game. What works really, really works and is up there amongst some of the best scripting, voicing acting and design around today. It is just a shame that Ninja Theory still have a long way to go to really get you involved in their superb event, that at the moment feels like reading a good book over someone’s shoulder.
MLG Rating: 8/10
Platform: PlayStation 3 (Xbox 360) Release Date: 8/10/2010
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a physical copy of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of five days on a PS3. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.