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Ninja Theory goes post-apocalyptic with mechanoids aplenty amidst a gripping, steampunk infused world...
It's hard to quantify Enslaved. On the one hand, you'd be hard pressed to find a game with better all-round production - Enslaved pops its head up into Uncharted 2's territory at times. On the other hand, the gameplay behind all of this lavish cinematic workmanship is just so staid. It's not that there's anything abjectly wrong with the gameplay - on the contrary, it's rarely irritating or poorly designed - just that it's all so predictable and well trodden; you'll have seen it all before. While that's a criticism that can be levelled at literally hundreds of games, the difference in Enslaved's case is that its overall appearance leaves you with the lasting feeling that it's capable of so much more as a game.
Like the persistent underachiever in school then, Enslaved shows flashes of what might be possible from developer Ninja Theory but ultimately leaves you somewhat disappointed where it counts. It's these flashes of brilliance, then, that paradoxically end up frustrating you in a game that otherwise plays out quite smoothly. Thanks to a few superb characters, a stunningly realised setting, and a genuinely engaging story, Enslaved successfully pulls you into its world and provides an immersive bubble for the gamer. Its lofty Hollywood contributors are put to good use as well. Andy Serkis does a great job with the voice-over work for Enslaved's lead character, Monkey, whose pleasingly simian animation is clearly the result of Ninja Theory's trademark hard graft in the mo-cap studio.
Likewise, Alex Garland's writing skills add gravitas to the plot throughout. Pithy dialogue, which illustrates a deep understanding of the characters, satisfyingly connects the dots between each gameplay section. In addition, what's clearly a strong relationship between the writer and voice-over artists ensures that there's never a line of script said out of context, which is far more than we can say for the voice-over work in most other games. Like Heavenly Sword before it then, Enslaved is doing all it can to bring silver screen production standards into a videogame and, by this remit, it's a resounding success. Skilled camera work plays a part in cut-scenes as much as it does the gameplay sections. Even though the player has control of the camera throughout most of the gameplay, scripted sequences during combat and at occasional trigger points do add a lot to the experience.
These bright features are Enslaved's seasoning though and, despite the fact that this seasoning is mouth-wateringly good, it can't possibly be the star of the show. Taking centre stage in the gameplay is some hack 'n slash combat, acrobatic exploration, and the occasional dash of puzzle solving. All three constituents tick the boxes of what you'd expect as a genre standard but fail to come anywhere near genre-leading. The combat itself is fairly shallow, relying on a limited range of combos and a relatively flat upgrade tree that fails to add many additional options as the game progresses. Monkey's staff is used as a ranged weapon, almost like a gun really, which does help to break the monotony of button mashing but equally isn't expanded as much as it could've been throughout the game's duration.
There are some positives to be taken out of the combat though: one particular upgrade reprises the blocking system from Heavenly Sword. Using the feature, players can see if an enemy is blocking, about to attack, or open to an attack when it glows blue, red, or yellow respectively. It was an innovative and dynamic feature in Heavenly Sword and remains that way in Enslaved. Other than that though, the overall feeling throughout the combat is one of missed opportunities. Monkey's relationship with his 'enslaver', Trip is an awkward one during their various duels with the mechanoids and, while the story does depict a definite awkwardness between the two of them on a personal level, it's not quite the same kind of awkward sensation that's reflected in the gameplay.
A radial command interface allows Monkey to prompt Trip at certain points, telling her to make a diversion, run to a certain point, or pull a lever during some of the puzzles - there are also occasional co-op tasks across the environment such as flinging Trip up to otherwise inacccessible ledges. It all works well enough but, once again, we can't help but feel that the intricate relationship between Monkey and Trip in the game's plot could've been taken advantage of a little more in the gameplay than the sort of co-op features you might find in a squad shooter. If a game like Ico can form an unbreakable bond between two characters with the press of a button and clasping of hands, then why couldn't Enslaved take advantage of its similarly rich world and characters to propel the gameplay beyond the realms of mediocrity and onto sheer brilliance?
As far as the exploration is concerned, Enslaved once again reaches for the stars and ends up grasping a fistful of air instead. There are one or two very brief moments where Monkey's acrobatic traversal of his environment borders on Uncharted 2 levels of interactivity and urgency, but they are rare and fleeting moments in all honesty. More often than not you're simply jumping between static linchpins embedded in the environment and highlighted for ease of use. Whenever you do get stuck, it's usually because you can't find the next linchpin to grab hold of. Seeing as Monkey can't actually jump in a direction that will make him fall to his doom, the acrobatics do become a case of trial and error with a safety net attached. There's rarely a sense of impending peril to propel you along or any skill involved beyond repetitively pressing the jump button, so the resulting gameplay falls a little flat as a result.
One or two puzzles throughout the game's duration do help to change up the pace of combat and exploration, but they are relatively basic head-scratchers that lack the inspired eureka moments of the God of War games, for example. As with the rest of Enslaved's gaming experience though, there's hardly anything to aggressively complain about here, just very little that stands out and will stay with you in the months to come. Instead, it's the characters that'll stick in your mind, much like Kai and Nariko did with Heavenly Sword three years ago. Nonetheless, with around 12 hours of campaign to get your teeth into, Enslaved is at least decently stocked and rarely loses pace throughout, which is mostly thanks to its superbly driven story.
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