Wednesday, May 8, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Enslaved Odyssey to the West

I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

Game: Enslaved Odyssey to the West
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Namco
Published in: 2010
Genre: Action
Rating: T

The only thing I remember about Enslaved Odyssey to the West when it first came out was that it seemed to have arrived out of nowhere. I had played developer Ninja Theory's previous game, Heavenly Sword, and didn't care for it (their arrow POV game play made me rage-quit) so my expectations weren't very high. Still the cover of the game looks nice, with a burly guy and a redhead girl running from a rusty monster-machine. Inside, there is the usual Namco manual shenanigans - they've created what would be a sweet looking manual if it were only published in color. SIGH. I know printing in black and white saves pennies on the dollar, but you just come off as cheap, Namco. Image if movie producers printed their coming attraction posters in black and white. To me, that's what it feels like. It's a battle I couldn't win in the past, so I should just let it go... NEVER!!!!!

Ahem. Let's Game Up! and start playing!

Complete with flickering CRT noise. Or maybe I need a new TV

Enslaved start screen is very high tech-y with calming "Enya-esque" music playing which creates a very different mood is set than what is shown on the front of the box. What's this? No attract mode? Maybe developers are learning they're not necessary anymore.

The selection screen keeps the gestalt going

We now see a girl's face (the red head from the cover?) reflected in a screen. New game is titled "New Journey." In the Batman Arkham Asylum OHP (One-Hour Playthrough) I talk a little about creating a Gestalt for your game. I don't break out the 2 dollar words that often, but it's one of the few I believe in. It's a German word for "essence or shape of an entity's complete form." In otherwords, it means that start screens and pause screens and option screens and volume control screens should be just as designed as your gameplay. Already by screen two, Enslaved shows that it cares about creating a complete experience for the player.

The game starts within a slave ship. A strange looking man with scarrification tattoos and Akuma from Tekken's hair is locked in a pod and is on his way to "the pyramid." The red-headed girl escapes from her pod and starts a chain-reaction to destroy the ship. Our hero's pod is knocked free and gameplay begins. One thing I have to say about Enslaved is it is very pretty. There are a few things that look dated, like main character's hair for example, but the lighting and the overall design of the game makes it still one of the better looking games out there.

That is some pretty lighting

The ship is blowing apart as we learn to walk, run and jump. Camera movement isn't covered but fooling around with the right stick shows that it works just like in every other game. Here's a pro-tip, if it ain't broke don't fix it. If Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 has the best shooter controls and it's a game everyone plays then using that control scheme for your game is going to let the player get into the game faster than if they have to learn some new and unique control system. Go with what works. Get over your "not invented here" complex. You're only hurting your game in the end.

The hero is nicely animated (I remember reading somewhere that Enslaved's motion capture actor was Andy Serkis) but as a game character he suffers a little too much from what I call an "over-animated control system" in which while creating the most beautifully animated character ever, you sacrifice precision controls for the player. Prince of Persia, Flashback, Abe's Oddysey and Little Big Planet games all suffered from this. It's a design choice, but one that needs to be made very early on and stuck with. Players might hate it or love it but they'll have to adjust the way they play to it. Consequences result in players falling off the edges of platforms because their skid and roll cycles end further than they anticipated.

I think I remember this scene from Uncharted

Enslaved also used a trick I like to call "false danger" - the ship is exploding, things are on fire, people are dying left and right, but the player isn't in any actual danger of losing a life. This makes the level exciting even if you are walking from one place to another (you know that walking isn't gameplay, right?) After some running, jumping and pole walking, the hero catches up to the girl just in time for the back of the ship to explore; leaving our hero hanging from the wreckage. We learn to climb (well, more like move from point A to point B ala Sly Cooper than climb like Assassin's Creed or Uncharted) and eventually are able to get our weapons back - a glowy staff and a pair red punching gloves.
R2 provides us with a shield while square lets us attack regularly and triangle lets us do a strong overhead attack. Enslaved takes a page from Batman Arkham Asylum with a close-up beauty shot whenever the last enemy is defeated.


Maybe it's because we're fighting robots with scythes for hands, but the combat against these robots feels a lot like combat in Maximo vs. Army of Zin. That's a good thing because that game was good. (and not just because I helped design it) But Enslaved's hero has a few other tricks including a wide staff strike and a charge attack. Even with these limited number of moves, the combat is still pretty satisfying and has the right amount of what gaming journalist Tim Rogers calls "frictive-ness." My hour ends with the hero still not escaped - battling robots outside on the wing of the crashing slave ship.

It's nothing if not epic

Should Enslaved Odyssey to the West be sent back to the slave camps or set free to play on my PS3? (Let's see you come up with a better one.)

What would I do differently? My biggest beef with Enslaved is the game starts, I play for an hour and I still don't know the main characters name! (and no, I will not read your manual) - other than that,  Enslaved has a gentle learning curve, some robust combat and other than the adjustment I have to make to the character's exaggerated animations, strong controls. Only once did I notice the camera running into to issues during combat. It just means I need to move the camera around more during combat.

Will I keep playing? Yes. While it plays like Batman Arkham Asylum and Uncharted, but that's not a bad thing. I'd rather play a half-dozen well-meaning but slightly derivative games than one truly crappy one. Enslaved Odyssey to the West is a breath of fresh air - an unique, a non-licensed property in a world increasingly filled with licensed games and sequels.

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