Enslaved lives up to its namesake both with its conceptual hook of robots enchaining mankind and through the unnecessary shackles tied to gameplay. Developer Ninja Theory spends far too much time holding the player’s hand, and in the process removes any sense of escapism to this intriguing tale of humanity’s last gasp for life.
The game starts off with a bang reminiscent of Uncharted 2’s introductory train sequence. A robot-infested slave ship is sabotaged by a resourceful female prisoner and starts plummeting toward the skyscraping remnants of a lost metropolis. Your first goal is to survive the crash. This feat takes you through exploding corridors and out onto the ship’s hull, where breath-stealing leaps must be made as debris passes overhead and every second wasted brings you closer to impact.
This exciting sequence concludes with an unlikely partnership being forged between the female, Trip, and a protagonist who never reveals his true name, yet insists on being called Monkey. To no surprise, Monkey is ape-like in appearance and possesses the uncanny ability to swing across poles just like a simian. Monkey is brought to life aptly by Andy Serkis, Hollywood’s resident primate expert (he played King Kong, the ape-ish Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, and will play Caesar in the forthcoming Planet of the Apes film).
The relationship that develops between Trip and Monkey is fun to watch. It doesn’t follow the path you think it would. Their personalities clash, yet neither could survive in this harsh climate without the other. Thanks to sharp writing by Ninja Theory’s scribes, I cared about the fate of both characters. The banter between them is emotional at the right times, filled with smart jabs and amusing sarcasm, and their chemistry shows noticeable progression as their journey family takes them farther west. The resonance of the tale, however, is undermined by the gameplay.
Most of the platforming sequences showcase action-packed moments, such as a bridge falling apart as Monkey shimmies along. But rarely do these tense set pieces offer a real threat, as Monkey can never fall or miscalculate a jump’s trajectory. If he isn’t lined up correctly and you press jump, he won’t jump. He just stands there until you move him into the correct position. Toward the end of the game, he has to avoid flames and spinning gears but up until this point, most of Enslaved’s platforming is simply an exercise in basic movement.
Combat, while offering a great sense of brutal physicality with each of Monkey’s staff strikes, lacks depth. I used the same combo sequences from start to finish. Ninja Theory also fails to offer interesting adversaries. The largest foe, a robot dog, looks cool, but is easy to snuff out with repeated EMP blasts. Watching this beast rise from the ground only to knock it down again with another EMP shot feels like cheating, but as far as I could tell, it was the only way to destroy it.
Enslaved also lacks a sense of exploration. Whenever Trip enters a new area, she must first scan her surroundings. This extensive fly-by of the level details all of the enemies and points of interest along the way. Trip’s findings are digitally broadcast to Monkey through his slave headband. He can see the distance at which he’ll alert an enemy, as well as all the objects with which he can interact. One platforming stretch toward the end of the game even has Monkey following a dragonfly that is discharging a sparkling trail for fear that the player may not know where to go next.
Given the amount of hand holding, I’m surprised this game doesn’t play itself. The lack of immersion and knowledge that every jump – no matter how perilous it is – will land without fail saps Enslaved of its entertainment value. You know a game is troubled when you find solace in its extensive orb collecting.
This experience is also marred by a lack of polish. Ugly textures frequent most environments, the jump command is touchy, the framerate skips like a lopsided record in certain areas, combat controls lack responsiveness, and the camera often clips into the environment, hiding cool takedowns or cinematic sequences. With the gameplay being such an unwanted distraction, the story is the only attraction. The plot delivers a cool science fiction twist in its final moments, but ultimately serves as a slave to mediocre gameplay for eight to nine hours.