This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
If you said to me "sci-fi reimagining of another culture's mythology mostly concerned with robots," I would immediately think "Too Human," and punch you in the bollocks for reminding me of it. But wait, there's a new sheriff in Sci-Fi Reimagined Mythology Town, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a post-apocalyptic action-adventure inspired by the classical Chinese epic called Journey to the West, in which the Monkey King is replaced by a sweaty white guy with neck muscles like mating dolphins.
Hopefully this will keep us going until someone makes Space Pilot Jesus Christ Versus Mecha Pontius, but don't delude yourselves. Enslaved isn't inspired by Journey to the West, is it? That is something I find considerably difficult to swallow, because the game takes liberties with the original story in the same way that Jason Voorhees takes liberties with cheerleaders. So while Journey to the West was about a mischievous and arrogant Monkey King forced to learn discipline by escorting a Buddhist monk on a pilgrimage, Enslaved is about a bloke slapping robots in the dick. But his name is Monkey, so that's all right then.
After surviving a spaceship crash in post-apocalyptic New York in the middle of the robot monster beauty contest, Monkey wakes up to find a skinny teenaged girl named Tripitaka has accessorized him with the Magical Headband of Clinginess that will blow his head off if she dies or he runs away, the exact definition of "running away" being quite open to interpretation. Once or twice the flaky bitch popped my seal of freshness because I moved more than thirty yards away while hunting for secret tokens.
Perhaps Tripitaka is still reeling from the shock of having grown a vagina since the original text. Basically, the only bits of Enslaved that are "inspired by" the story are the character names, some of Monkey's weapons, and the headband thing. It's like renaming Master Chief to Elizabeth and arguing that Halo was "inspired by" Pride and Prejudice.
So let's just put that whole Journey to the West thing out of our minds, because after a while the developers certainly did. Assume that it's an original story, although admittedly in today's games industry that may be even harder to swallow. But anyway, with that in mind, each character needs to sit down with a cup of tea and figure out what their personalities are.
Tripitaka, are you a vulnerable flower or a sassy action girl (on top of not being a monk)? Could you decide whether you have the upper body strength to pull yourself onto a ledge or whether you're going to dangle there screaming for help before falling on top of a mine and making me start the damn section again?
And Monkey, are you a feral, amoral beast or a put-upon, cynical everyman? And, if the latter, why did we even need the bloody slave headband when you just blithely agree to do whatever Tripitaka wants to do? There are times, and one scene in particular, when I get the extremely strong impression that Monkey secretly gets off on being dominated. That and slapping robots in the dick - that becomes clear when you get a slow-motion close-up for killing the last robot in the room and Monkey's got this look on his face like he's getting sucked off in a wind tunnel.
Besides mechanical dick-slapping, there's a slightly Uncharted-y ledge-climbing aspect, although the environment art is so cluttered all the ledges have to glow like you're following the trail of the radioactive mountain goat. But the platforming is linear to the point of being prohibitive. The game is a like a fussy parent hiding behind the bushes while you go trick-or-treating and won't even let you jump unless you're pointing directly at the next ledge.
This got very silly at one point when Monkey tottered fearfully on the edge of a three-foot high box because he wasn't at the one specific place where he was permitted to drop onto the ground. And on several occasions while platforming, the next ledge wasn't immediately obvious, so I just pointed the analog stick in various random directions and mashed the jump button. When you have a gameplay mechanic that can be outwitted by rubbing the controller on a dog's arse, it might be worth going back to formula, because there's no challenge to this! This is not platforming, this is just walking down a very unusually-shaped corridor.
There are some puzzles, as well, in that occasionally there are levers with big floating arrows over them saying "pull this, retard," which open up the next bit of corridor. Ah, the Quake II school of puzzle design.
But why am I still talking about puzzles and platforming? What am I, some kind of six-foot ovary? Let's talk about the combat! Yeah, that's what us penis owners like! And not unlike my penis, the combat's kind of a mess. And a lot less difficult than the game thinks it is. Most of the time you can just wail on the robots, occasionally dodging or using a charge attack if you're feeling fancy. But the sweep attack is useless, and the block is useless except for one single enemy who stun-locks you with a fast combo like the cheap little bitch it is.
And if you thought Tripitaka was clingy, then she's a butter-fingered ice queen compared to the camera, which hovers lovingly behind Monkey's glistening back muscles during combat when zooming further out would have made for much cleaner visuals and less chance of getting a claw in the earhole from some offscreen troublemaker. Sometimes the game gives you the opportunity to stealth your way around some robots on smoke break, but really it's just quicker to get caught and slap them in the tamagotchis, plus you get more experience. Speaking of which, the upgrades are poorly balanced. You can get a health regeneration upgrade really early on, making things even more trivial and banishing health pickups to the increasingly crowded Bin of Useless.
So the gameplay design is pretty undisciplined, you can beat a lot of the game by taping the controller to a drum kit during the solo at the beginning of Hot for Teacher, and a lot of the in-game animations look like someone went through and randomly removed half the frames. But while their personalities waver, the characters have quite a good chemistry and some appealing dialogue that makes them hard to dislike, even if the tone in a couple of moments lurchingly shifting webcomic style between goofing about and angsty drama, an issue it shares with the developer's last game, Heavenly Sword.
My main problem with the story is it's hard to stay invested when the main plot is based around pursuit of revenge against an antagonist that we haven't actually seen. The robots display no controlling intelligence and could just be wrecking shit up for robo-giggles. This does get sort of get explained in the ending, but it goes for a slightly retarded twist that doesn't really gel with anything up to that point. Without wishing to spoil, turns out the big baddie is just misunderstood. And I suppose his giant laser death-scorpions have just been trying to hand me an apology card and a fruit basket.
Cheeky monkey: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
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