Enslaved: Odyssey To The West director Tameem Antoniades recently said he wanted his post-apocalyptic adventure inspired by the Chinese classic Journey To The West to be like the films of Hayao Miyazaki: “A fantasy… where everything is different and everything is colorful.” Antoniades and his collaborators at Ninja Theory have partly succeeded. Enslaved does an admirable job of capturing some of the physical and ethereal magic that make Ghibli’s animated features such a delight to watch. The game’s vision of post-Robot War New York City in the mid-22nd century is swimming in vivid primary colors and imparts an impressive sense of scale. The story, penned by screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later) and developed alongside Antoniades and performer/co-director Andy Serkis, also nails the pacing of Miyazaki classics, foregoing exposition to create a sense of otherworldly mystery. That story, however, often hampers the game’s simple-but-satisfying play. Worse still, unlike in Miyazaki’s work, Enslaved’s protagonists are unlikeable caricatures of negative gender stereotypes.
The chunky martial arts punctuated by light shooting that made up the actual play in Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword returns in Enslaved, streamlined and married to jumping and climbing sequences to flesh out the adventure. Combat is visually complex, but simple—the lead character, Monkey, has weak and strong mêlée strikes, as well as unlockable counter and dodge attacks. The game’s jumping and climbing is similar to Uncharted, with most jumps automatically executed, provided you’re pressing the analog stick in the right direction. It’s possible to fail—ledges can crumble, late stages take place in mechanical environments where gears can knock you to your death—but you’re typically just going through the motions, pressing X and watching Monkey go.
The remaining play in Enslaved is in directing Monkey’s companion, Tripitaka. The two are linked by Monkey’s slave headband: After he and tech-savvy Trip escape “the slavers,” she puts it on him to force him to escort her west toward home. It’s both narrative justification for Monkey’s health bar, and a threat, as Trip can hurt him with the band if he disobeys. In the tradition of directable AI companions, Trip is one of the worst. Less competent than Ico’s blind Yorda, more cowardly than Heavenly Sword’s psychologically imbalanced Kai, Trip is the anti-Alyx Vance. Monkey’s role as her protector isn’t a good hook for player attachment. At the beginning, it’s forced on him; at the end, when Monkey is a willing participant, it’s inexplicable, because there’s been no real building of understanding between the two characters. And Trip’s cowardice and helplessness would be less offensive if the camera didn’t constantly linger on the cleavage spilling out of her tube top, or her torn, skin-tight pants. The problem isn’t that she’s designed to be titillating, it’s that she isn’t choosing to be titillating.
Enslaved has other small problems that sour the game, including the fact that Monkey is a jerk, and a third act that falls apart after Monkey, Trip, and obese salvager Pigsy journey to the slavers’ base in Nevada. There are bright spots, too. The art direction is believable and still fantastic, Nitin Sawhney’s score is spectacular, and the fighting is good fun. The narrative also takes a last-minute twist that’s unexpected, for both its plot ramifications and its moral ambiguity. Small victories aside, though, Ninja Theory still has a long way to go before it makes a game whose quality matches its ambitions. Reassessing its gender politics would be a good place to start.