Monkey is a man that you don’t mess around with. His vibrant white hair and red face dye will do little to distract you from his tree trunk arms and monster abdominals. Controlled by a ferocious girl with a knack for technology, they’re an unlikely pair with both brains and brawn. Together they explore a post-apocalyptic wasteland overthrown by mother nature, whereby skyscrapers are decaying under the pressure of twisting vines and roads are concealed under beds of crimson poppies.
This isn’t a haven though. Mechs are everywhere, patrolling the rooftops or waiting in dormant groups. Alex Garland has taken a few cues from his previous work 28 Days Later, concocting a powerful story based on the survival of humanity and the attraction of a few isolated survivors. There are less than a dozen characters in Enslaved, but each is crafted with a personality and believability that really binds the game together.
The campaign starts with the best tutorial that I can remember in recent years. Monkey escapes from a slave ship that is crashing into the heart of New York city, only to awake with a headband that forces him to obey Trip’s every demand. By threatening to administer pain (that could eventually lead to death) she forces Monkey to help take her home.
Players control Monkey in two distinct ways; fighting swarms of mechs, or traversing the beautifully crafted environments. Each level is varied in style and filled with detail and life, but actually moving through them is mind numbingly simple. Akin to the Assassin’s Creed franchise, gamers simply have to point Monkey at the next foothold and press A or X to proceed. And that’s pretty much all there is to it. The occasional block will fall under your feet or a particular gap might need a timed jump, but by and large it’s incredibly easy.
Combat uses a joypad mashing two button set up, allowing Monkey to combine light and heavy attacks. The shield and counter moves are surprisingly responsive, but it quickly boils down to a generic ‘stun, heavy attack, shield’ formula. Collectible energy orbs allow you to upgrade your abilities, but most of them are optional and provide only minor improvements. Enemy AI is predictable (although perhaps this is how mechs are supposed to behave?) and provide minimal opportunities for strategy. Surprisingly, some of the best tactical moments come in the earlier parts of the game. Distant enemy outposts force you to judge the duration of a limited shield and destructible cover, encouraging the use of Trip’s minimal distractions. It’s a shame that these thoughtful segments are lost in favour of scale and numbers in the latter half of the campaign.
Objectives are tied to the narrative and varied in design. There are no fetch quests here – instead you’ll be breaking into a survivor’s camp, outrunning a mechanical dog and unshackling a behemoth sized mech. This helps to build a pace that will keep you driving forward relentlessly from start to finish. A few unexpected hoverboard sections (using a ‘cloud’ stolen by Monkey) are highly polished and utilise tight controls. Boss battles are thrilling and offer a much needed challenge, but are spaced out a little too far apart for my liking.
The sound design is excellent and the motion capturing from Andy Serkis is remarkably natural. Unfortunately the overall presentation is let down somewhat by the ageing unreal engine – character models look a little last generation and texture pop up occurs a little too often. The ending was also a little sudden, fitting the game thematically but breaking away dramatically from the small scale drama before it.
Enslaved is an impressive experience. The narrative is immersive and the environments offer a breath taking sense of scale. As a game though, it’s very uninspired and lacks a challenge either responsively or intellectually.