"Enslaved" captivates, but it's over too soon

"Enslaved" captivates, but it's over too soon

I find myself both enthralled by and a little disappointed with "Enslaved: Odyssey to the West," for this game does so many things right that I can only wring my hands in dismay in the places where it goes wrong.

"Enslaved" is based loosely around the Chinese folktale "Journey to the West." In that classic tale, the Monkey King, enslaved by a magical headband, is forced to escort the monk Tripitaka to India to obtain Buddhist scriptures — a journey to enlightenment, in other words.

Quite frankly, it's a story that's been made use of more often than you might believe, in manga, anime, film and television. For instance, "Dragon Ball" started off as a retelling, with Goku as the Monkey King, then veered off in a new direction. The 2008 Jet Li and Jackie Chan film "The Forbidden Kingdom" is also an adaptation of "Journey to the West."

Here the setting has been switched to the United States, long after an unknown apocalypse has ended civilization as we know it.  We meet our main character, Monkey, a muscular young man with the agility of his namesake, just as a chaotic event springs him from his cage aboard a flying slave ship. Our  immediate dilemma is that the disaster -- caused by a buxom young woman named Tripitaka, Trip for short, who is herself attempting escape -- will end with the ship slamming into the ground at high speed.

As we attempt to desert this sinking ship, we are quickly introduced to the platforming mechanics, which will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played "Uncharted," "Tomb Raider," "Prince of Persia" or any other game of this ilk. With simple button presses, we'll soon have Monkey jumping across chasms, climbing pipes, swinging from protuberances and racing across balance beams. And there's little guesswork about where to go, as all the climbable surfaces have a shine that naturally attracts the eye.

And once we, as Monkey, recover our gear -- including our shield-generating gauntlets and our size-changing energy staff -- we immediately receive tutelage in the fine art of combat against some robots that don't like it when prisoners make a run for it. The system is rather simple: one button equals a light, fast swing of the staff, unless held down -- then it becomes a charged attack with which to obliterate shields; another button is used for a slower, harder attack. You can mix the two up in order to execute a few simple combos, and you also are able to roll and block.

Eventually, we'll make it off the ship, and that's where the game really begins -- with Monkey unconscious and subject to the capracious whims of a busty redhead. Because when he regains wakefulness, he finds Trip -- a stranger at this point -- lurking near him and a golden slaveband fastened to his head. Trip admits it's her handiwork.

She figures that Monkey is her only hope for surviving her long journey home. And rather than trust that he's a nice helpful guy, she makes him a deal he can't refuse: If he doesn't do as she says, the headband will give him an unimaginably painful headache. And if she dies, he'll die too. She's synced the headband to her heartbeat to encourage his cooperation and her safety.

It's a great hook for cooperative character interactions -- or at least it should be. But while you do have to protect Trip's life on occasion, she's seldom in much danger; in fact, she can stun enemies to give you more time to help her. And while you sometimes must give her a boost up to a ledge, it usually doesn't get any more complex -- or cooperative -- than that. It's not bad by any means, but having previously seen cooperative game-play at its best (in the game "Ico"), I think they wasted an opportunity to do something really special.

OK, I do admit it's a very nice touch that Monkey's headband is used as the rationale for the game's HUD, which displays his health and shields, marks waypoints and serves other purposes -- and that Trip is blind to all that Monkey sees.

But what they see matters less to me than what we do while playing the game. "Enslaved" is eye-candy, pure and simple. Never before has a ruined world been so beautiful. Crumbling buildings are wrapped in ivy, trees sprouting anywhere they can find root, a perfect image of Mother Nature reclaiming our cities. The sky is blue and clear. If you're like me, you'll often find yourself stopping along the journey just to admire the scenery.

I just wish I was as entranced by the overall story. Oh, it's competently told for the most part, but there are plot holes big enough to drive a truck through, and I'm not talking about our ignorance about what destroyed the world. Unfortunately, I'm unwilling to go into much detail here, and it would spoil too much of the story for you, but let's just say that the big villain's actions constantly fail to jibe with its supposed motivations.

However, everything is fantastically "acted," from the animation of our characters to the performances by those providing their voices. And it shouldn't be any wonder: Monkey is "played" by Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movies. The result is characters who we believe in and understand.

The game's level design is pretty good overall, seamlessly shifting players between exposition, exploration and action throughout, with some stealth and a few puzzles thrown in for good measure. Yet it all feels a bit truncated. You know, too short; too simple; too straightforward.

Also, the battles throughout the game -- all of which are against the slavers' robots standing guard in the ruins -- don't begin to heat up until you're almost at the conclusion. And with the exception of the final boss, all the "big" bads you'll dance with are way too easy to overcome. A boss fight in which I can easily stun the enemy and pound them into oblivion, without ever getting hit myself, isn't a boss fight.

Ultimately, "Enslaved: Odyssey to the West" is a good game, with beautiful scenery, great acting and decent game-play. The real flaw is that it'll leave you wanting more.

"Enslaved: Odyssey to the West"
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Publisher: Namco Bandai.
Price: $59.99.
Rating: T for teen.
Recommendation: Although it's more than interesting enough to play, it's short. And with the exception of some in-game collectibles and the promise of future downloadable content, there isn't much replayability. So for the average gamer, this is a rental, not a buy.

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Images courtesy of Namco Bandai
Monkey swings like his namesake, clobbers robotic enemies and throws Trip across a chasm too far for her to cross on her own.
 

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