Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Game: Enslaved (demo)

This review will be something of a departure from the norm, as what I've played is not a full game, but merely a demo that released yesterday. I was looking forward to it not only because I appreciate a playable demo of any new game, but Enslaved: Odyssey to the West in particular needed one to really see its strengths and weaknesses close up. Releasing on the same date as the new 3D Castlevania game doesn't do it any favors, either. (Note: Castlevania doesn't have a demo, but it does have reputation.)

In case you aren't familiar with the game at all - not too much of a stretch, I imagine - it's very loosely based on a Chinese novel called "Journey to the West." The main characters are Monkey, the playable protagonist, and Trip, his female companion. The two were both passengers aboard a prison transport ship on a future Earth in which war machines (here, "mechs") outnumber humans and much of civilization has been taken back by nature. Trip escapes and initiates a self-destruct sequence. During the ensuing series of explosions, Monkey's pod breaks loose and he likewise escapes. In the demo, the player's goal is to make their way to an escape pod before the ship crashes. He ends up hitching a ride on the outside of Trip's lone remaining pod, and when he comes to after the crash landing, is wearing a headband - one, it is explained, that is subject to the voice commands of Trip. She needs him to help her get home, and as he is now "enslaved" to her, he also needs her to live, else the headband will kill him.

The playable part of the demo starts with Monkey just having gotten out of his prison pod and running along interior catwalks toward the end of the ship where the escape pods are. It seems likely that this is the beginning of the game, as each new move is prefaced by a tutorial message that pauses the action and instructs the player on how to continue by using the newly revealed ability. Standard moves like jumping, dodging, and two different attacks come into play, as well as two obviously useful moves that attack with a wide swing at multiple enemies and break through blocks, respectively. The bulk of the demo is platforming, using pipes and handholds to traverse both the inside and outer hull of the ship in a race against the clock to successfully get to a pod before the ship crashes; to that end, there is a sequence that must be performed quickly to avoid Monkey splattering into a building.

I dislike comparing games to other games that have come before, especially well-received ones. I've seen a growing consensus already that Enslaved's platforming is reminiscent of Uncharted 2; having not played it, I couldn't compare the two even if I wanted to. It's simpler, though, to rate Enslaved's demo on its own merit.

To that end, it feels pretty generic mechanically. The controls offer nothing new (at least, not at the beginning) and don't feel as responsive as I'd prefer. The good news is that there seems to be generous assistance on hand to prevent the player from jumping the wrong direction, or in the right direction but missing the intended spot. The platforming elements, like the pipes and handholds, have a shiny glow that marks them as viable places to grab onto (whether that is a feature of the particular level's platforms, or if it remains throughout the game, is unknown), though it seems to retain the quirk of platforming games in which seemingly unnecessary poles jut out from buildings and such for the sole purpose of swinging on them.

The combat, such as it can be experienced in a few quick fights against the bottom rung enemies, feels better. Monkey has a staff that extends out both ends of a cylinder that he carries with him, and can use it both offensively and defensively (in shield form). I rather like the idea of a primitive weapon over typical swords and other bladed implements of doom, and here it works effectively. How it plays out is, again, unknown.

Visually, while the game is necessarily "dirty", it doesn't scream "2010 release". There's something choppy across the textures that makes God of War 3 seem all the more impressive. The main characters themselves look good, with Trip in particular, in all honesty, looking rather hot. The one complaint I have about Monkey's appearance aside from his bizarre flag football sash hanging off his waist is his Dragonball Z hair that looks oddly 2D when compared to the rest of him. Early on, he sounds like he's from New York - and perhaps the scene where the ship hits the Statue of Liberty and he is in shock supports this - but it felt a little unnecessary.

Ninja Theory, the developer, is mostly known for their early PS3 exclusive Heavenly Sword. To many, that game was a poor man's God of War, with a girl as the main character. Whether Enslaved becomes relegated to "oh, it's like X game" status or stands on its own remains to be seen. An action platformer needs good action and reliable platforming to succeed, and while this demo seems to show that both areas are good enough, nothing about the game so far seems any better than that. Just good enough doesn't make for a day one purchase on an unknown IP. And, hey, there's that Castlevania game in the display case too.