Time Ex­tend: En­slaved: Odyssey To The West

Mon­key magic: how born sto­ry­tellers ex­pertly up­dated a literary clas­sic

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BY CHRIS SCHILLING

No, it’s noth­ing like the book. En­slaved may be based on a piece of clas­sic Chi­nese literature (Wu Cheng’en’s Jour­ney To The West) but it takes sub­stan­tial lib­er­ties with the source ma­te­rial. Rather, the orig­i­nal text serves as a start­ing point for a very dif­fer­ent kind of ad­ven­ture – one that, five years on, might sound fa­mil­iar. Stop us if you’ve played this one be­fore: a tac­i­turn, world-weary man re­luc­tantly es­corts a smart but naïve young woman across a ru­ined Amer­ica. Pock­ets of hu­man sur­vivors eke out a mis­er­able ex­is­tence in this over­grown world, no longer the planet’s dom­i­nant species. The pair’s west­ward jour­ney brings mo­ments of tragedy and hope, as an un­easy al­liance steadily blos­soms into some­thing more mean­ing­ful, be­fore an end­ing that hangs upon a choice be­tween liv­ing a bliss­ful lie or con­fronting a hor­ri­fy­ing truth. To re­turn to En­slaved af­ter play­ing The Last Of Us is to be shocked at how many sim­i­lar­i­ties there are be­tween the two. Both fea­ture strangely beau­ti­ful fu­ture dystopias; both de­lib­er­ately sub­vert the tra­di­tional pi­o­neer’s jour­ney across Amer­ica; both fea­ture odd-cou­ple cen­tral re­la­tion­ships that en­deav­our to side­step cliché (and mostly suc­ceed). More perti­nently, both dis­play a rare com­mit­ment to ludonar­ra­tive con­sis­tency. Here are worlds that have been metic­u­lously thought through, where ev­ery part is con­gru­ous to an in­ter­nal logic.

Al­most im­me­di­ately, you can see the ben­e­fit of hav­ing your writer and lead ac­tor in­volved from the start. Af­ter a whirl­wind open­ing set-piece, scribe Alex Gar­land (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Ex Machina) es­tab­lishes the setup with ad­mirable econ­omy: tech-savvy Trip frees her­self from a slave ship, leav­ing via its fi­nal es­cape pod, be­fore plac­ing an elec­tronic head­band on fel­low sur­vivor and playable pro­tag­o­nist Mon­key while he re­cov­ers from the crash. This de­vice, as he learns in painful fash­ion, forces him to do as she says. Your mis­sion is de­tailed in a sin­gle line: “Get me back to my home, and you can go back to yours.”

There’s a plau­si­ble nar­ra­tive ex­cuse for en­sur­ing your part­ner’s safety, too: we learn that the head­band is track­ing Trip’s own bio­met­rics, and will de­liver a lethal jolt to Mon­key should her heart stop beat­ing. “If I die, you die,” she says, sim­ply. So in a sin­gle cutscene, we have our mo­ti­va­tions for both join­ing Trip and keep­ing her alive. It’s abun­dantly clear that Gar­land not only plays games but un­der­stands that play­ers have lim­ited pa­tience for this sort of thing. Few story-led games cut to the chase this quickly, but then few story-led games in­volve the writer from the be­gin­ning.

En­slaved of­fers ev­i­dence for the case that it’s bet­ter to knock the story into shape while build­ing the game than it is once most of the work has al­ready been done.

En­slaved main­tains this snappy pac­ing through­out its open­ing hours. Trip’s skills as a hacker pro­vide a cred­i­ble rea­son for a HUD that al­lows the player to see Mon­key’s health bar and his shield, as well as Trip’s vi­tal signs. Soon af­ter­ward, you’re tasked with catch­ing a drag­on­fly mech that Trip then presses into ser­vice as a re­mote cam­era, swoop­ing over en­vi­ron­ments to scan them in ad­vance for haz­ards and en­e­mies. Thus the game ex­cuses the vis­ual over­lays that high­light the de­tec­tion radii of dor­mant mechs in the area, as well as the sen­sor trig­gers for mines, and way­points that mark your im­me­di­ate des­ti­na­tion.

In­deed, the se­quence lead­ing to its cap­ture serves both use­ful nar­ra­tive and me­chan­i­cal pur­poses. It’s an en­gag­ing bit of sim­ple park­our that de­vel­ops the cen­tral re­la­tion­ship, start­ing to defuse the hos­til­ity caused by Trip’s co­er­cion and to build a rap­port be­tween the leads, while also in­ject­ing some nec­es­sary lev­ity. Nitin Sawh­ney’s ver­sa­tile sound­track, mean­while, adopts a whim­si­cal, light-hearted tone as Mon­key grows frus­trated by the elu­sive bug.

Else­where, the first mech en­counter high­lights both Trip’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity and Mon­key’s aware­ness of the dan­ger­ous world out­side the gated en­claves of the re­main­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion. Trip can set off an EMP to tem­po­rar­ily dis­able the robots that at­tack her, or cre­ate an elec­tronic de­coy as a tem­po­rary dis­trac­tion, but Mon­key’s the only one strong enough to dis­man­tle them. This leads to a neat re­ver­sal of the mas­ter­slave re­la­tion­ship: in Mon­key’s do­main, it’s as im­por­tant that Trip lis­ten to him as he

to her, so ex­plain­ing a ra­dial com­mand menu that lets Mon­key tell Trip when to move and when to stay put. In a game as­sem­bled so in­tel­li­gently, it’s a pity devel­oper Ninja The­ory doesn’t al­ways credit its play­ers with sim­i­lar smarts. When Trip squeals and strug­gles to cling on af­ter Mon­key’s thrown over a gap, it’s ob­vi­ous we need to quickly leap across and pull her up, though a text prompt pops up to spell it out. It’s the game’s most vex­ing trait.

Still, Gar­land’s in­flu­ence is im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent – as, too, is that of Andy Serkis. What­ever it is that al­lows Serkis to tap so ex­pertly into a simian mind­set, it’s pow­er­fully ev­i­dent here. Broad-shoul­dered and hunched, cloth ‘tail’ dan­gling from his belt, Mon­key is clearly strong enough to beat seven shades of steel from mechanoid op­po­nents, yet he’s also ath­letic enough to swing easily be­tween poles and vines. And that’s be­fore you see him move. He scam­pers up hand­holds with dis­arm­ing speed, and has pos­si­bly the most sat­is­fy­ing lad­der-climb­ing an­i­ma­tion yet com­mit­ted to a game disc, nim­bly skip­ping sev­eral rungs to reach the top in an in­stant.

Many saw the game’s sticky plat­form­ing as a flaw, but it’s con­sis­tent with the char­ac­ter. Mon­key’s no Nathan Drake, no boul­derer scrab­bling des­per­ately across con­ve­niently crum­bling rock faces. Sure, he suf­fers a small hand­ful of scripted falls, but not one is his fault: un­der your com­mand he’s a ca­pa­ble – nay, fear­less – climber. It wouldn’t make much nar­ra­tive sense if he was con­stantly strug­gling to re­tain his grip, even if this rather lim­its the sen­sa­tion of im­me­di­ate peril. Hap­pily, there’s of­ten a good rea­son for mak­ing haste, whether it’s a tur­ret trained on your po­si­tion or the fact that Trip’s in im­mi­nent dan­ger

The same ap­plies to com­bat. The fe­roc­ity with which Mon­key smashes mechs to pieces is ex­plained in one terse line – “My par­ents were killed by a mech at­tack when I was a kid” – and if his moveset ini­tially seems wor­ry­ingly sim­ple, it ex­pands over time, his staff dou­bling as a melee and pro­jec­tile weapon. Ninja The­ory would de­velop more mal­leable and re­spon­sive com­bat sys­tems for DmC: Devil

May Cry, but there’s a thrillingly pri­mal sat­is­fac­tion to the way Mon­key wields his staff. As he pre­pares for bat­tle, he’s a coiled spring; sud­denly, that in­ter­nalised rage bursts forth in ev­ery blow, ac­com­pa­nied by rum­ble feed­back in the con­troller and a loud me­tal­lic clank. What it lacks in sub­tlety, it com­pen­sates for in sheer au­dio­vi­sual force, height­ened by slow-mo fin­ish­ing moves as Mon­key lets out a cathar­tic roar.

Nonethe­less, Ninja The­ory seems aware that per­haps nei­ther the com­bat nor the plat­form­ing would stand up to longterm scru­tiny. Thank­fully, nei­ther re­ally has to. Light-but-en­gag­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal puzzles present a welcome change of pace: a se­quence where Mon­key un­furls the sails of a wind­mill is an un­doubted high­light. Later,

GAR­LAND’S DI­A­LOGUE IS MORE THAN UP TO METAPHOR­I­CAL HEAVY LIFT­ING, AND MON­KEY DOES THE PHYS­I­CAL EQUIV­A­LENT

an os­ten­si­bly straight­for­ward climb­ing sec­tion is re­fash­ioned into a sur­pris­ingly chal­leng­ing race. If some co-op­er­a­tive lever-pulling se­quences feel con­trived in their ar­range­ment and one or two ideas re­peat them­selves in the sec­ond half, there’s usu­ally a fresh con­text in each case – and even if not, Gar­land’s di­a­logue is more than up to the metaphor­i­cal heavy lift­ing, while Mon­key does the phys­i­cal equiv­a­lent. And when the pace does slacken, and En­slaved can’t quite give us some­thing new to keep our thumbs oc­cu­pied, it usu­ally finds a way to keep our eyes glued to the screen. When the cam­era’s not point­ing you in the right di­rec­tion, it’s pro­vid­ing art­ful fram­ing for some ex­cep­tional en­vi­ron­ment de­sign, proof that post-apoc­a­lyp­tic themes needn’t re­sult in pal­ettes formed ex­clu­sively of greys, browns and sickly yel­lows. You get to climb twisted struc­tures of rusted steel, in­ter­twined with flour­ish­ing red and green flora. You can ex­plore a mech grave­yard, bound­ing over what looks like mod­ernist sculp­ture, but at sec­ond glance ap­pears to be a gi­gan­tic spinal col­umn. If this is what the world looks like when na­ture and ma­chin­ery have claimed co-own­er­ship, per­haps we should leave them to it.

You get to cover a lot of ground in a rel­a­tively short time – such that by the time you reach your des­ti­na­tion, a mere eight or so hours af­ter the game be­gan, it re­ally feels like you’ve been on a jour­ney.

It added up to pos­i­tive re­views but, by most ac­cepted met­rics, a flop. A high­con­cept con­tem­po­rary sci-fi ti­tle based on a literary clas­sic from 16th-cen­tury China al­ways felt like a tough sell, and so it proved. And yet its cul­tural legacy may well res­onate longer than its lim­ited ini­tial im­pact. There are clear signs here of the de­sign thrift that will serve Ninja The­ory well in the forth­com­ing Hell­blade – a block­buster on a rel­a­tive shoestring. And for all that En­slaved bor­rows from the Un­charted se­ries, it’s clear now that Naughty Dog owes Ninja The­ory a debt in re­turn. But then the no­tion of shar­ing ideas is rooted in a clas­sic al­le­gor­i­cal yarn that es­pouses the virtues of col­lab­o­ra­tion and mu­tual un­der­stand­ing – yes, that orig­i­nal Jour­ney To The West. Who said it’s noth­ing like the book?

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The cam­era regularly shifts to point you in the right di­rec­tion, though it pays to ig­nore it – hid­den masks and orbs that up­grade Mon­key’s abil­i­ties usu­ally lie away from the sug­gested route

Though the game can’t al­ways skirt cliché, Gar­land has a habit of spik­ing ex­pec­ta­tions. An in­tact fish tank ap­pears to be lead­ing to a ‘life finds a way’ mes­sage, be­fore this closed ecosys­tem is crudely smashed open by the fists of a mech

En­slaved’s per­for­mance cap­ture means its an­i­ma­tion re­mains both ex­pres­sive and sur­pris­ingly sub­tle. It still does some things bet­ter than mod­ern games, too: the dead eyes of Kevin Spacey’s dop­pel­ganger in Ad­vanced War­fare aren’t even close to these dig­i­tal peep­ers

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