The sequel would have been amazing.
Sadly that sequel was not meant to be. Namco has since sworn off western development. Enslaved itself became a bargain-bin darling a month after it launched. Which is all the more frustrating as the basic foundations for an good videogame are there. But the things Ninja Theory got wrong, they got very, very wrong.
Behold The Nanny State Platforming Experience
Enslaved’s platforming is unique in that there’s no platforming involved at all. There’s no pixel-perfect jumps for your character (Andy Serkis’ fine performance as “Monkey”) to perform; no daring leaps of faith as you shimmy from one ledge to another. Enslaved’s platforming is built around handholds. Sometimes they’re presented as conveniently placed pipes or chunks of bulging masonry, or unreasonably hard-to-reach access panels. Or sometimes just highly suspect handles protruding randomly from the environment.
I’m not actually upset at this design. If it were put into a game where you were encouraged to explore your could lead to a lot of interesting moments where you find your own way through a level by exploiting the game’s geometry, a la Assassin’s Creed. But Enslaved doesn’t let you explore. There is one path as you move from handhold to handhold. Furthermore it’s impossible to miss a handhold– the game simply will not let you jump if you’re not aimed at the next handhold in the sequence, even if you see another handhold you know for a fact Monkey is capable of reaching.
Platforming in Enslaved usually breaks down to Monkey reaching out in random directions as the player mashes the jump button, desperately hoping to find the next valid handhold. This mechanic is slow and clumsy and teaches the player that the only things worth looking around for are is shimmering edges of an usable handhold. In any sane platforming game a new area is an invitation to exploration– in Enslaved it’s just something you endure as you wander around trying to start the handhold sequence.
This could easily be made into something that worked, provided Ninja Theory were willing to allow the player to actually fail at a platforming segment. Open up all the available handholds and encourage the player to explore and abandon the tightly scripted gameplay model that ensures every player will encounter 90% of the game’s content.
Enslaved’s platforming is something you stumble through between combat sections. That’s problematic, as the combat is also horrible.
Devil May Cry. (And So May We).
Like any fan of Hideki Kamiya’s Devil May Cry series I was deeply concerned that Capcom had tapped Ninja Theory for the franchise reboot, a decision seemingly based entirely off of Ninja Theory’s name and not their pedigree. There was nothing present in Ninja Theory’s aggressively mediocre 3rd person brawler Heavenly Sword to indicate that the company should be entrusted with Devil May Cry. I came into Enslaved knowing about its particular platforming problems, but I hoped to gain some insight onto what we could expect out of Ninja Theory’s take on Devil May Cry.
The future does not look promising.
Enslaved’s platforming is clumsy and mash-happy at the worst of times, but Enslaved’s combat is like that all the time. What’s worse, the combat is quite difficult. Whereas you have to go out of your way to find a fail condition in Enslaved’s platforming sections, death awaits at the most basic of Enslaved’s many combat encounters..
Enslaved’s combat isn’t mashy in the fun, cathartic Darksiders sort of way where you could just randomly alternate between strong and weak attacks and make neat stuff happen. Quite the opposite. It’s mashy in the way where Monkey doesn’t respond quickly enough in any encounter and you’re never sure what result you’ll get out of any particular fight. Fighting in Enslaved is clumsy and slow and largely ineffective. Combine this with a recalcitrant camera and an utter lack of a lock-on targeting system and you wind up with the most frustrating, un-fun combat experience imaginable that doesn’t involve an MMA pay per view featuring Herschel Walker.
Quality Assurance Not Assured
Here’s a litany of other issues with Enslaved that I can’t be bothered to go into length dissecting as I’d rather be playing Bayonetta instead:
* Enslaved may have the worst camera ever devised. And brother, I know bad cameras. I played Ninja Gaiden. Enslaved gives you a camera that will fight all attempts to move it into position. Want to search around the level looking for upgrade orbs? “Fuck you”, says the camera “I’m going to firmly affix myself to six feet behind you for no apparent reason”. Getting lit up by a machine gun somwhere off screen? The camera thinks it’s far more important you stare at this handhold instead. Want to pan the camera down so you can see if the ledge your standing on is a valid drop-down point? No, the camera would much rather you pay attention to the painstakingly-crafted ruins of midtown Manhattan. The Enslaved camera is a fucking asshole, and if you were to somehow meet this camera in real life you would gladly suffer whatever legal proceedings would take place after breaking its nose.
* The hover board is without a doubt the most fun part of Enslaved. It’s unique in the world of platforming adventure games, it feels empowering to use, and you could easily see how something along these same basic lines could make a Sonic game work in 3d. Sadly you only use it a handful of times and the game’s logic never bothers to explain how or why you’re allowed to use it. In fact there are areas where you cannot access the hover board only to have the hover board at your disposal moments later when you use it to enter a scripted chase sequence.
* Enslaved has more random texture pop-in than a Mass Effect 1 playthrough operated by someone on a three-day meth bender. What’s worse, texture pop-in will show up during cutscenes Ninja Theory had to know were plagued with pop-in. I recall an instance where Monkey finds himself in the ruins of a ballroom, with the camera fixed lovingly on a long shot of a disco ball, a scene no doubt meant to contrast the lush ruins with a glimmering relic of ancient technology. This would have worked wonderfully had the game not required five seconds to render the disco ball properly; as if it were a castoff piece of level geometry from Mario 64.
* Sometimes the game will autosave after an mid-level checkpoint. Sometimes the game will autosave after a cutscene. Sometimes it won’t do any of these things at all and the next time you turn on the game you’ll find yourself at the very start of the level. It’s impossible to tell as the game gives you noindication of when it’s performing a save. Heaven help the player who happens to turn off the console during one of these mysterious, unseen autosave events.
* Enslaved is roughly six hours long; but there’s an upgrade system and an achievement for collecting all possible upgrade orbs. However, there is no New Game Plus system present, meaning there’s no encouragement to play through the game a second time, provided you were masochistic enough to engage in such self-destructive activity.
* I cannot explain the depths of my loathing for this game’s ending without spoiling it. Instead, just imagine all the most disappointing bits of Matrix Reload. Then, find or create an open wound and rub road salt into it. Then you’ll be somewhat close to my experience with Enslaved’s ending. The emotional trauma induced by Enslaved’s ending is inescapable without psychotropic drugs and/or repeated visits to a mental health professional..
Wait, There Was Something Good Here?
So I started this by saying that Enslaved’s stillborn sequel would have been amazing, and if you’ve read through all this it sounds like I’m ahypocrite. After all, this game fails spectacularly at the two things an action/adventure game needs to get right– exploration and combat. But I played through Enslaved in three sittings over two days. Something had to be there to keep my attention for that long.
Enslaved may not be a fundamentally good game as much as it is a fundamentally good experience. Enslaved’s level design and art style make tooling through it’s lush desolation an enthralling experience. Up until the final five minutes the story is decent enough, and the characters are fantastic.
Assassin’s Creed is the best example I can provide. The first Assassin’s Creed was a dire game. It was repetitive, the combat was atrocious, and the platforming elements, although fundamentally sound, were not enough to carry the rest. But the sequel was amazing, a legitimately great game, and all it took was an overhaul to the combat system and a greater variety of stuff to do. The basic foundation was fine. All Resident Evil games prior to 4 are also good examples– sometimes all it takes is fine-tuning one core aspect of your game to turn what is a frustrating gameplay experience into a true classic.
So should you, the intrepid reader, play Enslaved? Absolutely not. I inflict such horrors to myself to satisfy my intellectual curiosity, and now I have no reason whatsoever to be interested in the next installment of Devil May Cry. Ninja Theory may be excellent at building characters and worlds and atmosphere, but they may not be capable of making a good videogame. Even as a b-level videogame experience like Deadly Premonition, Enslaved falls short. There’s entirely too much promise to Enslaved to be enjoyed on an ironic level.