Breaking free from the action mold, here's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West tells the story of an unlikely pair tasked with navigating through a decaying New York City that is inhabited by an antihuman robotic race.

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Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
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Jeff Bakalar
Dan Ackerman
Scott Stein
4 min read
Watch this: Game trailer: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

With the holiday gaming season just beginning to turn its gears, we've already been greeted by an early contender for a spot on wish lists. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is one of the best games you probably haven't heard about this year, so allow us to introduce you.

For those who'd rather watch than read, please enjoy our exclusive trailer for the game.

The story told in Enslaved pairs an unlikely duo: a monstrous and agile man named Monkey and a sweet but helpless tech-savvy accomplice who goes by Trip. Together they must navigate through a decaying New York City of 150 years into the future, absent of any life save for an antihuman race of robotic creatures. Bound together by a mysterious slave headband, Monkey and Trip must help one another survive the decomposing landscape and its flesh-hungry automaton inhabitants.

With the ever-capable developer Ninja Theory at the reigns (see Heavenly Sword), Enslaved features an exciting combat system and a refreshing take on the action-strategy genre. Fans of the Uncharted and Prince of Persia series will be happy to hear that Enslaved occasionally resembles some of the acrobatic gameplay from these two classic franchises, all while keeping itself unique enough--not to mention the game's opening 30 minutes are among the best we've played all year.

There's a solid amount of variety to keep things moving along, including an upgrade system that rewards the player to explore all of the nooks and crannies of the game space. Enslaved is as linear as games come, but don't assume there is only one route to take.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (photos)

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The game isn't without its fair share of faults, however. Camera and environmental glitches are aplenty, though we never found ourselves completely stuck. There are a few moments where the next move isn't abundantly clear, but it's a welcome change of pace compared with a guide arrow or breadcrumb trail.

As we expected with Ninja Theory developing, Enslaved boasts an excellent story and character modeling. Cut scenes, motion capture, and voice acting are all top-notch, which really adds to the overall production value of the game. Enslaved is definitely one to look out for this fall--certainly a worthy title among the typical cookie-cutter action games we're used to seeing.

For more on Enslaved, check out the live demo from last week's episode of preGame!

Ninja Theory/Namco

In the box labeled "pleasant surprises" lays a neatly bundled copy of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. My initial expectations of this very Japanese-sounding action game were modest, to say the least, especially as the prerelease buzz around it had been just about zero.

Getting my hands on a preview version about a month ago, I popped it in and ended up transfixed for hours--something of a rarity, considering how jaded one can get about the flood of preholiday releases clamoring for attention. The opening sequence, escaping a doomed airship falling apart in midair, nails the all-important task of engaging players right away.

The key to the game's success is an element often missing-in-action: pacing. The game is cut into compartmentalized sections (almost too much so); some require combat with robots, some require exploration and puzzle-solving. Games such as Batman: Arkham Asylum used a similar mix of styles to great effect. It's almost enough to allow one to overlook the game's Final Fantasy-lite characters. The spiky hair/no shirt look is a tough one to pull off, especially if your name is (as in the case of the main character) "Monkey."

Ninja Theory/Namco

Somehow Enslaved manages to make the whole post-apocalyptic look work, despite being one of the most overused settings in interactive entertainment history. The overgrown remains of New York City look like something out of the History Channel's "Life Without People" series, and it's always amusing to see local landmarks laid to waste. One early sequence takes place in the remnants of Grand Central Station, which will also serve as a battleground in next year's Crysis 2.

Why New York's main transportation hub is suddenly such a target for game makers is a mystery, matched only by the curious location of the safe haven Monkey and his companion Trip are questing toward; based on the description given at the start of the game, apparently the future of mankind lies somewhere just north of Albany.

Ninja Theory/Namco

Sure, it's easy to handicap runaway hits and tentpole gaming franchises, but a far bigger challenge comes from attempting to guess the dark horses. They come every year; last holiday, Borderlands was one of them. And in a gaming season that seems suddenly short of AAA blockbusters, the table's more wide open that normal for a surprise contender.

Namco-Bandai's Enslaved is made by the same developers who created Heavenly Sword, a better-than-expected PS3 game from early in its life cycle. Heavenly Sword played like a next-gen God of War well before God of War III ever existed. Its production values were also spectacular, yet the game quietly disappeared. In case you missed it, consider Enslaved your second chance.

Enslaved feels more like Uncharted than God of War, with its semi-open environments and ledges to leap from, but its gripping style and beautiful design feel like a futuristic Heavenly Sword. Sure, the setting--a post-apocalyptic New York--feels like it should get point demerits for unoriginality. Those points are rapidly re-earned in the storytelling, which is an adaptation of the 400-year-old Chinese tale Journey to the West as envisioned by novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland. The sunny, verdant apocalypse that is Enslaved's universe is fresh, humorous, and thankfully free of dusty waste. Hats off to a game that celebrates single-player gaming, and also bothers to think up a story epic enough to match the graphics (including lots of motion capture courtesy of Andy Serkis).