Like homeless people, stray dogs, and even the occasional Ghostbuster, some video games simply fall through the cracks. Sometimes they were just released at the wrong time, eclipsed by a much bigger game or a surprise chart topper. Sometimes they just had bad marketing, or too many misconceived ideas about the game spread by word of mouth; often victim to the infamous “I heard it wasn’t that great” line one gamer says to another after glancing at one line of a review. Occasionally the game drops in price fairly quickly and many gamers, rather than snapping the game up, just assume the price drop is because the game wasn’t that good. More often than not more than one of these issues plague the games that should have been hits but instead, like my nephew playing Rock Band, fail to resonate with the crowd. Well in our new monthly column, aptly titled Underrated Game of the Month, we reach down through the cracks and try to pull some of the more deserving games back into the spotlight.
This month’s game is an exceptional platformer that should have ignited a new franchise, but ultimately had disappointing sales. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is one of those game’s victim to many of the afore mentioned plagues that doom great games. The marketing was almost non-existent, I personally remember hearing nothing of the game before seeing it on store shelves, and what’s more, I did not have an immediate sense of what the game was from the cover art or basic description. (I remember actually thinking it was some Japanese RPG fare that I typically don’t find myself drawn to) The game also released during a fairly busy season and certain aspects of the game were way over stated amongst gamers. In fact, if not for a random Amazon sale on the game and the praise it received in a CAG thread I may have never even taken a chance on it.
So what were they saying?
The two biggest comments I remember hearing about Enslaved when it first launched was that it was essentially one giant escort mission; the most dreaded type of missions in gaming, and that the game was repetitive and easy. While to some extent both of these have a sliver of truth to them, as most “word of mouth” about a game does, they were blown way out of proportion. You do spend the bulk of the game working your way through the world with Trip, a young girl trying desperately to get back to her village, but in many ways her presence serves to help find your way through the world rather than typical “escort mission.” The majority of the time she is more like a friendly AI on your team. As for the repetitiveness and ease? The game’s difficulty will vary on a couple of major factors, mainly how experienced you are with platformer. Ultimately you are fighting a lot of enemies that are much stronger and quite able to kill you. And yes, the game does tend to feature much of the same gameplay throughout, but again, show me a platformer, or any game for that matter, that doesn’t? You gain new abilities, new attacks and even a couple of what could vaguely be called as vehicle missions are thrown in as you progress as well. To say the least, both misconceptions of the game were likely to have been largely propagated by people who had not played the game, only tried the demo or more likely are FPS junkies who don’t care for platformers anyway. Enslaved certainly doesn’t re-invent the platformer, but it uses many traditional elements with almost flawless execution.
Ok, so we’ve debunked some of the comments made about the game, what else makes it special?
What takes Enslaved from just another well constructed platformer to a whole other level rest on the elements of the game that don’t have so much to do with the game play. The story is fairly unique in gaming, while it does use a fairly common plot device. In the distant future humanity is on the brink of extinction in a post-apocalyptic world that was once over-run by Mechs, robots that seem to fancy shooting humans. Pretty standard fair I admit, but what makes this game’s premise interesting is that you play as Monkey, a man without a village who at the start of the game has been captured by slavers that work under the name Pyramid (guess what they do.) After taking advantage of an opportunity to break free cause by a teenage girl also captured by the slavers, the two manage to just barely escape the air-ship just before it crashes somewhere outside the ruins of New York City. Upon awakening Monkey finds that the girl, a sort of tech junkie named Trip, has attached a slave headband to him, forcing him to help her find her way back to her village; dodging Mechs and trying to navigate the overgrown landscape along the way. This isn’t your typical post-apocalyptic world either, set 150 years in the future, most of humanity’s mark on the world has been taken back by the earth; this is a lush, green world, not the typical gray, jagged world we are so often given by game developers. What’s more, the visuals are fantastic. Having never personally seen a modern human city abandoned for 150 years I can’t speak in terms of authenticity, but I have to image that in many ways this is what it would look like as the lines between civilization and nature are completely blurred.
Also visually striking are the facial animations of the game’s characters. More than once I completely felt as if I were viewing a movie while watching Trip or Monkey converse, even during in-game animations. I would even go so far as to say that, to date, Enslaved has the best character animations I have ever seen, being particularly true of the facial expressions, but even the body language of the characters speaks volumes. Couple this with some of the best voice acting I’ve seen in a game and you will find yourself attached to these characters before too long, meaning you feel the highs and the lows far more than you do in many games. One scene in particular, where Trip gives Monkey a dirty look after a conversation with the character Pigsy, managed to convey more without a word than some games manage with paragraphs of dialogue. Testament to the quality visuals: my nephew enjoyed watching this game be played so much he actually asked me if I would play it on a couple of occasions because he wanted to watch it.
Combine the incredibly impressive presentation with the well-refined game play and you find yourself with a game that clearly shows the passion of the developer and a game that definitely becomes about the experience rather than mashing buttons. The moment I realized that this game was amazing? When in one level where Monkey races to Trip’s location it occurred to me that I was actually worried I would not make it there in time. And while yes, the game is by no means perfect, and I don’t mean to present it as such, Enslaved certainly deserved much better than it got. There was one more thing that some gamers were likely to cite as a reason for not purchasing that I didn’t mention before, and that is the lack of multiplayer. If you only enjoy games with multiplayer, or you feel games without it simply have the same value, there is nothing I can really say that will persuade you otherwise, but I will state that the game certainly has some re-playability. Hell, if it means something, I can’t even remember the last time I played a game a 2nd time and it wasn’t just for the achievements. Many retailers are now offering the game up for under $20, and the game is honestly worth so much more. So if you haven’t already, get out there and pick this one up.