Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West may be the best video game I've ever played.

It reminds me of Scott Pilgrim versus the World. I like the movie a lot, but I don't think it is the best movie I've ever seen in the same way Odyssey is the best game I've ever played. What they have in common is that they're imagined down to the smallest detail, lovingly crafted, and unlike anything else out there. Every one of of the individual components that comprise these works is awesome, but when taken as a whole, they are so different that they fail commercially because there is no audience for such an idiosyncratic final product. The game sold poorly, but you can get it at a very good price on Amazon and elsewhere.

It's an adaptation of Journey to the West, one of the Four Classical Novels of Chinese literature, which has been adapted a zillion times. The long-running anime series Dragon Ball had its origin in Journey to the West. The story has been told and retold since before there was an America.  A pacifistic monk, named Xuanzang and sometimes called Tripitaka is traveling West to India to recover Buddhist sÅ«tras. It's a perilous journey, and Xuanzang cannot defend himself, but he has four powerful disciples to protect him in atonement for their past sins.

Most well known of these disciples is the The Monkey King, a figure as old as human myth. If you're not familiar with his exploits, click on that link, because it's a decent summary. He's a Trickster Hero, an archetype that runs the gamut from Loki to Coyote to Bugs Bunny. Monkey is a powerful warrior, and also a bit of an ass, and Xuanzang can only control him by virtue of a magical contricting headband that he was tricked into wearing.

Pigsy: So, Monkey let me ask you a question.
Monkey: Yeah?
Pigsy: Do you use a lot of hair product?
Namco's page for the game has a brief rundown on the plot, but it's pretty terrible. The writing is bad and it simplifies things almost to the point of meaninglessness. At its core, Odyssey is a game long escort mission, but its a fun one. And I know, "fun escort mission" seems like an oxymoron to anyone who has ever played one. (If you're not familiar with video games, an escort mission is one where the character you play has not only to keep himself alive, but you also must defend a secondary character, who is often fragile and/or suicidal. My least favorite escort mission had to be on City of Heroes, where the fragile army general I was protecting would run into melee combat to punch enemies that exploded when they died.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. The game is set 150 years in the future, after an apocalyptic war, with killer mechs still fulfilling their programming to hunt down the few remaining humans. We open with Monkey already captured by slavers, and the tutorial is escaping from the ship as it crashes into New York City. This is absolutely the best and most engaging tutorial I've ever played. The ship is exploding and other people are using the escape pods, so Monkey has to reclaim his gear (including his extending staff and his flying cloud)

and race to get to the pods, before they are all ejected and before the ship crashes, eventually climbing on the outside of the ship. At one point, I was hanging on the bottom as the ruins of the Empire State Building came closer and closer, and I was like "Wow, cool cut scene!" and I missed the subtle hints that this was not in fact a cut scene and I'd better start climbing if I didn't want to be a Monkey pancake. (I died on the tutorial level. Yes, I suck.)

All the while that Monkey is escaping, a young woman is always ahead of him, closing doors behind her to delay him and racing to get to the last pod. This is Tripitaka (Trip), though we don't know it yet. I really like her design, attractive without being sexualized.

She gets to the last pod, but Monkey is right there on the outside. She ejects it while he's clinging on, and when he wakes up in the ruins below, he finds that she has affixed one of the headbands used to control the slaves on the ship, and is using it to compel his cooperation.

(Monkey wakes up, Trip sitting in front of him)

Monkey: YOU...Arghh, oh god! My head feel like it's ripped open.
Trip:  It's the headband.
Monkey: What?
Trip: The slave headband, the one I fit on you.
Monkey:  You put this on me?
Trip:  Let me explain.
Monkey: Get this thing off, or I'm gonna rip your head off.
Trip: No.
Monkey: No?!   Do you think I'm screwing with ya?
Trip: Command stop!
Monkey:   Arghhhhhhh!
Trip: Oh my god, it works!
Trip:  Command stay away from me!
Monkey:   Arghhhh! What the hell are ya doing?
Trip:  I hacked the headband, so it could be activated by my voice commands. Activation triggers a systemic pain response.  It's what controls the slaves.
Monkey: I'm gonna kill you.
Trip: You can't.  If my heart stops beating for any reason, the headband will discharge a lethal dose. If I die, you die.
Monkey:   Why?
Trip: I need your help. I come from a wind farmer community. It's about three hundred miles from here. I'll never make it on my own. If slavers don’t get me, mechs will. That's the deal. Get me back to my home and you can go back to yours.
Monkey: Looks like I don’t have a choice.
Trip: Neither of us do...I'm sorry.
Monkey: Okay...let's go.

Now video game dialogue is by-and-large notoriously bad ("Jill, here's a lockpick. It might come in handy if you, 'the master of unlocking', take it with you"), but I thought that was pretty decent. The script alone only tells half the story, because the voice acting, body movements and facial expressions are all wonderful, orders of magnitude better than what I've ever seen in a game before.

It has an impressive pedigree, having been written by Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later). Andy Serkis was heavily involved in production as well, being co-director as well as lending his talents as one of the very finest motion capture and voice actor performers around. I don't know Lindsey Shaw or Richard Ridings beyond their work on the game, but they were pretty exceptional too.

Even watching Monkey move is amazing. His movements are mixture of brutal strength and stunning grace, and the animations are flawlessly beautiful, whether he's climbing or leaping or battering a mech apart with his bare hands.

I think the moment I knew I was on to something special was in Chapter 4. In the previous chapter, Monkey and Trip had been harried by a gigantic robot dog.

They took shelter inside a playhouse and Trip finds a rare treasure from before the war, an intact power cell. She has to power up the playhouse to bypass the electronic lock protecting it, which activates the programs for the play, a holographic performance of the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet.

Meanwhile, Monkey, down on the stage, notices some movement within the building and realizes that the dog has followed them inside. The dog is the size of a truck and Monkey knows that their only hope of staying alive is to avoid its attention and quietly sneak out of the place.

However, the booting up of the playhouse continues, and as Monkey is on the stage, the program thinks he's an actor and an automated spotlight focuses on him and follows his movements. His wide-eyed expression of baffled horror, his false starts from side to side as he looks for an escape are all details that make you believe that this is something that is happening right now. He yells in near panic, "Trip, turn it off. turn it off!  WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?" and the dog leaps and the controller vibrates in your hand in time with its thunderous impact, and Monkey darts away (the end of his sash dangling behind him like a monkey's tail), when the dog mistakes the holograms for real people.

And you're avoiding the killer mech and trying to bring the scaffolding down on it while being distracted by the holograms playing out their scene. It's wonderful experience.

Control is great. I had played Castlevania: Lords of Shadow prior to this, and it was a lot of fun at first, but it was just overwhelmed by the weight of its flaws. Like Odyssey, it has climbing and exploration and boss fights, but Odyssey does each of these elements better. The climbing in Castlevania has two big problems. One is that the camera is static and it's often impossible to see where you're supposed to go or what your character is actually looking at. The other is that it lacks the failsafes of Odyssey. If you try to make Monkey execute an impossible command, he just won't do it. In Castlevania, Gabriel fecklessly jumps to his doom all the time, which gets tiresome after the fiftieth repetition.

The exploration is better too. Odyssey has a minor xp system, which you can use to boost your combat abilities, and you're awarded as many points for finding various orbs as you are for defeating enemies. In other games it might be tedious to run around collecting these things, but Monkey is so much fun to control that swinging from pole to pole is something I could do all day.

The game is essentially a series of short set pieces and boss fights are no different. They're generally pretty easy, but I am sick to death of quicktime boss fights and any move away from them is a change for the better as far as I'm concerned.

The main complain I've seen about the game is that it's too short. It is short for a game, but it's much longer than a movie, and for me, there was a greater emotional investment in the characters, because I spent eight hours instead of 90 minutes and I was instrumental in helping the story unfold.

And finally, the ending.


The game ended like it had to. When Trip and Monkey enter the Pyramid, they encounter the man behind the whole thing. He's an ancient figure, kept alive by the computer interface, and those he has kidnapped are not slaves, but rather people he has given purpose. Pyramid is also played by Andy Serkis, which I thought was a bit of an odd choice, seeing as he's also Monkey, but that's a small complaint. Pyramid has hooked them all into a simulation based on his memories before the war, and he believes the artificial world he is giving them is better than the wasteland in which they live. "You are seeing the world that they share with me. They are not slaves...they are citizens! They have jobs, they have marriages. They bring up their children. Their children go to schools." Monkey enters the simulation and declares it beautiful. I think it's the only time in the game you see him smile. But while he's in there, Trip kills Pyramid and ends the simulation, and the thousands of drones wake up to the real world.

If it sounds like the Matrix, that's because they both drew from the same source. At its core, Journey to the West is a Buddhist fable, and here, Monkey, with the help of Trip rejects the illusion of the world. An illusion can be comforting, but only in rejecting it can one find enlightenment.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked this review. I'll give the game a go sometime if I can drag myself away from TOR.