Set in a Mech-ravaged future where clear, blue skies and summer sunshine still prevail, Enslavedís day-glo art-style offers a welcome contrast from standard post-apocalyptic settings and impresses from its very first scene. Towering skyscrapers stand engulfed by vibrant plant-life, sky-blue stretches of sea remain untouched by radiation, and titanic robot ruins form the backdrop for intense brawling. Enslaved is a treat for the eyes that consistently rewards the player with imaginative vistas throughout a smartly paced, expertly told story.
Putting you in the shoes of the aptly named Monkey, and beginning several thousand feet in the air aboard a crashing aircraft, Enslaved wisely opts out of any sort of back-story and instead throws you straight into a high-tempo escape sequence. It drip feeds you Monkeyís repertoire of staff-twirling martial artistry and death-defying leaps in a satisfyingly organic manner. All while you pursue a fellow escapee through the crumbling craft in a race for the last Escape Pod. Youíll be ambushed by Mechs, sucked out of the aircraft and forced to clamber across its withering shell as it grazes New Yorkís skyline, then launched to earth on the outside of an escape pod. As enforced gameplay tutorials go, itís both fat-free and imaginatively choreographed.
Shortly after his plummet earthward, Monkey regains consciousness and meets his fellow escapee, a tech-savvy gal named Trip, whoís used her gadget knowledge to fit Monkey with a ĎSlave Bandí whilst he was knocked out. The band binds the pair together telepathically until Monkey escorts the combat shy Trip to her home 300 miles away. Should you move Monkey too far from Trip, she will trigger the Slave Bandís frazzling faculties to kill Monkey. This hateful device will also trigger should Trip die in the heat of a brawl. Thus the template is in place for a restrictive gaming experience, where most of your time will be spent making up new curse words at the expense of Tripís inevitably shocking artificial intelligence, right?
Not so. Unlike the bulk of AI-controlled buddies, Trip will usually scarper out of the way for one of Monkeyís Whack-A-Mech rumbles, and will instead provide assistance from afar. Her biggest asset being her hologram projector, which for a limited time will pull a Mech's focus away from Monkey, enabling him to edge closer and bypass ranged attacks with ease. Trip will also offer help through the tried and tested videogame staples of switch pushing and lever pulling, but assists in less typical ways throughout the game, too. Her level of presence during the action is well executed, sheís always around yet never in the way, and doesnít once prove annoying.
The same cannot be said of the duos furious and metallic pursuers, the Mechs. Aside from martial arts, hunting humans is all they know. Theyíre somewhat limited in terms of design variety, yet despite this they rarely prove anything other than a joy to fight. Monkey is a bit tasty with a telescopic plasma-staff, and his streamlined repertoire of staff trickery is a joy to use. The main focus here is destroying the Mechs swiftly and with style. No page-long list of combos, just a well-considered handful of attacks mixed with one or two stun moves and dodges. Every move at your disposal sees equal use, and whatís more they look fantastic. Mechs contort and spasm, with shards of metal and blue sparks filling the screen as Monkey unleashes a flurry of lethal twirling. All while the camera swoops and pans to frame the action in majestic comic-book fashion. The camera loves Monkey a little too much though, and often swoops in so close that it goes beyond our hero, or right inside the poor chap. Itís a minor annoyance, but unfortunately does detract from Enslavedís visceral, entertaining action.
Elsewhere, variety is injected in the form of the odd boss battle, and some more frequently placed platforming sections. The former occasionally prove a slightly long-winded, energy-bar shaving affair, though the better boss designs make use of the games beautiful environments, and all encounters are at least creatively designed and a spectacle to behold. The platforming sections are better still, and benefit from the game's impressive sense of scale and imaginative art-style. Scaling a sky-scraping, man-made structure is the norm for action games now, but Enslaved takes you through increasingly intricate, non-standard environments, and does so with flair. Locations are full of life and movement, with the withering and unpredictable terrain reacting in various ways as you cross. As your surroundings crumble, split-second jumps need to be made. Therefore, seemingly to avoid frustration, platforming has an on-rails, semi-autopilot feel. Which is well suited to the job, but not as satisfying to execute as the loose, light-footed parkour of something like Infamous.
These simple, well-executed game mechanics remain largely the same for Enslavedís entire duration. What makes it all so compelling, is just how well balanced and placed these elements are amongst its artfully told, excellently voice-acted story. Itís a fairly typical blockbuster-style plot, sure. But itís told with so much humour, heart and attention to detail, and set in such a distinctive world that you canít fail to be swept up and entertained. There are a few small glitches and quirks that suggest it needed just a touch more development time. The biggest detractor being the maverick camera and itís sabotaging of Enslavedís fluid, cinematic action. Frame-rate also gets increasingly choppy as the set-pieces become more ambitious. The impact of these flaws is relatively small, but admittedly they stick in the mind, and do become part of why Enslaved is so memorable. Above all, though, itís inspired, gratifying, visually vibrant, and absolutely stands out amongst the growing flock of blockbuster action games.
Text by Rob Hague