Time was that Monkey was my hero. Born from an egg, on a mountain top, the funkiest monkey who ever popped.
Mostly it was because his weapon was essentially a stick, and I had access to sticks aplenty – but as a child the story of a rebellious character who denied authority at every opportunity spoke to me. He was mischievous, bold and impulsive – everything a 12 year-old gets told not to be most of the time.
Until some years later, I had no idea that the series was based on a sixteenth century Chinese literary classic, itself based on a historical truth. Playing Enslaved for the first time, you’d be forgiven for not seeing the connection either.
Enslaved’s Monkey is hunched, gruff and grumpy, built more like a gorilla than a lithe tree-climber. Ninja Theory’s take on Tripitaka the monk cements the studio’s penchant for saucer-eyed redheads hinted at by Heavenly Sword. Technology replaces magic, slavery usurps the whim of the Gods. Much as with the TV series, however, there’s a tremendous sense of adventure, wonder and magic here.
It’s incredibly pretty – this is not what we’ve come to expect from post-apocalyptic scenarios. Taking inspiration from documentary series Life After People, Enslaved’s New York is a verdant jungle of tangled vines and rippling meadows. Bright, posterbook colours saturate the screen, swaddling the carcasses of toppling skyscrapers in blankets of reds and greens. Yellow highlights pick out points of climbing interest, and the bluest of blue skies would have Chicken Little wishing they would fall just so he could bathe in them.
Providing contrast are the rusting remnants of humanity’s last days. Shattered vehicles and broken masonry provide ducking points for the automatic cover system, whilst the tarnished, sharp-edged automatons prowling the wasteland give you reason to seek them out. Propaganda and political slogans proclaim hope for the end of a war which only came with the lack of anyone to fight it.
At the close of a civilisation personified by conflict and dominion, it’s nature which has won the final battle. The landscape is littered with brick walls which shatter under machine gun fire, treacherously fragile ledges and bright blue recycling bins, which seem to have persevered against the ravages of time more tenaciously than almost anything else.
There’s a wonderfully refreshing sense of openness – not perhaps in the relatively linear level design, but in the sprawling vistas and distant horizons. In the couple of hours I spent in its company, Enslaved didn’t once try to contain me in a single enclosed structure, always allowing that sapphire sky to alleviate any need for the use of the word corridor. Crossing the Hudson river allows the game to give the grand perspective on the world’s shattered capital, trees sprouting victoriously from the jagged teeth of the city skyline.
The spectacle of the macro hasn’t been to any detriment of the details, though. The services of rubber-faced Andy Serkis have been employed in what we’re assured is a ‘full-performance’ in the role of Monkey: motion capture, facial animation and voice acting. He, and Ninja Theory, have done a tremendous job, conveying more than enough emotion through the raise of a bestial brow and subtle vocal inflection to make up for his less than loquacious dialogue – adeptly penned by Alex Garland. In some scenes it touches on the uncanny valley, communicating so effectively with sub-conscious body language that I’m a little taken aback.
Monkey’s relationship with Trip, at least in the early levels which we’re given time with, is somewhat terse. Not surprising, given she’s forcibly fitted him with a headband which will kill him instantly should she come to any real harm. Punctuated as it is with sarcasm and truculence, their banter is witty and, at times, extremely touching, hinting that perhaps they shan’t consider each other so antagonistic by the end of their adventure.
So close is their symbiosis that Enslaved is actually pitched to me as ‘a single player co-op game’. Monkey might be the muscle, and his attitude more worldly-wise, but it’s Trip who possesses the technical nous to see the pair through many of their ordeals.
In one sequence, as the odd couple attempt to traverse a minefield, Trip asks Monkey to catch her one of the dart-like robotic dragonflies circling a large and ancient tree. A bit of resentful acrobatics later, Trip breaks out the holographic computer on her wristband and reprograms the tiny creature, turning it into an energy-sensing eye-in-the-sky which can pick out and map the location of the mines, allowing Monkey to pick her up piggyback and guide her through the danger. “Pretty cool,” the surly simian is forced to admit.
Initially resistant to many of Monkey’s terse commands, Trip soon realises that her judgment must cede to his in some of the more dangerous situations. To command her, players call up a radial menu which also focuses the camera on her location. From here a number of options will eventually be available, although our only two were enabled during our play test.
First is a simple ‘catch-up’ command, bringing Trip to scurrying to heel. Not only does this keep her close for easy protection, it allows me to call her out of cover when I’ve dealt with or distracted any potential threats.
The other ability on show is an electronic ‘decoy’ – a shimmering blue hologram which draws the enemy’s attention away from Monkey long enough to let him traverse open ground or perform flanking manoeuvres. Crossing one bridge, high up between two lurching office blocks, the decoy gives me time to run across to cover by drawing the fire from three robot sentries with a vantage point over the causeway. Once across, and safely back in cover, Monkey can then distract the bots more traditionally, shouting and waving his arms. Trip then follows as the robots concentrate their fusillade on his hiding place.
Once Trip’s safe the nasty mechs need dealing with in a permanent fashion. Trip whips out the decoy once more and Monkey swings athletically across some pipework to approach them from behind. There’s a real sense of momentum to his movement, and a necessity for a correspondingly rhythmic series of button presses. Monkey has all the gymnastic presence of Nathan Drake, but coupled with an animalistic power and confidence which lacks a lot of Drake’s Keatonish clowning. He’s fluid and smooth in motion, weighty and graceful all at once.
Much of our progression through the city is vertical, Monkey hurling himself, and sometimes Trip, across gaps and up walls like a bullish, tattooed orang-outang. The camera moves dynamically throughout, accentuating the drama considerably. The climbing model owes a considerable nod to Uncharted and its sequel, but I’m yet to be convinced this is a bad thing.
This balletic menace carries across perfectly to Monkey’s style of combat. Whipping out the steel-shod staff which is his primary form of offence, he flows into dextrous combos. Weak and strong attacks are the bread and butter of his fighting playbook, but a sweeping crowd-control move and a devastating finishing flurry broaden the palette a little. It’s a fairly simple system but an effective and impactful one, conveying both force and impact.
During fights the camera zooms in slightly, focussing on you and your current target. Tapping a shoulder button raises a shield when enemies flash red to signify an attack, and a bright yellow suffusion to the staff indicates that you’ve pummelled your unfortunate foe enough to unleash the coup de grace.
It’s not all up-close-and-personal. Later on in our demo we pick up some ranged charges for the staff, turning it into a blasting weapon capable of stunning and destroying foes from a distance. When we come up against a group of shielded bots defending a fractured rooftop, it’s these charges which allow us to create enough of a gap in their defences to close the gap.
For all his combat prowess Monkey doesn’t always get his own way in a rumble, especially when he has the considerably more fragile Trip to consider.
After climbing a collapsing crane, giving us the opportunity to create a bridge across a ravine for our companion, Trip’s terrified whisper for help comes across Monkey’s headset. Something wicked this way comes.
It’s a Dog, but no tasty pork chop is going to distract this fearsome canine. 12-foot tall at the robotic shoulder, and leering with the mechanical menace only a snarling, snaggle-toothed carnivorous junk heap could carry off, the Dog prowls ever closer to the trembling Trip’s hiding place. A bellow from Monkey has it leaping towards his metal eyrie, slipping and tumbling from the loose pipe bridge which we’ve just created into a ravine below. Monkey 1, Dog 0.
In true slasher-flick style, though, the beast is soon back on its feet, clambering from the crevasse with murder in all six of its gleaming diode eyes. The chase is most definitely on.
Trip is quickly shouldered with a tap of a button and Monkey sets off towards the camera with the Dog in close pursuit. It bounds between piles of rubble, hurling a car towards me with force of its landing.
It’s a close run thing, but the metal predator is evaded, just, as the pair come to a breathless halt in the shell of a building, Dog’s progress is arrested briefly by some steel girdering. It’s another example of how much Enslaved is trying to fit in, and perhaps another little IOU appropriately made out to Naughty Dog, but another surprise is swiftly on its heels.
Jumping forward in the story a little, we segue into the crossing of the Hudson, where the collapsing bridge has left gaps across the water too wide for Monkey to cross. No trouble, though – he’s a man prepared for the task. It’s time for Monkey’s magic cloud.
There’s no blowing on fingers to summon your personal cumulo-nimbus in this futuristic remake. Instead, Monkey whips a flat metal disc from his belt and flings it to the ground, where it extrudes a pulsing halo of light, whipping up a handy little Hoverboard which conveniently works on water.
Two seconds later, and I’m skimming around the surface of the river, boosting through glowing points of power and smashing out some pretty extreme air from the ramped sections of bridge which litter the Hudson. Fast and fun, this circular surfboard is a pleasing contrast to the vertical aerobics which we’ve experienced so far. We’re not sure how often you’ll get to use it (Monkey points out to a somewhat incredulous Trip that “it doesn’t work everywhere”), but it’s a lovely break in proceedings.
Ambitious, intensely visually stimulating and thoroughly engaging with its characters, Enslaved is definitely taking tips from some of the best games in the business for its run at the charts. Let’s hope it possesses the protagonist’s impressive climbing abilities.