Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Being Enslaved

I firmly believe that I am falling in love with cinematic games. Graphics have never been better, Guillermo del Toro is hard at work on a trilogy, and although Alan Wake wasn’t as successful as it should have been, I believe it was a great example of a game genre that I have started calling Cinematic. If you take out the long strolls through the woods fighting possessed lumberjacks with a flashlight and a revolver, Alan Wake would have made a great, twist-happy film. The narrative was as engaging as any movie, but because it wasn’t a movie, it stumbled under the interactive and varied pacing of a player controlled game. The writing, although a tad abstract, seemed more expansive than the game mechanics allowed it to be, and if you didn’t soar through the entire game in one sitting a lot of the emotional investment tactics were lost. Imagine yourself sitting at a campfire with a group of friends surrounded by towering trees and flickering shadows. You are listening to someone tell a totally gripping and terrifying ghost story. But partway through the story, the narrator gets up to eat dinner, go to the bathroom or hell, even leaves for work for eight hours and then comes back to continue the tale. The tingling, anticipatory feeling is sort of lost at that point and the story starts to look jumbled and confusing. Luckily, Enslaved doesn’t have this problem. Loosely based on an old Chinese allegory and co-written by Alex Garland, the literary genius who wrote 28 Days Later and The Beach, Enslaved’s narrative also has a cinematic quality about it, especially because the story is so much more engaging and fluid than the more interactive, mechanical elements.

Enslaved introduces you to Trip, a technologically inclined teenage girl (who also happens to be a ravishing redhead), and Monkey, a Neanderthal-like giant of a man that she takes prisoner via a headband intended to control slaves. Trip and Monkey live in what appears to be a post-Apocalyptic New York City, and bear marks and scars to support the hardships associated with it, but since a large part of the game looks like it takes place in New Mexico, I am going to assume that the United States split up the middle during the war against the machines and overlapped. After a devastating plane crash they both survived, Trip now needs to be escorted home to her village beyond the Wasteland (New Mexico), and has forced Monkey to protect her along the way via the headband. Normally, escort missions are tedious and dull because following someone around means walking at their slow, NPC pace, but fortunately, as an AI partner, Trip is pretty nimble on her feet and the two work together extremely well. As the story progresses the two characters build a relationship that becomes tenderly dependent on one another, both physically and emotionally, forcing the player to invest the same way in them as you would while watching any great film. Cut scenes are delicious and highly anticipated. I won’t spoil anything, but a few of the intense moments of peril or decision making between the two made my romantic heart jump into my throat. I cared about the culmination of their journey just as much as they did, even though I wasn’t anywhere near the rust-covered landscape they are traversing. The writing is fantastic, and the voice acting even better. After playing the lugging, half-English, half-American, all horrible, monster that was Arcania, it is absolutely refreshing to listen to the banter between this unlikely duo.

Enslaved is set in a world where, absent of most humanity, Mother Nature has begun reclaiming the landscape. Whereas other games along the same theme show desolation, this one blooms with green grass, and red flowers wrap around old lampposts and creep up crumbling cement structures. Tiny blue butterflies flit about all of old New York and trailed alongside Trip and Monkey for awhile in the first few chapters. There is a serene beauty in the stillness of an abandoned concrete jungle that Enslaved captures perfectly. And because of their isolation, it becomes easy to imagine captive becoming captivated and vice versa.

So, cinematically Enslaved is wonderful. It has a protagonist, mechanical villains, a quirky damsel in distress, a captivating plot and an ending I didn’t see coming for miles. I actually teared up in Chapter Thirteen. But, just like Alan Wake, it’s beautiful qualities get bogged down in its mechanical and game play aspects. Monkey moves like a dream, but can’t jump off of a four foot platform unless you are standing in a particular spot. The camera lets you control it completely half of the time and gives you tunnel vision the other half, which is infuriating. The game requires you collect ‘tech orbs’ which are glowing red balls spread throughout the landscape that function as currency to upgrade your combat skills, health, shield and weapon, but every time you go off the path to wander around collecting them all, Trip is constantly calling out “Let’s get going, Monkey”, or “Come on, Monkey.” Um, I would, but the game wants me to incessantly collect these things, so I’ll be there in a minute. The combat switches between melee bashing and tactical area clearing and is consistently simple; Monkey uses an electrified staff that stuns and bashes mechs from here to next Tuesday. His staff also has two ranged settings, electricity to stun and plasma to fire, which is actually fun and handy. Most of the central movement is platforming, which is ridiculously easy unless you are standing on something that is crumbling underneath you (remember, post-Apocalyptic). I found the most interesting trick up Monkey’s sleeve was his Cloud, a quick little hover board that could glide over toxic water and pebbled ground with ease. I am not ashamed to admit that I whooped a couple of times while sliding across the water under the bridge in Chapter Five.

With only fourteen chapters, Enslaved isn’t terribly long-each one takes about an hour or so. Despite my problems with the camera and some of the controls, I was quite satisfied with the experience and would highly recommend anyone with a love for quality story-telling and character development in video games to spend a day with Trip and Monkey on their journey to the west.


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