Enslaved: Journey to the West
With lessons learned from their prior work, Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory pays homage to Naughty Dog's Uncharted series of games while loosely following the story of one of the classics of Chinese literature, Journey to the West.
Game development, like any endeavor, is iterative. Each game borrows to some degree from the games that preceded it, and there is no penalty for that among gamers so long as the latest version improves on the inspiration. The game from which Enslaved: Odyssey to the West borrows the most is the Uncharted series of games from Naughty Dog. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune itself borrowed heavily from the best of Tomb Raider and Gears of War. Even the performance capture technique, which lends such realism to the faces of Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher, was first used by the creators of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West in their PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavenly Sword.
Given the high critical praise and commercial success of Uncharted it is no surprise that many developers would want to copy their blueprint. The surprise comes in that Ninja Theory has been the only one to do it. Specifically, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West shares the following with it's inspiration:
Swashbuckling plot with a sentimental bildungsroman tale of burgeoning love,
Vibrantly colored and wonderfully detailed world,
Lenient climbing and abseiling levels interspersed with room puzzles,
Good enough shooting and melee combat,
Gravity-inspired level design that toys with the viewers limited perception.
Naughty Dog also includes their signature Crash Bandicoot "run-like-hell-into-the camera" scenes which Ninja Theory so slavishly copies that they include it as their cover art.
The level of mimicry displayed by Ninja Theory would fall flat if they failed to execute in any of these areas, which fortunately, they did not. The performances of Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw improve on their inspiration, as does the inclusion of a novel examination of Stockholm Syndrome. The post-apocalyptic world, rather than being a desolate drab place, is separated by enough time from it's destruction that nature has come back to reclaim a city that once conquered it. This lends the world unique and beautiful look. Later levels, which take place in the mid-west and south-west of North America, are equally interesting in their nature versus junk-yard appearance.
Traversal is even more lenient in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, which is one of the low points, as it disembodies the role of the player and turns a once vertiginous experience into rote button-mashing. The main character, Monkey, does move as fluidly as his name suggests though which is unique.
Along with his name, (taken from the Chinese literary source), Monkey also uses a staff and a cloud to get in and out of trouble. The melee combat, performed with the staff is made increasingly satisfying through a leveling up of your tools and abilities throughout the game. The staff also provides the shooting component of the game, where it is used in an RPG-like manner (the weapon, not the genre). Hover-board levels reminiscent of another Naughty Dog classic, Jak and Daxter are also added minimally and are a reference to the use of a floating cloud in the source material.
Another new element introduced by Ninja Theory is use of a simple squad command technique which allows use of both characters unique abilities to solve room puzzles or to provide combat advantages.
So for all the artful impersonation, several elements are introduced to keep Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, from being a mere copy. With barely any repetition, the divisive ending comes before it is expected. Dealing with the concept of sacrifice made in the physical world for the promise of reward in the spiritual realm may have been too philosophical for many to deal with, but when combined with the central theme of enslavement, Ninja Theory showed that they were greater masters of story than their inspiration.
- Phil Fogg