I recently picked up a copy of Enslaved as a rental, after hearing that it was reasonably short if not completely wonderful gameplay. It sounded like a good diversion, and Enslaved has the kinds of gameplay that I pref. It has melee combat, climbing through interesting terrain, and was advertised as having a strategy/decision making element. Interesting enough to rent, so I did.
This game clearly wants to be compared with Uncharted. Early in the game, as I’m climbing up the side of a falling, flying slaver ship, my wife commented, ” This is like that other game, the one with the train.” She’s referring to the opening Uncharted 2 where you are climbing a train that’s falling off a cliff. It’s even narratively paced like Uncharted 2, the voice acting is pretty good, even if the characters themselves don’t make a lot of sense to me.
I’m not going to say much about the story, except that it got me wanting to read Journey to the West. If anyone knows a good English translation with decent annotation, please leave a comment or let me know.
Uncharted 2 is basically three separate types of experience alternated in an interesting way: you’ve got your well-voice-acted cut-scenes (often very very short ones), platforming, and combat. Enslaved has the same mix, similarly paced but doesn’t work. If you have your game separated out like that, all the sections need to work — much like the platforming and story sections of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time worked really well, while the combat was often much harder. Sands is still a great game, since the combat was more interspersed, and the platforming really worked.
Enslaved’s combat is okay, if not inspired— it’s not hard enough to really bring the other, less straight-forward options into play (and if you do, then you lose the experience orbs you would have gotten). It’s platforming however, is really pretty bad. With the Prince of Persia series, I always felt like I had a character that could do things. Sometimes what I do is context sensitive: jumping near a wall would kick jump, or run up it, depending on how I was facing. But if I pressed the “jump” button, I always jumped. In this way I was a character that could do things, and moved around an environment which put those things into the best context.
I don’t feel that way about Monkey in Enslaved. The ‘jump’ button only seems to work where it needs to work. Since it’s tied into the ‘roll’ option, half the time I want to jump, I wind up rolling. Since the environment has been built so that I don’t roll or jump off cliffs unless I can survive, often when I try to jump in a place that isn’t a good option, I wind up rolling up against an invisible wall, which is nothing like what I thought I would do. Often I can jump just not exactly there, I need to move a few inches to the left first — and then I can jump.
I feel less like a character that can do things than like a pointer that activates an environment action. As far as programming and level design these may be identical, but there’s a big difference in the feel. Sure, Uncharted 2 was probably exactly like this, but I never felt like the action the environment was suggesting was different from what I wanted to do. In that way it was ‘seamless’ and ‘fluid’ in ways that Enslaved just isn’t.
While handholds are given a bit of a glow, often the camera points away form them, except for those times when the camera is rigidly pointing exactly where I need to go (and can’t be dissuaded). One says to me “you need to explore” — which the game encourages with masks and xp orbs — and the other says “just go this way, we’ll show you how to go” — which is earmarked by fairly (if not completely) linear game design. It’s kind of like Enslaved doesn’t quite know what sort of game it wants to be. If the handholds were more visually consistent, it would be better, but often I couldn’t see them without the glow, which is a stark contrast to the way they work in, say, Assassin’s Creed, or Uncharted 2.
It breaks that ‘sense of motion’ that platforming games have always had for me, even since playing Tomb Raider. Enslaved isn’t an open world style game like Infamous or Assassin’s Creed, which allowed me to move freely through the environment always progressing and moving forward, almost mindlessly Instead I have these moments of confusion where I don’t know where to go, nor how to get there. I ususally know what my meta goal is — that’s laid out well, and I’m also given most of the map to look at — but the little moment to moment goals are missing.
In Uncharted 2 I often didn’t know what the meta goals were — we were just escaping or running in a direction — and mostly it didn’t matter, because I always knew what my immediate direction was, and where I was headed next. (As an aside, the web-design book Don’t Make Me Think says that it doesn’t matter how many clicks it takes to get to something on your site, so long as each necessary click is obvious.)
I would like this game, and like the old adage — a great story can’t save bad gameplay, but good gameplay can rescue a bad story. Unfortunately, Enslaved doesn’t really have either.