Enslaved: Okay, Certainly Not Terrible

The hardest games to discuss are probably those that are good but not great. I recently finished Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and yeah, it was okay.

It's tempting to stop there, but 'meh' is a very inadequate reaction to a game with so much good in it. My lukewarm core reaction is honest but misleading.

There are definite high points to Enslaved, starting with the power dynamics between Trip and Monkey. Control swaps back and forth at various points, complicating the master-slave relationship. How happy they are in those roles also varies. Although Trip's vulnerability is over-emphasised at times, I still found it a relatively well-handled, deliciously ill-defined relationship.

I have a bit of a crush on Monkey actually, which has been weirding me out. As much as I love masculinity, this is not my usual reaction to another shirtless, ridiculously-muscular game hero. Am I really that easily manipulated, just by adding in a few moments of ambiguous tenderness?

Ambiguity is probably the key here, with enough character to latch onto, but still with quite a bit of wiggle room. Possibly, as my partner suggested, it's also that Monkey's strength isn't predominantly physical, despite what his physique might suggest.

Monkey is incredibly matter-of-fact about things. I get the feeling being enslaved is just the latest in a series of shitty situations and he's learnt to take them as they come. Sometimes it seems too unemotional, at other times I get it. I guess I'm also a bit of a sucker for held-back emotion - so much anticipation of the flood when the dam finally breaks.

All of this is quite valuable, I think. I want to see games with more nuanced character interaction like this. But it still wasn't enough to make me love the overall package.

Enslaved's other obvious selling point is the scenery, mostly traversing the overgrown ruins of New York. It's very green -- too consistently verdant and oversaturated for my believability-meter, but certainly very pretty.

The ruins are full of little details from the people who used to live and work there, and the landscape tells a story about what happened here.

One detail I wonder about, though: there are a few too many tattered American flags lying around, which probably should have disintegrated by now based on the level of decay of other things. I always find the level of patriotism in games and movies slightly bizarre. I'm not sure if that's just because I'm Australian - are there really that many flags lying around in the US?

Confusing flags aside, it's an interesting landscape, mixing nature, ruins and modern technology. But this is also where the game starts to fight against the player.

The environment invites exploration, and there are even shiny orbs to collect from poking around all the hidden corners. Not always a popular decision, but I happen to enjoy collecting things while I sniff about. Yeah, I know it's silly but I don't care.

The camera is the first barrier to following through on this exploration. It has very definite ideas about where it wants you to go. To be fair, there really is always a very specific way you're supposed to go, but I wanted to look around anyway. There are also fairly frequent points of no return, which cut off exploration options if you happen to select the correct path first try, or perhaps if you try to take out the enemies first and look around more thoroughly later. Sometimes it works out, but fighting first can be a risk.

The scenes tend to be far more restrictive than they look, and it doesn't take much to start banging up against the edges of the path. I longed for either more open exploration within a section, or clearer edges designating where I couldn't go. I understand not wanting to ruin the natural look, but it can be frustrating.

Games like Enslaved create a 3D space with its own rules. They don't function like the real world (e.g., if I could just push those leaves aside I could go another way), and different games set the boundaries in different ways. That means there's a learning process to go through before it starts feeling at all natural, and I guess this just wasn't my usual style. I felt cramped, within what superficially looked like huge and rambling surroundings.

(Tangent: Climbing around in Enslaved made me miss climbing around in the more open world of Assassin's Creed... plus, Altair could actually make mistakes and fall occasionally. Maybe it's time to reconsider my DRM-induced boycott of Assassin's Creed 2?)

Finally, if you explore too far in the wrong direction, the slave headband activates and Monkey dies. It feels quite arbitrary, with travelling a similar distance in a different direction being just fine.

So, I'm left with a game simultaneously encouraging me to explore, while restricting and sometimes even punishing me for it. That's rather cruel. I could pretend it's deliberate and clever -- that this variable balancing out of freedom and control is exactly what it feels like to be in Monkey's shoes. But honestly, it's just a bit awkward. Not game-breakingly awkward, but many little things add up to produce that good but not great vibe for me. The combat's also pretty shallow.

Enslaved isn't a complete waste of time or money, just a bit disappointing. Clearly some people love it, which is always nice. Possibly they didn't fight the game for control as much as I did, or at least they were less bothered by that.