Retrospective: Enslaved: Journey to the West Xbox 360 Review

Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Journey to the West was an ambitious undertaking. A Sci-fi retelling of an old Chinese myth. Even the mouthful of a title alluded to the game’s  questionable marketability.

The game review below was written for the Game Console print magazine. Due to space constraints it was never published. Which was a shame, as it was a devil of a review to write.It’s not problem to write a “I hate this turd of a game” or an “I adore this game” review, but it’s another matter entirely when you are battling with your conscience over a game so close to being fantastic.

As much as I wanted to love the game, it was an uneven journey. Glimmers of genius and beautiful visuals marred by sometimes repetitive gameplay and dodgy background textures. Ninja Theory’s previous game, Heavenly Sword, was a better game and yet equally underappreciated. When Enslaved shone, it really shone, but it wasn’t enough to really capture my attention.

The gaming public seemed to agree with me. Soon after release the game was heavily discounted at retail. Copies can now be found loitering among the likes Perfect Dark Zero in the bargain bit. Despite my personal disappointments with the game, unlike Perfect Dark Zero, if you can pick up Enslaved cheap, I suggest you give it a go.

Here is my original review in full.

Not this Monkey

It’s time for some Monkey magic in Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. The game is loosely based on the Chinese novel, Journey to the West (hence the mouthful of a game title); familiar to most as the barking mad 1970s Japanese TV show, Monkey.

Instead of being set in ancient China, escaped slave, Tripitaka, or Trip, and her reluctant companion, the brutish thug known as Monkey, journey through a post-apocalyptic future where deadly mechanoid creatures lurk around every corner. The plot is pretty standard fare, despite the pedigree of the co-writer, Alex Garland (who was also responsible for the hit movies, The Beach and 28 Days Later).


The game starts as Monkey is shaken loose from his prison ship cell during Trip’s escape from the slavers. As Monkey chases after the fleeing redhead, the player is introduced to the game’s basic mechanics. It is during this cat a mouse sequence that Enslaved puts its cards on the table, showing off the epic-scale of the locales present in the game. Monkey’s pursuit is hampered by the prison ship literally disintegrating around him. It is an incredible heart-in-month sequence. Monkey finally catches up to Trip just as she enters an escape pod, her on the inside, him on the outside. The pod launches with Monkey holding on for dear life.

Monkey man

Having escaped the slave ship, Trip wants to get herself home. With the aid of a slavers mind control headband, she forces Monkey to help and protect her on her journey. As the game progresses Monkey’s relationship with Trip goes from that of a reluctant captive to a genuine friendship. And so begins a journey first to the prison ship crash site, then to Trip’s village and then towards the west; to find and reap revenge upon the slavers.

Like Ninja Theory’s last effort, Heavenly Sword, the graphics are top-class. The subtle facial expressions perfectly display a range of emotions in a way rarely seen in a video game. These characters, against a beautifully rendered and lit post-apocalyptic backdrop, give Enslaved a big tick in the visuals department.

Tripitaka is definitely a girl in Enslaved: Journey to the West

Whilst the character’s performances are faultless, they are difficult to like. It is obvious that the brutish Monkey is no saint. Trips act of enslaving him comes across a bit unjustified and selfish, giving you little sympathy for the character. Even the token fat guy Pigsy fails to bring the intended comic relief to the affair.

The camera movements are loose and frantic which gives the action a hectic pace as well as giving the player the queasy hint of motion sickness. Monkeys acrobatic skills are exhilarating to begin with, until you realise that there is no way to fail. Monkey can’t accidentally fall to his doom, the game won’t let you. The jumping puzzles can hardly be called puzzles, more like exercises in following the glowing tech orbs (which can be used to purchase upgrades). Later on some jumps need a bit of timing and the puzzles a little thought, but it is never very challenging.

The combat is frantically paced, developing into a frenzied maelstrom of button mashing as the player seeks to exploit

Monkey does surf

Monkey’s increasing repertoire of moves.  You’ll need every layer of skin on your thumbs to fight your way though the nauseating quantities of exponentially difficult, but ultimately dull mechs that seek to bring our heroes’ odyssey to a premature end. If you find the idea of fighting wave after wave of robots appealing, Enslaved will see to it that you never yearn for mechanoid combat again. It may start off fun but after fighting hundreds of similar-looking mechanical creatures it gets so tiresome that your skin will crawl every time Trip shouts, “look mechs”.

In an attempt to add some variety into the mix, Monkey also has his “cloud” (which fans of the TV show will recognise), re-imagined as a blue energy disc that he glides about on. Unfortunately, Monkey can only use this in the areas that the game wants you to use it, mainly during one of the boss fights or during one of the timed chase sequences (which are less about skill and more a memory game).

See mechanoids fighting

The story is there and the combat is there. Unfortunately the pacing isn’t there and we instead get dragged through an uneven odyssey, full of good ideas but poorly placed together. This should have been up there with the PS3’s Uncharted, but it isn’t. Enslaved’s strengths are, without a doubt, in the graphical presentation. Were the graphics of a lower standard, I think that the game would be a complete turn off; the beautiful environments serve well to paper over the games design conceits.

Enslaved is one of those games you are either going to love, hate or both in equal measure. In truth, it is a much better game than it deserves to be. Despite the heart-stopping pace of the combat, overall, the game play is a pretty repetitive and average affair. Don’t get me wrong, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a good game, but at the same time it can be quite dull and easy to put down. The great graphics and having such top-notch performances from the virtual thespians are the only things saving it from mediocrity. Never have I played a game so close to greatness and yet so far away.

Graphics 9

Sound 8

Gameplay 7

Lasting Appeal 5

Overall Score 7

This review would have first appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Game Console magazine, but it didn’t.