Monkey see, Monkey do
Nearly 10 years ago, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West hit store shelves, and despite being well-received by the critics, it sold poorly and was deemed a failure because of that.
What is Enslaved: Odyssey to the West you ask?
Oh, why it’s only an Andy Serkis-starring, Alex Garland-written, action/adventure game by the team over at Ninja Theory.
I remember at the time seeing this get a lot of attention in gaming magazines (remember magazines?!), and I got swept up in the wonderful nature-reclaiming-earth, post-apocalypse aesthetic. Add in a dash of Andy Serkis, a teaspoon of Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later, Dredd), and a dollop of Ninja Theory and surely we have a recipe for success… right?
Today I’m taking a look back at the epitome of hidden gems, and all that could have been, for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
So, what is this game actually about?
It’s an action/adventure title, where you play as a character named Monkey (Andy Serkis). Monkey is a strong, muscle-bound character—agile, dextrous, and one hell of a platformer. 150 years after a war has eradicated most of the human race, mechs are commonplace and still adhere to their programming—which is to destroy all humans they encounter. When we meet Monkey, he is enacting his escape from a slave ship and causes the vessel to crash. Along the way, he meets Trip, who ultimately becomes his partner in crime.
The catch is that she places a headband on our protagonist, with an in-built killswitch, forcing our hero to follow her every wish and if she dies, he will also die. Wow, that’s a bit harsh isn’t it?
The reason for this is that Trip wishes to return to her home village where her family are, and she isn’t going to be able to do that without Monkey’s help.
I mean, she could have also just asked—disclaimer, I haven’t replayed the game to know if she asks nicely or not, don’t @ me.
I get up and nothin’ gets me down
Now that we have ascertained the title “Enslaved” is very apt, how does it actually handle?
It’s a great combination of third person platforming, Uncharted-esque building climbing, and fun combo-based combat.
The platforming was a lot of fun, and there are some truly gorgeous environments to do it. From the reclaimed earth of New York to climbing ruined cranes and seeing Trip’s village, some of the visuals hold up exceptionally well today despite this game being 10 years old. The vistas found in New York are very The Last of Us, and I would not be surprised if the survival series was inspired by under the radar gem.
The combat itself was a lot of fun, with the main weapon utilised by Monkey being a staff. This staff was a lot of fun to use as it not only covered melee combat, it could be used at a range as well. The combat doesn’t feature as many combination attacks as you’d expect from, say, a Devil May Cry game, but nonetheless there was a variety to be found in the combat. You can naturally greet enemies head on and fight them, but also make use of stealth to avoid combat altogether in certain sections.
The enemies you face throughout the game are mechs, and they die really well. I recall their animations when dying to be hugely entertaining—whether they’re exploding, breaking down, or if Monkey is ripping them to pieces using a finishing move. The one thing I would say is that there wasn’t a huge amount of variety when it came to the enemies, but this is a minor gripe at best. From start to finish the combat was a lot of fun, and I jumped into it at every opportunity. This for me is a rare feeling. Usually when I play any game where stealth is a viable option, I’m employing that, so this is a testament to just how fun and intuitive the combat is here.
For sure one of the most fun aspects of the game was the Cloud. This is essentially a hoverboard/glider of sorts, allowing Trip and Monkey to glide over water and land at fast speeds. These sections were wonderful to simply get a sense of the great design implemented by Ninja Theory at dazzling speeds, a highlight reel of the world they created.
Sad (financial) times
So, what exactly happened with this game?
As I mentioned earlier on, this was quite well received in a critical sense, however it did not make the sales required by Bandai Namco for it to be considered a success, with the publishing house looking for 1 million units sold. Unfortunately, it failed to sell even half of that and that was the end of that. It’s really sad to see that this didn’t become a franchise, as there was all the potential in the world for it to be hit.
The talent involved, design, fun yet challenging combat and visual beauty were all there yet something didn’t connect with an audience who would move it past the financial goal post.
Thinking back to 2010, what was the gaming landscape like? It was completely dominated by multiplayer games, namely Call of Duty and Halo, and it was these games taking the lion’s share of the market at this point. Of course we had amazing single player games like Batman: Arkham Asylum commanding huge sales, but simply put there was more bank to be had in the multiplayer arena at the time.
Things have changed again in this day and age, with the likes of The Last of Us series and Horizon raking in silly amounts of money, proving that single player experiences can never truly die. I wonder if Enslaved would have fared better were it released in the latter part of the 2010s, and I’m almost certain it would have. But maybe not without some kind of multiplayer tacked on to it.
A case of bad timing and a world not wanting the experience that was being offered, which is regrettable.
Bandai Namco at the time blamed a crowded release window as well, which certainly hurt their chances of having a smash hit on their hands. In Q4 of 2010, we saw the release of Fallout: New Vegas, Fable III, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, Call of Duty: Black Ops, probably an Assassin’s Creed or two and many more I can’t think of right now. The common denominator with the aforementioned titles? Big sellers.
It’s all relative
It would be unwise and unfair to deem this a failure based purely on the financial outcome.
In most forms of media, we’re used to seeing everything becoming a franchise. Movies, TV, gaming—we see so many releases leaving the door open at the end of the story. There is of course nothing wrong with this, and it can be a great thing that these creators are ambitious enough to want to continue their story in new, different ways. The inverse is also true, there is a lot to be said for something to be released in isolation, and have it stand on its own legs without there being a legion multimedia tie-in pieces supporting it.
There was a sequel planned for this game originally, but is it really a massive loss that we haven’t seen one?
It would have been great to have more opportunity to explore this engaging world some more, there is no doubt about that, but Enslaved: Odyssey to the West still exists. It’s still an achievement in game development and storytelling and that cannot be taken away, regardless of any monetary failure. It didn’t need a sequel, a tie-in TV show, Netflix anime, 40 million books and a limited run comic book series to justify its existence as an exploration of free will, choice and care.
We’re f*****g spoiled sometimes, aren’t we?
Jump up, jump up and get down
I didn’t replay this game for the sake of this article, everything written here is from memory, with some light Googling for facts around sales figures.
This had a huge impact on me at the time in 2010. I was barely an adult and didn’t have a notion as to what was going on in my life, but I knew I loved story-driven games and this knocked me off my feet. The complex friendship shared between Monkey and Trip and their quest for emancipation was a story that allowed me to think, and explore my own freedoms in life and how easily they can be taken for granted.
Perhaps now that Ninja Theory is under the Microsoft banner, we might see some life in this cult hit return on the black and green box, but if we don’t? I’m completely okay with that too.
If you’re looking for an engaging single player experience, that may have flown under the radar in a crowded period of big releases, backup by huge talent with some captivating performances, look no further than this tale of freedom and complicated friendship.
All images taken from the Enslaved: Odyssey to the West press kit here
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