Like all buddy-cop/true-love stories, Enslaved begins with the two main characters meeting under less-than-romantic circumstances. In this case, Monkey, a glowering tree-trunk of a man, and Trip, a ragdoll-haired brainy girl, are both slaves aboard an airship that crashes someplace in Brooklyn. Then, while Monkey is unconscious, Trip snaps a headband on him and programs it to electrify his brain if she dies. This, naturally, convinces him to protect her.
Despite the non-consensual beginning of their relationship, Monkey and Trip are soon exchanging affectionate glances and joking with each other as they make their way across the remnants of a post-apocalyptic America. For the most part, Trip decides what needs to be done and Monkey, operating under my command, does it. (Or do I operate under Trip's commands? Hmm... ) Often, this means that Monkey must run back to Trip whenever she's attacked by the metal-taloned robots that have been strewn around the wreckage of the earth.
Despite her intelligence, Trip hasn't figured out how to design a weapon for herself. Or maybe that's what Monkey is. Most of his fighting is done with a power-charged staff in swirling, swooshing cyclones, but he can also use his staff to blast enemies from a distance. I was impressed with how many times the game managed to make me switch back and forth between the two methods of attack. Unlike other God of War clones - and even God of War itself - Enslaved strives to bring variety to what can quickly become a button-mashing, repetitive activity.
This imaginative diversity extends to the game's levels as well. There are perhaps too many sneak-through-the-minefield and avoid-the-dormant-robot levels. But there are also jumping mazes, extended boss brawls, gauntlets of pure carnage and backtracking puzzles. Enslaved also gets away from the circular arenas that plague almost all third-person melee action games. Battles in Enslaved take place atop hanging bridges, along narrow ledges, and in junkyard arenas that get chewed up by rampaging robots and artillery fire during the course of battle.
But it's the duo of Trip and Monkey that makes the game more than just a fresh tweak of videogame conventions. Monkey is performed by Andy Serkis (Gollum in Lord of the Rings), who knows more than most performers about conveying a character through layers of technology. Along with Lindsey Shaw, as Trip, the actors depart from the grim pretension of videogame performances to sound despairing, sarcastic, silly and aggravated - in short, alive.
THE GOOD: In a season full of sequels and spinoffs, Enslaved is a courageous launch of a brand new story and characters. With its compelling setting, endearing characters and enough weak points worth correcting, I hope that Enslaved becomes a series. I feel about this game the same way I did about the Uncharted franchise, which used a decent adventure game as a platform for an exceptional sequel.
THE BAD: The camera is sometimes under my control. At other times it automatically pivots to follow Monkey's action from a fixed perspective. And at other moments it seems to be operating under deranged commands from another dimension.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a captivating journey that will hopefully continue.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Rated Teen; Xbox 360, PlayStation 3