I’m three chapters in to Enslaved, and thus far I’m really not liking it much at all. The story seems competently done, I’ll give them that. It’s good enough, even, that I’m going to probably finish the game, despite all complaints forthcoming in this rant. There have even been a couple moments, like with the fish tank in Chapter 2, where it was actually almost subtle, which is so rare for a game. But in the actual design of the gameplay, there is something bad going on. Maybe it’s because I’m pretty recently coming off of Halo: Reach and Alan Wake, two of the most meticulously designed games of this generation.
I’ll try to put aside the broader issues like the feel of the platforming and combat (hint: they’re not good). These are genuinely hard things to get right. I want to focus on the little annoyances in the design that have stuck out to me thus far.
First, the visual design. It feels like they knew that both the available interactions during traversal, as well as enemy states during combat were hard to parse. That’s laudable. But the solution they came up strikes me as abrasive and intrusive. Can’t tell if the pipe is interactable?Make it sparkly. Can’t tell when an enemy is blocking? Put a blue overlay over his entire body. It’s just awful. It points to artist who prioritized look over gameplay utility, and designers who could only come up with this kludge of a fix after the fact.
Then there’s the camera. It’s close and low to the ground, which is generally good for traversal, except when it isn’t. Like when I’m coming out of a cutscene, and Trip (the AI companion character) is struggling to hang on to a ledge and is going to fall to her death. Because it’s hard to convey the direness of the situation (not getting to her in time is a game over) when my big oaf of a main character is completely blocking Trip’s model from view. In combat, though, the camera has been a real hindrance for me. It just doesn’t provide the amount of peripheral vision and situational awareness that I’m accustomed to in a third person action game. It’s not like the game combines traversal and combat in any interesting ways that would necessitate that camera angle. Maybe it’s just me?
There’s also just the general issue of training and player learning. About half way through the time I played, you’re given a projectile weapon. The training for it is shooting three stationary targets while out of combat in order to trigger a cutscene. That teaches me how to shoot, yes, but judging by the upgrade tree for the weapon, it seems apparent that the intent is that I incorporate this ranged weapon into combat. But I’ve gotten virtually no guidance about how to do this, and ammo is so limited for it that I don’t feel like I’m being encouraged to experiment. I did get a prompt about shooting, one time, in the middle of a boss fight, where it informed me that the boss was only vulnerable to head shots. That the game needed to resort to a text prompt to do this, and right in the middle of an action sequence no less, is again a failure in giving me feedback. Actually, it’s worse than that, since the game felt the need to spell out in text step by step how to beat the boss. Actually, the whole boss is kind of awful. It’s a variation on the Gears of War Berserker/Arkham Asylum Bane design, but that you have to beat up a bit to put it in an enraged state before it will charge. But the game doesn’t give you feedback about whether you’re damaging him when you initially start to wail on him, has to resort to a text-prompt to tell you that when he does start showing damage, that’s him in his enraged state, and again needs another text prompt to tell you that you need to taunt to trigger his charge. Compare this to how intuitive it is in Alan Wake, because of the sound and the visuals and the aiming controls, to tell if you’re hitting an enemy in Alan Wake, and how much health he has left.
A couple more quick complaints before I end: having to press A to drop straight down from standing on a platform feels really wrong, especially when, if I triggered a jump instead of a drop, I’d end up in a minefield. And whoever thought it would be a good idea to scatter the experience orbs so densely throughout the world, they’re wrong. Very, very wrong. It makes me decide between the tedium of wandering around picking them up, and being underpowered in the upgrade tree. This is not the sort of choice people mean when they talk about empowering players to make to decisions. It clutters of the landscape for no good reason. And to make it worse, it’s gotten me killed once, where I thought I was collecting orbs on a side path, but it turns out I was exiting the area, and so Trip killed me without warning for leaving her behind. Great job, Enslaved. Well done.