Tag Archives: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Late to the Party: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Late to the Party: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

If you’ve been browsing the Xbox Video store, you might have noticed a new addition under the Featured section. It stands out quite prominently as the only Asian foreign film among the more recent Western releases, but more so as Stephen Chow’s latest attempt at a feature length piece. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a retelling of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West (also the basis for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, one of my favorite games), but with Chow’s signature flair.

For those of you that don’t recognize the name, Chow is the man behind 2001’s Shaolin Soccer and 2004’s Golden Globe-nominated Kung Fu Hustle. And if you don’t recognize those two movies, then you really need to reprioritize your movie-watching. They’re both outlandish action comedies, the former about a Shaolin kung fu master playing soccer and the latter about two-bit thug being an unknown kung fu genius. Both are quite well known for being of a cartoonish nature.

Unsurprisingly, that is also one of the most striking features of Journey to the West. It doesn’t go quite as far as Kung Fu Hustle what with the knife-throwing and the Road Runner-esque chase sequences, but it certainly retains so much of what makes Chow’s films so easily identifiable. Especially held against the aesthetics of ancient, rustic Chinese villages, the sensibilities of modern action choreography and comedic cadences contrast quite nicely.

But even beyond that for Chow is his seemingly undeniable sense of heart. Everyone in this film takes up the part of some personable caricature—a dangerously skilled demon hunter with a propensity for schoolgirl crushes, a master swordsman who makes play he’s a prince (with less-than-ideal results), and so on—but they are so endearing for both their faults and their strengths.

For example, if you take our lead character Tang Sanzang (played by Wen Zhang), he’s a bumbling, oafish doofus of a demon hunter. He’s knowledgeable, but in the first instance we see of him doing his job, he attempts to sing a river demon to becoming nice. Not the worst plan considering how many fairy tales go, but given the very obvious lack of effect on the demon and the subsequent beating Sanzang receives, he should have gone a different route.

Then we see where this character truly is coming from once he returns to his master. He’s unsure of this tactic as well, but convinced and encouraged by his master to continue on. He must believe that there is good in these demons and that they are redeemable, even when he doesn’t believe in his own abilities. And then we see him soldier on into a den of demon shenanigans, still unwilling to compromise on his ideals.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Most affecting, though, is the relationship between Sanzang and rival demon hunter/love interest Miss Duan (played by Shu Qi). She is a talented hunter with a number of magical armaments that make her infinitely more effective than Sanzang. She’s serious and takes no guff when there’s a battle to be fought.

But she’s also weak to the idea of love, or at least weak to the idea of being loved. Try as she might, she can’t seem to get Sanzang to admit what she believes he feels, which she has roughly zero evidence to substantiate. But one elaborate plan after another lands her more and more in the grasp of some belief that their love is mutual.

While the specifics of these characters’ circumstances are rather unique and wholly improbable in modern times, the sentiment behind their actions is timeless. Chow not only has an ability to infuse humor in the strangest ways into the best possible situations, but he also manages to consistently distill the essence of human trials into outlandish yet relatable characters.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

The only disappointing aspect of Journey to the West is that once again he seems to fall under the spell of deus ex machina. By some innate ability activated through a higher power, the final crisis is averted. It makes for an emotionally compelling climax to the film once again (see Kung Fu Hustle for reference), but upon reflection or with sufficient context of his other films, it comes across as a bit tired.

I’d like to see Chow try a more subdued, less divine intervention conclusion. He can do subtle, and he can do it well, even if he is known for going over the top and being ridiculous in every way imaginable. But Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons riles up a desire within me to see him tip the scales the other way, moving towards quiet and tempered over bombastic and spectacle. Still, though, it’s quite a good movie, and if you’re looking for a laugh and a warming smile to be left across your face, then give it a shot.

(Check it out on iTunes, Xbox Video, PlayStation Network, and On Demand.)

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A Little Touch in The Last of Us

A Little Touch in The Last of Us

Orson Welles can be a pretty depressing dude, and The Last of Us can be a pretty depressing game. There’s a quote, actually, from Welles that puts both in a succinct little package of words: “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” But there is hope in these words; it’s about the moment. A successful life is simply about stringing together as many of these little moments as possible, though the actual act of wrangling in these wild horses may not be simple at all.

We’re lucky that in video games, these little refuges of the harsh storm of a daily life are specifically crafted just for us. Designers and writers and developers and actors and so many other people pour their lives into making these tiny bits of hope and happiness. They spend countless hours, sleepless nights on making sure you don’t feel alone in their virtual worlds.

In effect, they’re making digital funhouse mirrors. These reflections of life show to us a warped version of reality, an idyllic one that fits neatly into categories and slots into a whirring machine of spinning cogs and steaming pipes that does nothing more than makes us feel less alone. And The Last of Us is all about fighting that overbearing sensation, that paranoia that once the book closes on your life, it will be nothing more than a story bookended by loneliness.

The title itself is a reference to its dramatic themes, chief among them being the last of a society. Whether last to leave or last to die, you are the loneliest of them all despite, in terms of a post-apocalyptic world overrun by fungal maniacs, finding the greatest amount of success. You have, after all, outlived everyone else in the world, and yet you will die alone.

But there is a little touch in the game, a small effect that combats that overwhelmingly depressing notion. It is that moment of love and friendship that Welles talks about, the same one that creates the illusion of not being alone before having it shattered by heartbreaking tragedy. When you take cover, this minute affectation of character animation occurs that is endearing, encouraging, and altogether frustrating because you know it can’t last.

When you crouch down behind a broken wall or flipped desk or rusted car, Joel puts his hand up against it. It’s something he does when he walks closely to walls, too, much like Naughty Dog’s Nathan Drake would do in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. In this case, it not only builds worldly interaction that supports narrative immersion but also is a realistic thing that someone would do when they are crouched down. Hand up, head down, and quiet all on the Cordyceps front as another Clicker meanders by.

Your ward, though, comes roadie running up to you and takes cover, too. Ellie will sidle up next to you and then slip in between you and the wall as you push out to accommodate her. The first time I saw this happen, my heart erupted with warmth. It was one of the most affecting things I’d yet seen in an already affecting game. And it’s such a trivial thing to happen otherwise, just a trifling animation throw in there for good measure. But it ends up being so much more.

And it’s not about protecting Ellie, though the father-daughter relationship that fosters would suggest Joel feels that way anyways. No, our 14-year-old bundle of attitude and aptitude is fully capable of taking care of herself (a wonderful break from the traditional damsel trope). This is a comforting motion. This is as close as you can get to a warming embrace or holding hands when you’re hiding and running for your life. It’s an interaction that tells you both that you’re okay because you’re both facing this together.

These small moments run rampant through the most powerful pairings in video games. These seemingly throwaway bits actually lay a foundation for things beyond the discrete narrative and the game’s base systems and mechanics. In Ico, the way you hold down the button to hold her hand crafts a physical relationship with a physical manifestation of wonderment. In Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, having Monkey pick up Trip reinforces the idea that his physicality and her technical prowess makes them each one half of a whole.

When Elizabeth throws a coin to Booker in BioShock Infinite, it puts in your head that she worries about you as much as you worry about her, that a platonic love is never far out of sight. Hell, even pressing a button to fist bump in Army of Two creates a similar facade of emotional dependency in a fictional world of bros being bros. Having you necessarily utilize a completely inanimate but impossibly charming Companion Cube in Portal to get you through doors and over gaps lays the foundation for feeling compassion for a box with a heart painted on it.

But they are all moments, moments that fade away and get lost like tears in the rain. They’re tiny bastions that stand up against the onslaught of shooting faces and smashing heads, moments that don’t tell you are not alone and instead remind you that you are creating your own isolation. Every step to the end of this tiring journey is just burning up these instances of solidarity (time, after all, is a nonrenewable resource). In Welles’ own words, “if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” But when Ellie nudges you aside and shelters herself in your keep, all her faults and perfections that fit neatly alongside your own that make you hate and love her reminds you that, if only for a moment, you are not alone.

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An Age of Import

An Age of Import

You never forget your first. Your first time behind the wheel after you get your license, your first broken bone, your first kiss. Major life events are often noteworthy because they happen once or twice over your entire time on this planet, but even the repeated ones get remembered because they have a genesis; an origin. Everything that follows is an epilogue to the weight it bears on your life and the person you become.

Dismissing the maiden voyage of any sort is foolish because you are dismissing precedence and influence. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first Kit Kat, your first pair of shoes with green laces, or first slap bracelet. These set a standard against which you compare everything that follows. And as you regress through your years in your memories, it makes sense that more and more of these seminal events are bundled up with your earlier years.

Those nascent bits are, for the most part, paramount to the later ones simply because they take place in a vacuum. They occupy little space in the grand scheme of things, but when they are the large majority of everything you know, they tend to be important. Picture it as a test tube. It starts out small and empty and you gradually put more and more stuff into it. The volume of the stuff—your memories, your experiences—stays the same but the tube grows longer and longer, able to hold more and more. When the test tube is small, it’s easy to fill it up and each little bit takes up precious space. As it grows, though, it becomes harder and harder to find singularly formative pieces that can fill the void.

That’s why all the video games you grew up with seem to be the most important (and often “the best”) ones to you. Granted, some of those you hold in high regard like Galaga and Super Mario World are actually landmark titles, but the personal value of those games is the important thing here. It doesn’t matter if you grew up on Atari or SNES or 360; what you played as a child will develop your tastes and opinions as you continue to game.

It’s an odd adage of the gaming world that the first Mario Kart you play is your favorite one, but it’s true. While I acknowledge that Mario Kart 64 is a superior product and perhaps the best in the franchise, I will still prefer to race about in Super Mario Kart. It’s way more squirrely than any modern Mario Kart and harder and less pleasant to play, but it elicits a very specific feeling inside of me when I’m puttering around in that Mode 7 world. Sure, it takes me back in the nostalgic sense, but it also reminds me of everything that follows. Playing Super Mario Kart enables me to remember the times I played everything from Mario Kart: Double Dash!! to Mario Kart 7, but it doesn’t go the other way around.

That is, however, a very specific example of a generalized concept. Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Kirby Super Star all hold up to this ideal. Each first not only informs my opinions of future franchise titles but also those of similar ilk. The definition of what feels like a good platforming jump is what Mario felt like back then. The sense of clearing out dungeons and earning rewards for future explorations go back to my time with Link.

These notions are all forward-facing and can’t be directed back. That’s just not the way it works either psychologically or technologically. Information and capabilities advance so aggressively that it would be unfair to point any of it backwards. It’s much like how many important battles were fought before the invention of the gun, but putting modern day warriors into Genghis Khan’s army wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

Our fundamental games would better be served by not calling them landmarks, however, and instead label them as milestones. As time marches forward, more and more of these influential markers are dropped along the way and each one serves the same purpose as those before it. The only difference is that as you go further along, staking each one into the ground becomes harder. You move from open, soft, pliable land that is rife for soaking in anything and everything to hard, cynical tracts of impenetrable dirt and clay. But when you drop them, you can be sure they carry just as much weight because it’s not just about objective quality but about where you are on this timeline and what it means to your remaining trek. This is how you arrive at an undying love for Journey or an impossible or inexplicable passion for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

That’s the odd thing about time, I guess. At certain ages, specific things you thought were important may fade as new ones take place, but the idea that they represent never go away. Road trips are undoubtedly fun but they never match the exhilaration of that drive to your friend’s house to show off your brand new license. You may break an arm or fracture a wrist a few more times down the line but that first cast with all its signatures and scratches represents a frozen moment—a snapshot—in your life. And each kiss, well, maybe some things are always special.

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Combat Context With DmC Devil May Cry

Combat Context In DmC Devil May Cry

DmC Devil May Cry is a good game. Nay, a great game. It excels is so many parts that when it comes together as a whole, you feel more than sated with what you’d just experienced than you’d expect. Ninja Theory managed to make great characters that work exceedingly well within an interesting (if ridiculous) milieu and, most importantly, fight like champs.

The combat of DmC is a vast improvement over past Ninja Theory games. Heavenly Sword was workable as a mashable stew of button presses and whirling ginger locks while Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was passable at best. DmC, though, has struck something akin to gold.

At first glance, it seems to largely operate in the vein of past Devil May Cry games; you have a selection of melee weapons and a selection of long-range weapons and you mix the two to create combos. Guns keep enemies in the air while swords launch them and hammers slam them back down. There are, however, two very important differences: the lack of lock-on targeting and the removal of styles.

Lock-on targeting has been replaced with, well, nothing. Well, technically nothing in that all your hacks and slashes will be subtly guided towards nearby enemies and firearms will automatically pointed at something in your general vicinity, but effectively your manual trigger-enabled targeting system has been usurped by Rebellion’s whipping capabilities (Rebellion being Dante’s sword).

The whip either grabs an enemy and drags it towards you or latches on and pulls you toward it. This turns what was previously a completely non-diegetic mechanic of locking onto an enemy into a combat utility. The meta overhead of having to press a button and switch between targets was never that fun and the cognitive resources required to evade and fight while swiveling around your binary aim were simply too high. It facilitated combat once you were engaged, but reaching that point was always a bit of a gamble, one whose payoff rarely merited the trouble it caused when targeting a piddly little fodder foe while the boss beats you to a sliver of health.

The whip enables you to keep the switching of targets (both close and far) within the context of the actual combat. Basically working like Link’s hookshot, when you finish with an enemy either by killing it or by deciding you need to deal with something else first, the whip puts you immediately into whatever situation you desire. With a launched enemy, you can either follow suit and go airborne or bring it back down to you. Faraway demons are suddenly well within your sword’s reach.

The targeting, however, still relies on some degree of autonomy but like the lock-on methodology of past Devil May Cry games, but the crucial difference is that the whip keeps you in the battle while pressing down on the left stick is a purely player-side activity and has no gameplay impact in that particular moment. When the lock-on targeting (which, by the way, takes zero input as to what you want to target and largely operates on proximity) fails, you have to either settle or continue to dedicate mental faculties to a yes/no check on who you’ve locked onto. The sword-whip, whether it succeeds or fails, simply allows for more combat. The traversal time is entirely within the frame of the fighting so your mindset never changes out of that context while checking where you are locked onto requires you to disengage from the game.

The second change in the removal of styles is also a qualified change. Styles in past games were slight alterations in the way Dante handled. Pressing the Style Action button could allow you to repel attacks or move and process enemy attacks faster with the style itself open to being changed on the fly through the D-pad. Well, in Devil May Cry 4, anyways, as Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening only allowed changes between missions, so let’s stick with the Nero stuff in this case.

The problem with this is that the shift is entirely passive. Once you press a direction and the style changes, some cerebral allotment must be cordoned off to tracking what you are currently engaged as. Only at the moment of the switch will you be informed of what your style is, otherwise you have to use your Style Action or reactivate that style to find out what it is. That is precious processing power being taken away from figuring out how to protract your combo and being put into remembering one otherwise immaterial bit of information.

More than that, the shift only affects a single button on the controller. A supposedly seismic shift in combat tactics and all Dante or Nero has to show for it is a different button output? Not only does that not make sense within the context of the world but also fails to engage the player with this style-switching mechanic in any meaningful way. You have to switch your entire mindset to use one of four different moves. That’s a waste.

In DmC, the changes are totally active. The triggers on the controller act as shift keys on the keyboard. If you hold the left trigger, you are in Angel mode while if you hold the right trigger, you are in Devil mode. When you don’t hold either, you are back to a neutral (but still deadly) Dante. This eliminates the problem of the switching taking up cognitive overhead because this is an active process. Your physical feedback to holding down a trigger is what tells you which mode you are in. It’s why you never accidentally send ALL CAPS MESSAGES to people when you just use the shift keys; you can forget you pressed the caps lock key and you can forget which style you currently have selected but you won’t forget that you have your pinky pressing down on a shift key or that your fingers are holding down a trigger.

This also addresses the problem of the whole-cloth mode switch equating to one new move. When you hold down a trigger, it modifies just about every button. Your attack is changed because you weapon is changed, providing a visual indicator of what mode you are in; your dodge has a different aftereffect depending on if you are in Angel or Devil mode; and your whip will either lock you or your enemy down as the distance between the two closes. Eventually, instead of associating a single action with whatever you have locked away in that chunk of brain that you have tracking your style, you will shift entire comprehension and interpretation methods of the battlefield depending on which hand (and finger) you have pressuring the trigger.

It’s a physical shift as well as a mental one and it takes your current context and replaces it entirely with a new one. The association becomes innate and you will eventually meld the two concepts of a corporeal actuation with a pugilistic proscenium. As natural as it is to always press the bottom button to jump, you will always press the left trigger to slice and dice while you will always pull the right trigger to smash and bash. It’s a subtle design choice that builds muscle memory connections to three entirely different battle schematics.

There is so much more I can talk about with DmC’s combat like how you can preload input or how now all things vertical have been relegated to the B (or circle) button so combos can vary further between air and ground strikes, but this is about the context of the game’s combat. This is about how cognitive sciences can inform game design. This is about how awesome it is to stick a scythe into a succubus and then whale on it with my giant devil fists without worrying about forgetting what mode I’m in.

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Revisitation Hours: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Tomorrow, it will have been two years since Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was first put out on store shelves. Just two short years and yet it feels like ages ago. 2010 was littered with AAA sequels like Fallout: New Vegas, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Rock Band 3 bumbling about the freshly Kinect-laden November, but standout new IPs were easy to come by in the AA and indie arenas. You could find gems like Vanquish and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Darksiders among the Call of Duty: Black Opses and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnames.

October was also overloaded with a Diablo III-heavy BlizzCon and shortly followed in February by the Japanese release of the Nintendo 3DS (North America saw the new handheld in March). And then throughout 2011, we saw even more landmark originals like Magicka, Bulletstorm, DC Universe Online, L.A. Noire, and so on and so forth—and all of those were by the end of June! The 2011 holidays were even more packed than before (one word: Skyrim), and then we still have to go through 2012.

What I’m saying is that a lot has happened since Enslaved first came out. So much, in fact, that I felt it necessary to revisit the underappreciated Ninja Theory title to prepare for the two year anniversary. I recall genuinely loving the game the first time I played it. The question is: does it hold up?

Right off the bat, from the moment the game starts, I’m reminded of why I was drawn to it in the first place: the visuals. Just stellar art all around. The post-apocalyptic urban jungle takeover look has been done so many times (see: Crysis 2) but never has it felt so…right. The buildings feel empty but everything around it feels alive, a key aspect missing from most other titles utilizing this milieu. Human constructs have decayed in a believable way, but it’s perhaps most disturbing how it feels like the most monolithic and impersonal bits have held up the best.

This gives way, though, to allow the cleansing, inspiring, soothing greens and reds to creep up and overtake the industrial slabs. I can feel the painful, wistful longing from the artist for a place that never existed, that place where he’d escape to whenever he got bored in class or couldn’t stand looking at the overcast, rainy skies any longer. It’s that conflation of those idyllic meadows he yearned for and the oppressive urban framework he was escaping.

You can even see it in his concept art. Ninja Theory’s visual art director Alessandro Taini has a blog where he puts up most of his art from their projects, so you can see old stuff from Heavenly Sword and Enslaved but also catch a few glimpses of the upcoming Devil May Cry reboot. Though completely different mediums and of wholly incomparable fidelities, both the in-game art and this original concept art are evocative in similar ways.

I’ve already told you I’m all but dead inside, but the way Enslaved‘s art can make me feel like I’m being wrapped up in the infinite future’s lush, vibrant embrace in the face of a cold and uncaring reality is still unbelievable to me. There are some spanning vistas in the game as well as in Taini’s art that can quite literally give me goosebumps as something deep and untapped within me bubbles up with vague sensations of immense possibilities. There are glowing wisps all around me and I’m trying to reach out and grab them all, but they pass through my fingers as if they were just air.

I know there’s something, though, something worth searching for, and Enslaved can make me feel like I’ve found it.

The actual gameplay, if I recall, was fairly divisive. Some people thought it was bland, others serviceable, but I found it quite fun if simplistic. Combat was basic crowd management of groups never greater than three or four active opponents; stealth was a light mix of pattern recognition and risk mitigation; and traversal was straightforward point-and-jump. Nothing special but also accomplished with aplomb. Enslaved never second-guessed itself in how it played, refreshing given how often it feels like some games are unsure of how to handle themselves.

It’s all ancillary, though, to the story of the game. An early concession made is that since Trip isn’t as climbing-capable as Monkey and he can’t leave her unprotected for too long, he carries her on his back for a good portion of the game. It’s a bit similar to how you hold hands with Yorda in Ico, but also totally different. In Ico, it’s more of an active process of guiding Yorda around and it’s your responsibility to lead her around as you explore her world. It’s not that you have to protect her; it’s that you want to.

In Enslaved, flip that around and you’ve got the right idea. At least, that’s how it starts. You don’t want to protect her but you definitely have to. Her life is your life. Keeping her alive means you are keeping yourself alive, so what better way to guarantee that than to just keep her with you at all times? I mean, if she’s on your back and you fall off a building, so what? You’re both dead. If she dies on her own, though, god dammit that’s her fault.

But around the midway point, things…change. The situation turns from a not-want-but-need to a want-and-need. Trip is no longer my warden but instead the other half of my being. She becomes indispensable in simply moving around the world. She does everything Monkey cannot. She can hack doors, create decoys, explore narrow openings, and warn me of landmines and enemies. Trip is not my captor but my partner. The fact is that even if she were to die and Monkey was not wearing that enslaving headband, he might as well be dead. He simply cannot accomplish the same things as when Trip is by his side. She has become a physical necessity to him, and by extension, to me.

With the art clawing away at something deep in my brain—a wall cordoning off all those fantastical, imprecise flights of fancy—and a relationship as powerful as I’ve ever seen in a video game, it’s hard not to admit that maybe I do have a few soft spots left in me. I mean, if Enslaved can break down my impenetrable fortress of stone cold manliness, just imagine what it will do to the rest of you emotional rubes (just kidding, I love you all very much). Take the ending as you will—I found it interesting—but Enslaved is an odyssey always worth taking.

Hopefully you’ve played Enslaved: Odyssey to the West by now. If you haven’t, then what’s wrong with you?! Probably nothing too severe, I hope, but you really should play it. Has this convinced you or do you now think I’m just a pretentious jerkwad? And if you have played it, do you agree or do you also think I’m a pretentious jerkwad? By all means, have at me!

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