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Robots, relationships and ruin, 'Enslaved' delivers gorgeous, cinematic gaming

If you decide to play the game "Enslaved: Odyssey to the West" (and you really should) don't be surprised if the first word out of your mouth is, "Wow."

"Enslaved," a game that launched this week for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, is so arrestingly beautiful almost immediately out the starting gate that you can't help but stand there with jaw agape muttering exclamations to yourself.

But "Enslaved" isn't just a pleasure to look at … it's a pleasure to play. And with a narrative penned by novelist Alex Garland and some top-tier voice acting, it offers a story that will not let you go.


Developed by Ninja Theory (the folks who last brought us "Heavenly Sword" for the PS3), "Enslaved" is a third-person action-adventure that's set on Earth 150 years in the future. In this future, a war between humans and mechs (a.k.a robots) has been waged and lost – lost by the humans, that is.

It's here that we find our protagonists – the muscle-bound brute Monkey and the diminutive-but-tech-savvy Trip. These two humans meet while desperately attempting to escape a slave ship.

Though their escape is successful, Trip – who is desperate to get home to her family and her hidden community of survivors – realizes she'll never make it there alive without Monkey's strength and raw survival skills. And so she manages to re-enslave Monkey by placing a band on his head that not only forces him to do what she says, but links his life to hers. If she dies … he dies.

And so begins an uncomfortable partnership and what is basically a road trip of post-apocalyptic proportions.

Certainly, what immediately grabs you about the game is the scenery – gorgeous in its sprawling, vibrant decay. With most of humanity long gone from this world, Mother Nature has come to reclaim what was once hers. And Ninja Theory has done a superb job creating a lost civilization in the slow process of being swallowed by greenery.

Whether you're exploring dilapidated skyscrapers draped in vines, crossing once-majestic bridges lost to rot, or venturing into outlands littered with the hulking, rusted remains of a mechanized past – each of the set-pieces will demand that you stop and drink them in.

As for "Enslaved's" gameplay, it perhaps lives in the shadow of the visual element. That is, for the most part, it is pretty straight forward stuff. You will move from point A to point B to point C in a linear fashion as you engage in a mix of combat, platforming and puzzle solving.

You primarily control Monkey who lives up to his name in that you'll have to frequently put his acrobatic skills to work to get him through this difficult-to-traverse world. Making him leap from one handhold to the next as he scales a skyscraper or negotiates a crumbling wall is elegant though pretty basic stuff.

Meanwhile, there all manner of automatons to contend with – from gun-topped turrets to robotic slave traders to enormous mechanical dogs. And they all want to Kill! Kill! Kill! But Monkey has a super-powered staff and you will use it to take down your enemies with a combination of relatively straightforward melee moves and fire power.

Ninja Theory does keep things interesting by changing up the gameplay from one level to the next, tossing in some fun vehicular combat sections by way of a floating disc that Monkey rides. More importantly, "Enslaved" sets itself apart in the way it tasks you with using Monkey and Trip together.

Though you play as Monkey, you will be able to send commands to Trip, putting her tech-smarts to work in his favor. For example, you can have Trip create digital decoys to give Monkey an advantage in a fight. Meanwhile, there are areas that Trip can't get to without Monkey's help so he'll have to carry her on his back or toss her up to high places she wouldn't otherwise be able to reach.

Making it through this game depends on you smartly using both characters together – all of which works perfectly with the game's story. And in the end, it's really the story and the character development that are the crown jewels of "Enslaved."

The story is very loosely based on a 400-year-old Chinese book called "Journey to the West." But this most-modern of adaptations was co-penned by Garland, who wrote the novel "The Beach" as well as the screenplay for the film "28 Days Later." And he and the team at Ninja Theory clearly understand that, when it comes to good storytelling, less is often more.

Here they don't pile on back story or expositional dialog. There are no heavy-handed explanations about why the world is the way it is. Instead, despite the fantastical setting, we get layered, believable characters. And we get to watch the relationship between Trip and Monkey develop slowly and subtly over the course of a well-paced journey.

On top of that, there is some great voice- and motion-capture acting from Andy Serkis (you might know him as Gollum from the "Lord of the Rings" movies). He not only plays Monkey but also was co-director on the project. Lindsey Shaw who plays Trip and Richard Ridings who plays the colorful character Pigsy also deliver excellent performances.

Ultimately, "Enslaved" feels cinematic in all the right ways while still being a very solid gaming experience. Wow indeed.

Winda Benedetti writes the Citizen Gamer column for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things right here on Twitter.