Ninja Theory's "Odyssey to the West"

First, take a book that stands as one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature, keep the characters and overall flavor, but forsake the landscape penned in the 1590s and update the setting in a futuristic manner. Then, assign the intellectual property to one of the development studios synonymous with churning out great games. Finally, toss in some truly talented external performers including actor Andy Serkis and what you have is the potential for a truly memorable video-game experience.

"ENSLAVED: Odyssey to the West" will be releasing from Ninja Theory on October 8. Published by Namco Bandai, the game will launch on multiple platforms, including the PlayStation 3 and 360 consoles. The game chronicles the adventures of Trip and Monkey as they attempt to escape from slavers and make their way to freedom. There is a caveat to this story, though; Monkey is not quite the free mercenary one might think. Actually, Trip has used her abilities in technology to bond Monkey to her courtesy of a controlling headband.

Boasting tactical gameplay, a deep storyline, robust action and an incredible world, "ENSLAVED" could well be one of the must-play titles of the fall. Ninja Theory scored big with critics and gamers in 2007 with the title "Heavenly Sword," and "ENSLAVED" appears to be a game that advances from the foundations of that incredible title.

Tameem Antoniades, co-founder and chief creative ninja at Ninja Theory recently spoke with CBR about the game.

CBR News: Did "ENSLAVED" draw its inspiration from any sources for the storyline other than "Journey to the West?" What elements were essential that they be part of the game and where did you make major departures from the Chinese novel?

Tameem Antoniades: The book is our primary source of inspiration, although the game is only loosely based on it. We really liked the idea of taking the story from a 400-year-old book and giving it our own unique twist.

Screenshots from "ENSLAVED: Odyssey to the West"

The main premise of the story remains: Tripitaka enslaves Monkey with a golden headband to be taken on a journey of redemption, though our Monkey is actually a human and Trip is a woman and not a Monk like Tripitaka is in the novel. We've also set the game in the near future, with technology replacing the novel's magic and the demons being replaced by mechs.

There are clues throughout the game that refer to the original novel, but we've essentially created a totally original story.

The team behind this game was also responsible for "Heavenly Sword." Are there any parallels in the relationship between Monkey and Trip and that of Nariko and Kai?

I wouldn't say that there are any parallels between the relationships, but it is no coincidence that we've chosen to go with two lead characters. I really liked the story that we could tell between Kai and Nariko. After "Heavenly Sword" had been released, we had a lot of really positive feedback from fans who loved the relationship between Kai and Nariko. People were talking about them with real fondness like they were real people. So in "ENSLAVED," I wanted to explore the idea of a relationship between two characters further. I wanted to challenge the idea of portraying emotions and try to explore the whole range of emotions that you feel in a real-life relationship.

In a similar vein, "Heavenly Sword" was an amazing combination of combat with deep emotional and personal interaction between the characters. Can we expect a similar mix and dynamic in "ENSLAVED?"

Yes, you can expect that mix but with a lot more. We've taken what we did on "Heavenly Sword" and pushed things up a step. We've worked with some really talented people in Alex Garland and Andy Serkis, who have helped to tell a really cinematic and engaging story. Combat is also a big part of the game, but it isn't just hack and slash. You'll really have to think strategically about how you are going to take on the mechs that you come across. Aside from the story and combat, you'll also spend a lot of time puzzle solving and climbing around the environments.

How does Monkey interact with Trip when moving into combat?

It is really a brawn-and-brains relationship. Monkey is tough, aggressive and knows how to handle mechs in a battle. Trip, on the other hand, can't fight. What she brings to the partnership is her technological know-how and ingenuity. For example, before Monkey and Trip move into a new area, Trip will send up her flying CCTV camera, called a Dragonfly, to scan the area for potential threats. This gives Monkey time to think of a strategy for tackling a particular area. Trip can also distract mechs from a distance, so that they focus their attention on her for a while, giving Monkey the opportunity to find a path to get closer to the mechs and take them on at close range with his staff weapon.

Many games that have a team dynamic end up feeling as though the player has to work overtime to protect the non-playable character. How hard was it to program the NPC to react intelligently in combat settings and to be a support rather than a hindrance?

Making Trip a useful partner for Monkey was a real focus for us and something that we just had to get right. Where partnerships have failed in games before is when the AI partner acts in a way a normal human wouldn't. Trip won't do anything dumb, like run into the line of fire, even if you tell her to. Our whole game is built around the partnership between Monkey and Trip, so at no point should you feel like she is a getting in the way or holding you up. You will want her around because she is very useful.

Andy Serkis directed the cut scenes and voices Monkey in this game. His portrayal of Bohan was quite memorable. How much of his own style did he bring to the central character and did he relish being a "good guy" for a change?

He is a method actor. He was shooting "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" around the same time, for which he lost tons of weight, changed his voice and weakened one side of his body while strengthening the other (the character he was playing, Ian Dury, was a cripple). He puts himself totally into the role of Monkey, and to him good and bad guys are all just characters with different world views. What you will see in all our characters is a reflection of the real person inside, to a large degree.

Graphically, the game looks magnificent. How does the game push the boundaries of what is achievable in terms of visuals?

Magnificent? Thanks! "ENSLAVED" has a very unique look that we spent a lot of time perfecting.

We've created a world that no one has seen before, where humans have gone and nature has started to reclaim the earth. So you have the very dangerous decay of a world left behind by humans combined with the sheer beauty of Mother Nature thriving.

We're also very proud of the work we've done to put real expression and emotion on the faces of our characters. We have developed our own performance-capture techniques that really have opened up new opportunities for the way in which stories can be told in games. When you combine cutting edge technology with excellent writing and acting you begin to be able to tell stories in the same encapsulating way that movies do. We judge our storytelling and acting against the best movies out there, not against games.

What are the most unique elements of this game that you believe will resonate with gamers?

"ENSLAVED" is something fresh and new. There are a lot of games being released between now and Christmas, but "ENSLAVED" is one of a tiny few that are new IP. It is going to deliver something new that people haven't seen before in terms of the environment and the story. We've worked with some of the best in the business to create a cinematic experience that people are going to really remember.

Tags: namco bandai, enslaved: odyssey to the west, ninja theory, tameem antoniades

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