Capturing the attention of would-be fans is imperative when showing off a game for the first time. As they say, first impressions are everything, and if a game looks uninteresting, unappealing and just plain dull you can guaranty those labels will be hard to shake. Thankfully, most developers have their thumb on their audience's pulse, and know just how to show off their new titles in spectacular fashion. Oftentimes they use cinematic audio and visual production that rivals the best of Hollywood. Other times the focus is on gameplay - quriky and stimulating scenarios that leave you wondering just how you'll interact. And then you have games like El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, which make you wonder if there was more to those sugar cubes you popped in your last hot drink.
Quirky, strange and bizarre. None of these words come close to describing the initial impact of El Shaddai. Developed by Ignition Tokyo and designed by Takeyasu Sawaki (artist on Devil May Cry and Okami), the game earned quite a bit of well deserved buzz for it's left of centre visual presentation, using hard colours and shades, patterned lighting, and unorthodox geometry to create dream-scape fantasy worlds. Mystical visuals were necessary given the nature of it's story, as El Shaddai aims to retell the tale of Enoch, from the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text stripped from the Dead Sea Scrolls and a sample of the Hebrew bible.
But as impressive as the visual flair might be, games like El Shaddai are always a call for concern, particularly in mechanical depth and playability. Too often flashy, visually creative and appealing games turn out to be little more than just that. Does El Shaddai rise above it's pretty exterior, or does it succumb to style over substance? A little from column A, and a little from column B.
It all starts off well enough, with a prologue that reminds us that Japan's fascination with Western religious myths and tales, and the 'retelling' of such stories, usually involves plummeting off the deep end into pure madness, and El Shaddai is no different. We're introduced to Enoch, a handsome scribe for the order of Heaven, and Lucifel, a trendy bastard who has the big man up stairs on his smart phone's speed dial. It seems four angels have fallen from the grace of God, begun mingling with humans to produce unholy offspring, and will be the cause of a great, humanity destroying flood. Enoch is tasked with hunting down and purifying these fallen angels, Lucifel guiding him along the way, along with a host of other characters to meet, greet and dispatch.
Progress through this story of righteousness is cleanly divided into two styles of gameplay; brawling and platforming. Each is deceptively simple, built on basic mechanics yet flexed with surprisingly engaging gameplay. Combat encounters are built around rock/scissor/paper rhythmic battles, using only one attack and block button in combination with one of three different weapons, each weapon designed around a specific style of play, and the rhythm in which you hit the attack button dictating the type and flow of attacks. Enemies are divided into three types, each equipped with one of the three weapons while weak to another. It is here the rock/scissor/paper mechanics come into play, as Enoch is encouraged to not only use the right weapon against an enemy weakness, but avoid attacks from stronger enemies, exploit an enemy opening to steal weapons for use against other enemies, and keeping his own weapons purified. It's a simple concept in theory, but the weapon/weakness juggling gameplay largely prevents El Shaddai from devolving into button mashing nonsense, encouraging legitimate effort and skill from the player to make their way through combat encounters unscathed.
Platforming is of similar simplicity - you run, and you jump, and though it hardly comes close to the brilliance of pure platformers like Super Mario Galaxy 2, the game does a fairly good job of keeping the platforming level design at a comfortable level, rarely bland enough to bore, yet never tediously difficult, and occasionally introducing enemies to spice up the mix. Like Super Mario Galaxy 2, these platforming stages are split between both full 3D arenas, and more traditional 2D side scrolling levels, the diversity of the two granting welcome variety.
The problem with El Shaddai's simplicity is in its longevity. What starts as good idea, engaging the playing on a mechanical level, eventually grows tiresome and disappointingly repetitive. The rock/scissor/paper battle mechanics remain just that for the entirety of the game (boss battles aside), and though enemies are rehashed with new looks, more health, and a couple of new abilities, the core battle formula fails to evolve or develop throughout the course of the game. Early battles and late game battles are indistinguishable outside of difficulty, and El Shaddai simply fails to offer the wealth of enemy and encounter variety that it's bigger, more robust brawler cousins do.
Platforming too is not without it's share of woes. The comfortable difficulty level is great for short bursts of play, but no so much for extended play, which too often feel like overblown sight seeing tours rather than legitimate platforming. Much like the combat, the lack of evolving platform mechanics combined with the low difficulty results in repetition, that in the longer stages has a tendency to outlast its welcome.
As repetition and a lack of evolution really is one true flaw of the gameplay, one could argue that a solid story would hold it all together, but again El Shaddai misses the mark. It's not so much that the story is bad - the cast is colourful, the voice work is enjoyable, the set pieces are delightful, and the premise is intriguing. It's that the story is so completely ludicrous and over the top that when the credits roll you'll be scratching your head wondering what the hell just happened. Plenty of symbolism and abstract concepts warrant multiple replays to piece together the chain of events, but a disjointed and confusing narrative makes the story a hard selling point for most audiences.
With the gameplay hit and miss, and the story a confusing mess, is there anything El Shaddai gets absolutely right? Yes, and that's the visual presentation. We mentioned that El Shaddai's graphics were responsible for most of the hype, and its only when you see it running full screen on your own display do you truly realise why. In an industry so obsessed with replicating real life, too rarely do you see games branch outside of traditional graphics rendering. El Shaddai doesn't just branch out, it grows its own forest, each tree and flower blooming with a never seen before originality and wonder.
Traversing the widely varied stages of El Shaddai is like tip toeing through the most magnificent of dreams, a harmony of colours and lights dancing together in a vibrant orgy of shapes that shouldn't make sense, yet do. Contrasting shades, pastel overlays, neon hues, and far reaching vistas - you name it and El Shaddai has it. It's all along with a palette of other imaginative effects and styles you never thought of at all, yet will experience first hand as you explore each of the angel's realms and their vision if purity, of which are home to enough diverse visual styles to make up several other games alone.
There truly is no underselling of the visual accomplishes of Takeyasu Sawaki and the rest of the Ignition Tokyo team, who have crafted a simply jaw dropping visual experience, where every second is dripping with magic and awe inspiring wonder. Backed by a beautiful soundtrack, it really has to be seen and heard to be believed.
There's no denying El Shaddai has room for improvement, and it's a shame really. Unlike some brawlers, there's a very solid foundation for the fighting mechanics, an interesting rhythm of battle that gives the game an addictive quality. The platforming too is a nice addition, espcially as a pace breaker from the combat. But stretched over the course of an entire game without any real developments or evolution? It all wears a little too thin a little too quickly.
Yet backing these mechanical quirks is a level of presentation unlike anything else on the market. Literally, not a single game released offers the same visual fidelity and artistic flair as El Shaddai. It's one in a million, maybe more, and is graphically a journey unto itself.
Perhaps the best compliment, given the noted issues, is that El Shaddai isn't a case of overly polarising content. This is not a game where the cost of enjoying the areas it excels most is to tolerate and grind through horrifying design in another. Instead it is a case of missed potential mixed with groundbreaking presentation. El Shaddai is a game that some will long to play, while others will prefer to watch. But regardless of which group people fall into, the message remains the same; El Shaddai is the most exquisite representation what unique ventures can be accomplished with modern graphical hardware, and for that reason should be experienced, one way or another, by everyone.