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Lauren Wainwright waxes lyrical about one of the most intriguing Japanese titles of this generation...
There are a few things the Japanese love in their games; stylish but lanky heroes, brilliantly white school girl panties, and one long and near incomprehensible story line. These are things you should unashamedly come to expect when you pool together a dream team of Japanese talent, write a check and leave them to create the type of game they’ve always wanted to make. And yes, it’s absolutely mental.
But we’re not talking Bayonetta levels of insanity here, and forget the knickers; El Shaddai is something completely different. It could be interpreted as a strange journey into a Japanese developers’ psyche or – and most likely - a middle finger to the now domineering Western games market. No hulky space marines, guns and brown with bloom to be seen here. It’s a mix of psychedelic platforming and third-person action with a storyline you’ll need to take notes on.
As we mentioned, the Japanese love a confusing story and it's one hell of a tale to tell. Inspired by the Book of Enoch, the plot sees seven angels sent to earth to live with humans. The angels end up falling in love with humanity and, rather than taking a passive role and watching over them as God had intended, they end up introducing angelic technology into humanity.
The humans end up worshipping the angels, rather than God, and end up creating a new species called Nephilim, who for some reason look like walking custard monsters. God’s not a fan of the Nephilim and asks Enoch, God’s scribe, to remove both the Nephilim and the angels who had failed him.
Eventually, as Enoch, you’ll end up in the Tower of Babel on Earth. The tower was built by humans in celebration of the angels and El Shaddai takes place on the many levels of the tower. It’s all very unclear at the beginning, and it almost tries its best to confuse you further when you lose the first fight. Instead of a gamer over, it rewinds right back to the start where an altered version of the opening begins to play. On top of that, it offers alternative endings depending on how you play. While it doesn’t immediately penalise you for dying, allowing you to jump straight back into the action, certain deaths can affect the eventual ending and whether it’s good or bad depends on your overall skill during the whole game rather than specific choices.
El Shaddai offers an environment that constantly changes perspectives and play styles. One minute you’ll be rushing forward and tackling the occasional battle, the next you’ll face challenging jumps in a cutesy side-scrolling platformer or even end up driving a motorbike in a nostalgic homage to Final Fantasy VII’s escape sequence in Midgar. These changes offer a good range of what the engine can do but the overall simplicity of the sections we played felt a little underwhelming. It’s perhaps a case of too much variety in a short amount of time, something we’re hoping the main course should rectify.
Stripped completely bare of any HUD, El Shaddai is a game you can play or watch with equal measures of enjoyment. It’s another entry for the games as art debate and one that takes its art very seriously. So much so, that the development lead is none other than artist Sawaki Takeyasu, famed for his work on Okami and Devil May Cry. It’s the first time he’s ever had control over a games story or gameplay mechanics but one we should be paying attention to.
Perhaps having an artist so involved in the game as a whole might explain the overall simplicity El Shaddai radiates. Unlike Devil May Cry, which offers a decent array of weaponry to play with, El Shaddai has only three. The weapons offer more than rock-paper-scissors styled advantages in battles but also affect platforming abilities. The Arch, a sacrosanct blade used to slice foes up also allows Enoch to glide after jumps. The Gale, a ranged weapon that also grants the ability to dash, and lastly, the Veil, which acts as both a shield and close proximity damage dealer. These weapons are gained during battles where you’re forced to steal and purify them from the many enemies you meet in the game or by picking them up in certain sections of each level. Weapons can dull and you’ll have to purify the weapon should it become infected from repeated use.
While each weapon offers a specific tactic to winning fights, they are also instrumental in passing some of the more difficult side-scrolling platform sections that require the special abilities each weapon offers. There were points during our demo that were impossible to progress through with the weapon we had equipped. Luckily there is usually an essential weapon drop near these sections but we can imagine that won’t always be the case.
Battles are reminiscent of Prince of Persia, where you have a small area to circle around as enemies approach you, as well as the handy instant revive option should you lose a fight. As expected, you can jump, dodge and attack but most of the time you’ll mash the buttons until something awesome happens. While no specific combos are displayed in menus, you can time your button pressing right and perform combos. It’s a system of self-discovery rather than trying to teach you an array of moves over the over, but one that could often leave a deeper understanding of combat to the comfortable repetition of a few basic moves.
It’s the visual style that sets El Shaddai apart from the rest though. Changing from soft cell-shaded 3D environments, harsh dark futuristic highways to 2D cartoon-like side scrollers, the art constantly evolves during your journey. In-engine and hand drawn cut-scenes mash together, and unlike the cut-scenes of Mirror’s Edge, which felt removed from the world, El Shaddai’s mix of traditional and modern art styles blend seamlessly.
It not only offers sheer joy for your visual taste buds but also offers a new dynamic to platforming. Perspectives can be mixed and what appears to be a hole is in fact a platform. We died twice during the demo by falling off what appeared to be a straight bridge but was in fact a long hole on the road - it makes basic platforming feel fresh and exciting.
This is exactly what El Shaddai appears to be, a fresh injection of platforming goodness and a creative tour de force that set it apart from the ubiquitous gun battles and space marines of contemporary Western titles. El Shaddai is already out in Japan with a European release set for this September.