I want you to understand something.
You need to play El-Shaddai. Now that’s not to say you’ll enjoy it a hundred percent of the time. Also there’s the the story, a collection of baffling nonsense that only seems half-told. The gameplay ranges from competent-to-bad, with bouts of highly enjoyable combat adrift a sea of bad 3D platforming.
But that’s not the point.
El-Shaddai is, believe it or not, a videogame about style. It is a game where hairless Japanese bishi boys in designer jeans deal death with careless grace. When you need to save your game, you seek out Lucifer, who is locked in an eternal cell phone conversation with God regarding your progress. Every level has a unique art style, seemingly pulled randomly from the pages of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics or surrealistic landscapes or John Berkey 80’s sci-fi comic book covers, and for one brief moment, Yoshi’s Island.
Also, Tron. It has Tron. I mean, uncredited of course, but the damned thing has a Tron level, right down to light-cycles and neon-infused armor.
El-Shaddai is a defiant defense of the traditional Japanese model of gaming development. Ignition Tokyo trusted Takeyasu Sawaki, a man whose previous experience in game development revolved around art direction for Okami and Devil May Cry, with what precious little money they had left, and he delivered something that they knew full well would never make a single dime in North America. Yet they translated it anyway.
UTV Ignition followed an auteur’s vision and will be rewarded by going out of business before the end of the year, but damned if with El-Shaddai-- a flawed masterpiece if there ever was one-- isn’t breathtaking to behold.
We often say that we want more from our games, that we’re tired of of the industry’s insecurity complex regarding its older brother, Hollywood. We say that we’re tired of games like Uncharted 2, with polish and cinematic vistas, near-invisible but persistent handholding, a game that is first and foremost an attempt to recreate Indiana Jones 4 rather than an honest attempt at producing a good videogame. But that’s still the exact same sort of game we wind up buying.
We say we want fundamentally good games over polished attempts at cinema, but we keep buying every Uncharted and Assassin's Creed and Modern Warfare that the industry produces. We say we’re tired of constant rehashes. We buy every damned Sonic update. We say we’re tired of the industry playing it safe and not taking risks. Shadows of the Damned and Child of Eden probably sold less than 60,000 copies between them.
El-Shaddai has issues; issues I will go into great, tedious detail later on. But that’s not to say El-Shaddai is not worth playing. We say we want games to take big risks, that we want something different from our industry, that we want the medium to move away from its manchild stigma. But we look at a game with a title like “El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” with a shirtless yaoi model on the cover and buy Gears 3 instead. Or Space Marine. Anything with lots of guns and armor and testosterone, where the latent homosexual undertones remain unspoken, dammit.
You say you want better. You say you want more of this industry. Well.
I fucking dare you to play El-Shaddai.
As I said above, at its heart, El-Shaddai is about doing everything with style. Your character, Enoch, is a thin, hairless bishi who loses clothes as he takes damage. There is a level where you fight against a pop idol singer who resembles a cross between Prince and Micheal Jackson, who grabs the camera and stares directly at the player as Enoch fights his backup dancer minions. You fight your way through the entire opening credits sequence as the game’s back-story is projected against the background. There is a point in this game where Lucifer looks directly at the player and tells them that the game can be completed in seven hours, “if you’re good enough”.
It is that sort of game.
Here, ladies and gentlemen is your cure for the dudebro legions, that army of philistine fratboys with backwards baseball caps and double-fisted bottles of Mountain Dew, the answer for everything you wanted from gaming in a post-Call of Duty world. Bishis, designer jeans, flouncing, Satan on a cellphone, godawful platforming--
Yeah, about that. I can’t have an honest discussion about El-Shaddai without an frank assessment of its mechanical flaws. Takeyasu Sawaki is an artist, not a game developer. There are game mechanics that are compromised because to do otherwise would compromise his artistic vision.
Art vs Game
El-Shaddai consists of around a dozen levels, each with a unique art style, and all (save for the Tron-inspired lightcycle level) follow the same basic layout:
20% thoroughly enjoyable melee combat
20% surprisingly decent, if somewhat simplistic, 2D platforming
40% absolutely terrible 3D platforming that should have never seen the light of day
20% flouncing, posing, voguing, and general mind fuckery
Before we get into the obvious issue, I want to speak about El-Shaddai’s combat, as it’s quite good and there’s not nearly enough of it. Combat is routed through a single face button, although this can be modified by holding down guard while executing an attack, or charged up for an area-clearing melee swipe, and as a result there is quite a bit of variation. The game encourages the player to juggle enemies into the air for extended combinations and to subsequently land on your opponent in a devastating dive attack once they hit the ground. Combat is stylish, easy, and above all satisfying, with each hit delivering a meaty whack that belies the game’s pretentious nature.
El-Shaddai’s real depth comes from the weapons. There are three weapons enemies can carry in the game, and they behave differently depending on which weapon they’re using.
-The Arch is a curving two-handed blade resembling a cross between a Bat’leth and a Lightsaber. Enemies using it spin and twirl and dash in battle, and are weak against:
-The Gale, a flock of laser-sharp flechettes that surround the wielder and act as an effective ranged weapon. The Gale users are weak against:
-The Veil, a slow gauntlet-type weapon that can be held before Enoch to act as a largely invulnerable shield. Veil wielding enemies are weak against:
-The Arch, and so on.
Enoch can steal any of these weapons as soon as he has stunned an enemy carrying it. Each weapon also has a unique traversal element-- the Arch allows for slow, controlled jumps, the Gale for dash-jumps and the Veil allows the Enoch to repeatedly plummet to his death until such time as the player can restart from a checkpoint and grab a different weapon. In practice, while the Gale’s jump-dash looks useful, you need to have the Arch’s hover jump whenever possible.
El-Shaddai’s combat is the very definition of rock-paper-scissors, but the individual fights are designed well enough that this formula becomes game’s greatest gameplay strength. Sure, there are only three enemy types, but the game’s core is based around managing the combat’s flow to exploit these matchups.
If there was twice as much combat in El-Shaddai and half as much platforming, the game would be an easy recommendation. But, sadly the vast bulk of El-Shaddai is made up of some of the worst 3D platforming to ever grace an otherwise enjoyable video game.
El-Shaddai’s platforming manages the remarkable combination of being both too floaty and too stiff at the same time. In the best 3D platformers, jumping is a natural action that the player doesn’t think about. You hop from one platform to another with full confidence that you will nail the jump on time and land on the platform, regardless of the platform’s position. In El-Shaddai, platforming is just another thing the game does, and the controls were never tuned to allow for confident platforming. Not only is Enoch in constant danger of simply missing the jump timing entirely, the barrier between where Enoch lands and where he stops moving is never clearly delineated. As a result, you never want to make a jump that does not land Enoch squarely in the middle of a platform, but those precise jumps are also difficult to pull off given the fact that Enoch will often simply jump in place when you intended for him to jump forward.
El-Shaddai introduces the concept of the anti-collectible. The platforming is frustratingly linear; you’re all but guided from platform to platform, with the most common reward for exploration being armor refills. El-Shaddai is not a terribly difficult game to begin with, so usually the armor refills are there only to make sure Enoch survived to reach the platform.
Luckily the game is quite forgiving. Enoch usually reappears on a whiffed jump at the same spot he started from, and he can fall into the void below quite often before he is in any real danger of dying. Even if you do manage to die, the checkpoints are frequent enough that you rarely lose more than a few minutes of progress. But the mere act of getting Enoch from one platform to another is often an exercise in teeth-gnashing frustration and will break the spirit of even the most stalwart gamer.
This is where where Takeyasu Sawaki’s auteur vision led El-Shaddai astray. Everything about the game’s platforming seems like an artistic decision rather than a gameplay decision. Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Vanquish-- these are all games that are just as stylish as El-Shaddai, but they are all outstanding video game experiences. Similarly, Dark/Demon’s Souls, God Hand and Viewtiful Joe are just as uncompromising in premise, but also fundamentally good video games. It is clear that the Japanese model can produce artistic games and good gaming experiences at the same time-- I just wish it were possible to know exactly what separates stuff like El-Shaddai, Shadow of the Colossus and Nier from these unquestioned classics.
Good ol’ Fashioned Japanese Metaphysical Nonsense
I want to talk about this game’s story, but I’m not sure I can, credibly. It is completely fucking incomprehensible, and it is unclear if being exposed to the Japanese original would have been much help. In broad strokes, Enoch is Heaven’s special agent angel, and apparently the only being in all of Heaven with anything remotely resembling combat skills.
Enoch is tasked with hunting down and killing seven renegade Fallen Angels with the help of his handler, Lucifer. It is unclear if the game’s events take place prior to The Fall or if the game is simply rewriting the early mythos of the New Testament; there are charming anachronisms through the game that muddle the timeline or indicate that the story takes place outside of time entirely. Lucifer stays in communication with Heaven via a late 90’s flip-phone. Lucifer and Enoch are decked out in designer jeans. There’s an entire level-- the high point of the game, really-- that takes place inside of a Tron-like neon-infused techno utopia. But at the same time you fight with melee weapons instead of guns, your interaction with humans indicates a spear-and-phalanx era of warfare development, and Enoch comes in contact with the personification of ancient Babylonian goddess Ishtar (who, since this is a Japanese game, is portrayed as an 8 year old girl).
Large chunks of the story take place without any interaction whatsoever. An entire century’s worth of backstory is told during the game’s opening credit sequence. Another huge chunk of story is told during a between-levels cutscene where Enoch finds a human enclave hidden within the tower and is then cast out into the next level. Decades of story pass by as Enoch lays incapacitated within a block of congealed shadow, while Ishtar grows into a woman and leads an armed human revolution versus the angelic rulers of the tower.
The parts of the story that you actually take part in are told in an annoyingly compressed manner. What’s left is baffling Japanese metaphysical nonsense that probably makes perfect sense if you can get inside Takeyasu Sawaki’s head. There’s something about this unseen Heavenly Council that Lucifer keeps referring to and his constant attempts to keep them from flooding the Earth to rid themselves of the fallen angels and their tower (despite it being clearly established that the tower resides outside of any known earthly dimension). The fallen angels themselves are constantly referring to Heaven disapproving of their attempts to evolve and of the “false evolution” that has befallen humanity, despite humanity already clearly being fully-evolved spear-wielding humans at this point in the story. Also something about the products of angel-human hybrids called the “nephilim” devouring one another and setting the world on fire in the process.
None of the story is fully explained and I’m not sure Takeyasu Sawaki ever had any intention of doing so. El-Shaddai’s story does not feel fully told, but at the same time there’s no obvious hook for a sequel. Also the game sort of just ends in a fight that absolutely does not feel like it should be the final boss fight, other than a passing mention that you are fighting “God’s Weapon”. Then, after delivering Ishtar to a futuristic stasis chamber of some sort, Lucifer reminds Enoch to destroy the tower, again told via cutscene instead of something the player can actually take part in.
To say that the story feels half-told is an understatement, except I’m unsure Takeyasu Sawaki ever had any real idea of what the other half was supposed to be, either. Instead the story is merely something that provides the merest scaffolding for his artistic vision, and I can’t really blame him for that, as the vision is outstanding. I just wish he had remembered to hire a writer.
So if the bulk of the game consists of bad platforming (despite the rather excellent combat) and the story is indecipherable nonsense, why do I insist you need to play it?
It seems to me that El-Shaddai is among a dying breed. Games are increasingly following the Western model of development, where they’re focus tested and polished and ground down to a thick, tasteless paste of perfectly acceptable and perfectly unremarkable game mechanics, following a formula demanded by Activision and EA and laid out as early as Digipen.
The magic of El-Shaddai happens in the little moments that would be sublimated through the layers of polish demanded by Western gaming development. This is the fundamental disconnect between the Japanese and Western development models. If El-Shaddai were developed in North America, the flaws would not have survived the first round of focus testing. But then, likely the game itself would not have survived and instead have become yet another generic 3D mascot platformer, its stylistic heart ripped from its hairless bishi chest. .
American publishing houses like to make grand statements regarding Games As Art, but usually that just translates to XBLA budgets or horribly botched releases, such as the travesty committed against Michel Ancel’s Rayman Origins. Activision and EA would far rather the concept of the auteur be relegated to the digital download ghetto where there’s no danger of confusing soccer moms and dudebros.
El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a story about style and grace and an uncompromising artistic vision amid an industry that would rather we forget any of those things still existed. It is a game that simply could not exist in the American console industry. It is a flawed masterpiece amid an industry that wants to make all blemishes a memory.
I want everyone to play this game simply so we can remember two or three years from now that we had a choice. If we want games to go beyond their mere medium and be remembered as more than Pac-Man and Modern Warfare with a vast cultural wasteland in between, then it is the sort of game we all need to be familiar with. El-Shaddai needs to be remembered as a bulwark between games as a form of expression and games as a mere commodity.