Sometimes you have to dig to find gold.
I know Iâ€™m not the only one who found himself a bit dazed amidst the constant noise of gunfire, headshots and sword slicing present at this yearâ€™s E3. Perhaps I echo Justin Hemenway and Jeremy Parishâ€™s thoughts when I walked away from the show slightly turned off at our not-so-magic-bullet theory of how to problem-solve and entertain in our mediumÂ – bigger guns, heightened realism and blood-splattered violence just arenâ€™t doing it for me.
Where are my games that use more than 15 shades of grey, green and brown? The games with thought-provoking ideas, that feature some genuinely interesting characters and donâ€™t leave me feeling either cold-blooded or (sorry, Nintendo) somewhat childish? It was with a huge sensation of relief then, that I was able to see more of Ignition Entertainmentâ€™s El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. Although it wasnâ€™t prominently featured in any one big press event, the more I learn about this surreal, pseudo-religious adventure, the more intrigued I becomeÂ – itâ€™s playing to almost every strength of the Japanese development scene, and doing so in a very unique way.
The colors, Duke, the colors!
The first and probably most striking aspect of El Shaddai is its look. If you couldnâ€™t tell by the above screenshot, El Shaddai is playing in its own leagueÂ – a dreamlike swirl of light pastels infuses both the characters and environments, and from what weâ€™ve seen thus far, completely eschews anything remotely â€œgrittyâ€ or â€œrealistic.â€
Artistic comparisons that bring to mind the â€œliving paintingâ€ art style found throughout Clover Studiosâ€™ Okami would also be well justifiedÂ – Takeyasu Sawaki, Art Director for the acclaimed, mythological fan-favorite returns to form here to provide his own interpretation of a biblical, heavenly environment. In stark comparison to Okami however, nothing resembling a bold or defining black outline seems to be presentÂ – a switch from the Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock print to more of an impressionist painting style.
And what more appropriate art-style to incorporate into a surreal, religion-fueled game than Impressionism? With its core components being visible brush strokes, an emphasis on light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), the inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience and unusual visual angles, itâ€™s as if the art-style was conceived with the action genre in mind. Take a look at this trailer and pay attention to the swirling colors, changing light and varied visual anglesÂ – if Monet were around to play video games, Iâ€™m pretty sure heâ€™d be proud.
Jesus Bleibet Meine Freude
In terms of story, itâ€™s safe to say weâ€™re in for an interesting ride. Those not familiar with anime such as â€œNeon Genesis Evangelionâ€ or â€œRahXephonâ€ or games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta might not realize the fascination that the Japanese media has with Christianity and Biblical tales in general. Although these types of stories always seem to carry a few key elements in commonÂ – powerful angels, violent battles, fights against GodÂ – the liberties and interpretations of characters, events, and themes (particularly of the apocalyptic variety) generally provide a smorgasbord of food for thought. Understanding a bit of the inspiration here, Iâ€™d be shocked if El Shaddai proved differently.
The title itself, â€œEl Shaddai,â€ is one of several Judaic names for God, and roughly translates to â€œGod Almighty.â€ Interestingly, the root word “shadad” means to â€œdestroy or overpower,â€ giving the title a more literal meaning of â€œThe Destroyer,â€ which in itself is an epithet for God. One can see how this falls in line with Ignitionâ€™s story in El Shaddai, which finds the protagonist, Enoch, trying to collect the souls of seven fallen angels in order to prevent a flood from destroying mankind.
The story of Enoch is also very interesting in its own rightÂ – heâ€™s widely regarded to be a direct descendant of Adam, father of Methuselah and great grandfather of Noah, although the scripture in which heÂ is referred to, the â€œBook of Enochâ€ (of which there are actually three books, all surviving in radically different languages) is considered non-canonical in all but the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Although interpretations all vary, several different tales of Enoch exist, including his direct interaction with all four archangels (Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel), his extremely long age (over 360 years) and perhaps most importantly, his ascension into heaven and transformation into the angel MetatronÂ – the celestial scribe and voice of God.*
This Enoch, whose flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and whom God placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron. [Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941/1961) p. 67. Extract of 3 Enoch.]
In stark contrast to some other characters in Christianity-themed games, Enochâ€™s story is (and always has been) very conducive to interpretation, and I canâ€™t wait to see how his journey unfolds through a Japanese lens.
The boys are back in town
But what good is an ambitious project without the right skills to back it up? Perhaps one of the most promising aspects of El Shaddai is the strong development team behind it. Despite the fact that El Shaddai is Ignitionâ€™s first major independently developed game,Â it’s amassed quite an impressive list of talent to help it stand out from the crowd. At the top of that list is the aforementioned Takeyasu Sawaki, Director and Character Designer on the title, and his former Clover co-worker Masato Kimura, Producer, whoâ€™s contributed to Devil May Cry, Okami and Viewtiful Joe. With Ignitionâ€™s Shane Bettenhausen stating that we might see a Monster Hunter composer on the game as well (perhaps Masato Kouda, composer for Devil May Cry and Wild Arms), it sounds like development experience wonâ€™t be a cause for concern.
Let us also not forget the bit of cultural pioneering that Ignition Entertainment has recently accomplished by bringing us some truly unique Japanese titles over the past year or so, including Vanillawareâ€™s Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Marvelous Entertainmentâ€™s now cult-classic, Deadly Premonition. At the very least, we can be assured that weâ€™re in for a very original tale, and with the developerâ€™s pedigree beginning to stack up quite nicely, all signs are pointing to good things.
Bruises over blood
The very last piece of El Shaddai that really stands out is the presentation of its combat. From what has been seen and told thus far, it seems that the emphasis in combat is on defense – Enoch must disarm his opponents and use their weapons against them, while only being able to wield one weapon at a time. Although only one weapon has been seen thus farÂ – a bow-shaped bladeÂ – it looks as if weâ€™ll be treated to some unique pieces of artillery, and not your standard sword, shotgun and pistol.
More impressive however, is the fact that despite the fights that occur between Enoch and his opponents, thereâ€™s almost a de-emphasis on the over-the-top, blood-spurting, violent extremism, as found in almost every other shooter or 3D action title over the past few years. Although religious themes arenâ€™t exactly new to the action genre (see Bayonetta, Devil May Cry and Danteâ€™s Inferno), itâ€™s refreshing to have a new contender attempt to pull off something that may prove much more difficult to accomplishÂ – restraint. While Bayonetta and Danteâ€™s Inferno may have been relegated to â€œplay when aloneâ€ status out of their respective sexual and violent themes, I wouldnâ€™t hesitate to play a game like El Shaddai with family, friends or strangers looking onÂ – not only would the visuals prove to be inoffensive (and better yet, beautiful), but the story would provide an interesting topic for conversation. Everybody wins.
Keep your eye on the angelâ€¦
Although we still have seen relatively little, El Shaddai is showing a lot of promise. Itâ€™s visually striking, has a very original inspiration and story, a solid team developing it and looks to be avoiding the easier, over-violent road that its peers have been sprinting toward. While itâ€™s still much too early to tell whether or not this could be the next Okami, Ignition has sowed the seeds for what could be a truly unique, thought-provoking experience. And while Iâ€™ll have to await its arrival until some point next year, Iâ€™ll do so with baited breathÂ – this is exactly the type of game Iâ€™ve been waiting for to come out of Japan, and it looks pretty heavenly.
*Alan Rickman, eat your heart out.