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El Shaddai's turns well worn gameplay and magically turns them into something from the future. However, successes in mechanics are not balanced by a deep, ongoing or inventive engagement with the source material.
I don't find old texts like the bible interesting because they are true (in a just-the-facts-mam sense) but because they are an endless resource for imagining the truth, and a place where people have done this through the centuries. The communities that inspire me are those that have taken their founding texts and shaped them around their own time in creative, and sometimes controversial, ways. Playfulness and invention are as important for finding meaning as they are for an enjoyable videogame.
Before we even get to its religiously couched source material, El Shaddai has already worked an interpretive trick on its videogame cannon. Transforming robots, blonde angels, amorphous humanoid entities, masked battle pigs and giant bats provide a tour de force of gaming.
As with any new interpretation it's hard to find worthy comparisons. Some have said Space Channel 5 for its oddness, Bayonetta for visual fidelity or Child of Eden for its fluidity melding of control and rhythm, but the truth be told to describe El Shaddai by comparison reduces its sheer originality and impact.
What starts with restrained platforming delivery soon moves through the more varied territory of battles and exploration. This momentum builds with confidence as each new level reinvents its basic premise. This is unfettered by simple gameplay (one button attack/block/jump) that lets you focus on timing and planning rather than exuberant mashing or memorisation.
The fighting encourages you to chain sequences of attack and counter-attacks interspersed with dodges. Although at first this is inevitably rather stop and start, as your muscle memory takes over and you instinctively respond to each assailant it transforms into more of a ballet than a brawl.
El Shaddai is master of the videogaming tradition in which it sits.
Although El Shaddai is master of the videogaming tradition in which it sits, when it comes to its unusual source of inspiration - the apocryphal Book of Enoch - things are a little more confused. I'm not sure whether it was unwilling or simply unable to matching its reimagination of classic gameplay with similar narrative work on the Enoch tradition. but either way the story fluctuates between wrote retelling and confusion - "it's just mad" as one reviewer put it.
The basics of the story are that you play
an angel a man, Enoch, who is caught up in a Heavenly battle with Fallen Angels. Against this dark backdrop he must prevail to save mankind from a great flood. It's a story that, like Dante's Inferno, has some mighty doses of adventure, humour, and horror. Less fortunate is the extension of this similarity with its use of the text in question as an inspirational jumping off point rather than something to be made sense of, or (ironically this being a game) genuinely played with.
This means that even with the help of our narrator, Lucifel, who presides over the proceedings waxing lyrical and offering advice, following an actual story is nigh on impossible. What could have been an opportunity for fresh and inventive ways to read the Book of Enoch, or even an exercise in playfully teasing apart its various strands is for the most part left by the wayside.
Some have wanted to revel in the sheer madness of the game, embracing an unknowing that enables one to enjoy the beautifully rendered game mechanics. But for me this misses the point. El Shaddai fails to connect its gameplay to the tradition it is referencing, resources that it sketches over all too quickly.
It fails to connect this gameplay to something that matters in the real world.
This means that while El Shaddai certainly captures the gaming zeitgeist in a way that other artsy Japanese games often miss, after all the launch hoop-la it is more likely to fade from view. Had it found the same insight, verve and courage to engage with the text as it did with its mechanics this could have, quite literally, been a very different story.
El Shaddai can easily join Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, Bayonetta, Rez and Okami as an experience that makes us think differently about gaming. However, and again like those other great games, it fails to connect this gameplay to something that matters in the real world - something I reserve for a very few successes that combine their theme with their mechanics, Flower and Limbo to name two,
This isn't to say that gaming can't stand as an experience in its own right. Rather it is because it is such a powerful experience in its own right that it demands to be put to better uses. This is doubly true when an excellent mechanic is married with as rich a source material as we have here (Dante's Inferno only had half this problem in my book). Then, the omission is almost unforgivable - or at least highly disappointing. A film or play about the Book of Enoch would suffer just as badly, regardless of directorial ingenuity and lyrical writing, if it didn't genuinely address its subject matter is some way. Here, just being "mad" is actually mad as in bad rather than mad as in good - to use the vernacular.
One day we put these powerful experiences to better uses.
Having said all that, El Shaddai can still stand tall on its gameplay alone and it undoubtedly an experience that most gamers won't want to miss. Make no bones about it this is a stunning looking and beguilingly addictive game to play. Although it won't be drawing in new converts to our ranks, those of us who understand the gaming-grammar and can appreciate how fresh it is will be enthusing about it for some time.
It isn't anything more than a well executed plaything though and this gives me the feeling that one day we will put these powerful experiences to better uses, while we wait for that there's still an awful lot of fun to be had here.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: