The world is not short on media based on religious literature: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur and Monty Python’s Life of Brian are all based around the Bible and take their own individual liberties with its content. Where El Shaddai‘s use of Scripture departs with the tradition established by the world of film is that it’s focus is on the wonderful artefact of apocrypha that is the Bible spin-off The Book of Enoch. El Shaddai takes its source material and applies, in a manner beyond liberal, artistic licence to create a fantastic, immersive world of fallen angels and divine retribution. Much in line with the game’s insistence on the use of the verb “to purify” in dialogue, there is something incredibly wholesome and innocent about its attitude to simplicity in storytelling and gameplay.
The key virtue of the game is just that: its innocence. While it does make a fair effort to impart a narrative, it is hardly the most complex of plots: it is the staple of the Japanese RPG – the resolution of an age-old conflict between good and evil. The player, as Enoch, is tasked with “purifying” the souls of the six fallen angels who have decided to descend to Earth and copulate with humans. Indeed, on the face of it, El Shaddai may well appear to only depart from mores of a genre by virtue of its gameplay mechanics being sourced from outside of that genre, but such a judgement would be incredibly hasty: El Shaddai‘s gameplay straddles an obscene number of genres and disciplines and executes all that it attempts most capably.
Much of the game is spent travelling through 3D platform sections that would not be out of place in a Crash Bandicoot title, in that they are fairly linear, but also capable of presenting a potentially infuriating challenge, in order to meet the next pugilistic provocation inevitably to face Enoch. These platform sections are wonderful in the variety of excellently designed and rendered scenery that is offered throughout the game’s twelve stages and the equal variety of different enemy types present in the game. Where they fall down, however, is the high level of contingency of the difficulty of such sections upon the weapon that the player has at that point in time. Three “Heavenly Weapons” are available to Enoch in the form of the Veil, a slow weapon that is useful defensively and quite powerful, the Arch, a fast combo-friendly sword-like weapon that enables Enoch to “glide” when jumping, and the Gale, a weak, ranged weapon. Having the Arch makes platforming sections simple, whereas they may be incredibly difficult with either of the other weapons. Given that weapons can only be obtained from combat or from rare “Fruits of Wisdom”, making the wrong choice of weapon can have the effect of slowing down the flow of the game considerably.
In combat itself, the weapons all have their respective strengths and weaknesses and are fairly well-balanced. Enoch’s ability to take weapons from enemies that he has managed to knock unconscious not only allows for ad-hoc changes to combat strategy mid-fight, but also serves as a means of characterisation for Enoch through the flair with which he undertakes his repossessions – a welcome addition, given that his vocabulary seems to be limited to “No problem. Everything’s fine.” The combat plays like an incredibly simplified version of that found in Bayonetta and God of War: there is one button to attack, and Enoch’s actions are contingent upon the timing of subsequent presses of said button or the length for which it is held down. On the one hand, this can lead to some impressive-looking feats with a minimum of effort of skill, but also leads to the combat feeling a little light and unsatisfying.
The 2D platforming sections are often used to underscore exposition of the story, which works fantastically: they are of sufficient challenge to occupy those who are not too absorbed by the narrative, while being simple enough for those seeking to pay attention to the chatter of the colourful cast of characters of El Shaddai to do so. There is something about the palette of these sections that is reminiscent of the SNES-era Mario games, and that is no bad thing when coupled with an incredibly capable platforming engine. The restriction of movement to the two dimensions pretty much solves the problem described earlier regarding the advantage of having one weapon equipped over another, making the platforming nothing short of blissful.
The question of Enoch’s God-given immortality in order perform the task of “purifying” the fallen angels must have posed some difficult questions on how to handle the issue of health management in the game: naturally, as he is immortal, he cannot die, but there must be some challenge to the game in order to compel players to continue to play. This issue was addressed by having degrading armour as a visual clue to Enoch’s condition, with nudity being the indicator that death is near. Upon “death”, the player can revive Enoch by rapidly pressing R1, L1, Square and X until the screen flashes white while the screen fades to black in a manner akin to a slow blink. Essentially, the act of blinking revives Enoch with enough armour to take a little more punishment. While the mechanic does cheapen death much in the same manner as BioShock‘s Vita Chambers, the biggest problem with this mechanic is its unpredictability: performing the same button-bashing to the same tempo will not necessarily result in a successful revival across to instances. This adds a level of unpredictability that is simply unfair given the previously established expectations of the player in the face of prior revivals. The player is also not punished for defeat in the early battles with the fallen angels: they in fact decide to let him live. Given his progress throughout their levels, one enterprising individual among that group probably should have thought to dispatch with Enoch rather than allow him to continue to get closer to achieving his goals? While compassionate, it does present a troubling plot-hole.
In spite of its flaws, El Shaddai is a valuable entry into the video gaming canon: it demonstrates the fun developers can have with the reimagining of ancient narratives, video game character design at its best and wonderful sound design that marries the musical styles associated with the tropes of action games with the music of the Church to great atmospheric effect. In spite of a shallow combat system, the sort of power implied by the instruction of God remains compelling throughout the admittedly short campaign.