One of my film professors in college once explained to me that an important film is not always an enjoyable film, but they’re if they shape discussions about the art, then they become essential. She was introducing Birth of a Nation, which is an incredibly uncomfortable movie to watch in any sort of modern context, but introduces a lot of film-making concepts that are still in use to this day. Although I would have rather spent those 2 hours watching anything BUT a film about the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, I also understand that having a scholarly discussion about the practice of film making without being able to refer to Birth of a Nation as precedent would be misguided at best. Although I can’t draw a parallel between El Shaddai’s bromidic gameplay and the misguided messages of a 1915 race relations piece, I can relate the two on their intellectual importance within their respective crafts. When people discuss the history of videogames, and specifically address the current generation, El Shaddai will undoubtedly enter the conversation as an example of this period’s aggressive approach to art and visual design.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is is the brainchild of Okami producer Sawaki Takeyasu. It follows the story of the Book of Enoch in which Enoch is tasked by God to seek out the fallen angels to be punished for their unsanctioned interactions with humans and the creation of the Nephilim. It’s actually a pretty complicated and convoluted text, but luckily, El Shaddai boils it down to the need-to-know elements: they’re are some fallen angels living in a tower, God wants them thrown in God-Jail, you’re the only one that can save the world. The Cliff’s Notes story is ambitious in its subject matter, but only uses the controversial book for reference as much as DragonBall clings to Journey to the West. Still, there are very few games that approach the Judeo-Chistian mythos with a straight face without using it as a platform to preach, so the elements of the story that are clearly represented feel fresh and innovative.
The major draw here is the art direction. The playful use of muted colors, abstract shapes and liberal white space is without precedent in this medium. The interactive part of the game takes a back seat to the breathtaking vistas and colorful effects that you are subtly influencing through your actions. However, in order to direct attention to the pristine watercolors, mind-numbing restrictions had to be placed on the game’s core elements. At its heart, El Shaddai is a pretty standard brawler. You mash square to attack, you take enemy weapons and you avoid the occasional pit or trap. Controls are tight, which is good considering the combat and level layouts feel as though they have been evolved directly from the pre-dualshock age of 3D gaming. Each level is a series of hallways leading to open spaces where you will be attacked three or four enemies, each wielding one of the three weapons that are available for use. The player is given no control over the camera which gives directorial control to the designers, but also hits the point home that there is almost no exploration to be had.
So take away the gorgeous art style and the unique subject matter and what are you left with? A relatively straight-forward beat-em-up with a solid, intuitive, but not revolutionary combat system and boring level design – but this is one instance where the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. Much like Avatar is considered a beautiful modern film despite its derivitive, FernGully plot, El Shaddai is truly worthy of a second look, beyond it’s stodgy gameplay. Ignition took a gamble by focusing on Avant-garde visuals as opposed to photo-realistic graphics or an anime-inspired backdrop, and although it may not have panned out for them financially, El Shaddai will almost certainly live on as an example of “Games as Art” for decades to come.