It’s a little different to show up for an E3 demo and discover that what you’re playing is already available to download on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great for consumers that you get to play the same demo that’s on the E3 show floor, but this preview of “El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” will be taking into account that some folks have already played the game, and that anyone reading this preview can stop reading at any point and queue up a download. (Full disclosure: I totally cheated when I realized I could download this at home, playing part of the demo at E3 and the rest in my living room so that I had time to check out a couple of “El Shaddai” publisher UTV Ignition’s downloadable offerings.)
First, if you’re at all interested in games with unconventional art direction, just go download the demo from Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. “El Shaddai” is the brainchild of Takeyasu Sawaki, who worked on arty PlayStation 2 and Wii critical darling “Okami.” As you’d expect, it’s a treat to look at.
Storywise, “El Shaddai” is based on the Book of Enoch, an ancient religious text found within the Dead Sea scrolls. Its hero, Enoch, is trying to save the world from a great calamity brought about by seven fallen angels. As I explained back in this preview, the game is organized into seven different worlds, which each representing a different fallen angel’s ideal world.
The E3/Xbox Live/PSN demo is a shorter version of what I played at the Game Developers Conference in early March. It’s a good way to familiarize yourself with two of “El Shaddai’s” weapons, the Arch and the Gale. The Arch is a curved sword, while the Gale is a projectile weapon that’s most effective from a distance. (The third weapon, the shieldlike Veil, is shown at the very end of the demo, but you don’t get to use it.)
From a design standpoint, the demo offers up both what makes “El Shaddai” great and what I fear might hold it back.
The levels you get to play are these beautiful, shifting organic-looking worlds that are stunning to look at and virtually beg to be played again and again. The seemingly simple combat is deeper than it looks, with attacks becoming more effective if you’re able to expertly timed your attacks (mapped to the X button on the 360) and blocks (right bumper). Over time, the weapons you use become tainted with the corrupt blood of your enemies, meaning they do less damage. To fix this, you have to purify the weapon by holding down the left bumper button for a second or so, leaving yourself open to attack.
All this is great, but based on the demo, I can see a couple of flaws in El Shaddai. One is worrisome, the other merely worth noting.
The minor flaw is that for as stunning as its levels look, El Shaddai’s characters, particularly Enoch, aren’t much to look at. They’re not incredibly detailed, and their PlayStation 2-like renderings seem out of place when set against Sawaki’s gorgeous levels. When I think of the stunning angels we saw in “Bayonetta,” it feels like maybe an opportunity was missed here.
The other flaw I noticed, and this is more of a problem, is that the arty level design occasionally interferes with gameplay. Because of the heavy use of dark backgrounds and silhouettes, it can occasionally be difficult to tell exactly what Enoch is jumping to. I fell to my death a handful of times simply because I struggled to figure out whether a stretch of white space was something I could jump to or mere decoration.
I’m having trouble figuring out how much of an issue this will be in the final game. The penalty for dying isn’t great, so it’s not a setback to fall through a couple of holes. It’s just mildly frustrating. And with each level looking so different than the ones before or after it, it’s possible this only crops up in a tiny area of the demo. As someone who prizes originality, I’m eager to get my hands on “El Shaddai,” but I’m also managing my expectations a bit.
“El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” (rated T) is due out July 26 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.