These days, companies often seem afraid of trying something new, as corporate bosses increasingly believe that the average consumer prefers to play it safe, and is more likely to play Generic Space Marine Game No. 457 than something that honestly tries to do something different. Everywhere you look, there's sequel after sequel lining the shop shelves - Modern Warfare 3, Gears of War 3, FIFA 12 - because they're all safe bets, that have been proven to sell. And while those particular series go from strength to strength, it's almost inevitable that, one day, the bubble will burst - as Activision found when they took Guitar Hero from being a $1bn franchise to bust in the space of a few years. With that in mind, then, it's important that developers keep trying to make new things - but in trying to find the hits of tomorrow, as El Shaddai shows, sometimes, things can be a little bit hit and miss.
El Shaddai is a game that sets out to do almost everything differently. Following the story of The Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish script which, according to that fountain of knowledge that is Wikipedia, tells the story of Enoch, a man chosen by God to seek out the fallen angels, who left Heaven and came down to Earth to have babies with the human females - producing strange half angel, half human babies, or Nephilim, which become savage beasts who pillage the Earth and endanger humanity. Before God cleanses the Earth with a great flood, Enoch needs to round up the fallen angels, and imprison them, whilst destroying any Nephilim he comes across.
Sadly, though, this story isn't really explained all that well when you're actually playing El Shaddai - and if you're not that well-versed in the happenings of the book of Enoch, you'll likely be feeling lost. Making the already murky waters even more cloudy, you're not really sure who you are, what you're doing, or why you're doing it - all that's really obvious is that there's a strange man who keeps asking if you're sure you have enough armour. By the end of Chapter 3, an hour or two into the game, I know a total of about five things, none of which really help all that much:
- My name is Enoch. I wear jeans. Seemingly, I can never have enough armour.
- The save point man is called Lucifel, and enjoys talking to God on the phone, seemingly about how useless I am.
- There are some fallen angels hiding in a tower who I assume are bad, although I'm not entirely sure.
- Killing enemies gives you orange orbs which I compulsively collect for seemingly no reason at all.
- Nephilims are oddly explosive.
If the jumbled story isn't enough, it's downright confusing to play. At it's most basic, El Shaddai is a relatively straightforward third person action game, which sees you platforming your way through the levels, smiting your enemies as you go - but there are plenty of illogical decisions that just make you wonder what the heck the game's developers were thinking. For starters, one moment, you'll be wandering around a spectacular, ethereal landscape, bathed in crazy psychedelic colours - which is fine, but then you'll move into another area, where the colours randomly change to dark blue and grey. On its own, this isn't a problem, but the frustration here comes with the fact the ground is littered with holes (which you'll fall to your doom if you step on), and puddles (which, seeing as they're coloured in black, look exactly like holes), meaning you end up jumping over puddles and jumping down the holes.
At times during the game, the third person perspective will shift to a more traditional. New Super Mario Bros style side-on view, but again, this brought with it more issues. While I started off well, happily jumping between platforms, occasionally missing a jump and falling to my doom (which is quite normal for me, really), after a few minutes, I seemed to just run out of platforms to jump to... Not being able to see another platform for miles, I wasn't entirely sure what I was meant to do next - I decided I'd just try and leap it and hope for the best. The first two or three times, poor Enoch just fell into the waves below to his doom - just like he had earlier in the level, with my other misjudged jumps, where he was claimed by the sea below. Then, on my last attempt at jumping, I leapt into the air, started to fall, and then... landed on a crest of a wave, where I could jump to the next crest, and the next, and then finally to the next platform. Why had he not done that before? Why was it not more obvious that that was what I was meant to do? Why were the waves in this section much more solid than the ones earlier on?
Then, every so often, you'll meet with one of the 'Watchers' (don't ask what they are - I have no idea) in a kind of boss fight. Now, you'd think the aim of a boss fight would be to kill the boss, right? Not on El Shaddai. Yesterday, I was beating up one of these watchers and ended up dying - using Enoch's nifty revive himself thing (hammer some buttons when you die), I got back up and carried on, only to be knocked unconscious with the first hit, despite having full health. The Watcher then told me I wouldn't beat him 'this time' - seemingly, this was another one of the many boss fights in the game that I was intended to lose, and actually couldn't win.
I also found it was very difficult to tell how much health I had left on El Shaddai, as one of the few areas in which the game actually follows the trends is in not giving you a health bar, but rather providing 'visual clues' of how dead you are. In this case, Enoch's armour begins to fall off, until he's wondering around shirtless in just a pair of jeans - with a faint red glow in the corners of the screen, which sometimes blends in with the background too much. The problem is, of course, when you're in the middle of a fight with a group of enemies, small pieces of armour falling off get lost in the ruckus, and you only really notice your death's imminent when you've got a shirtless Enoch who can only take a few more hits. I just want the health bars of yesterday back...
On the plus side, you do get a choice of two difficulty levels to begin with, Easy, for "those who want to just enjoy the story", and Normal, offering more of a challenge in combat - with more unlocked once you finish the game for the first time. I chose Easy, but things still seemed to ramp up quite quickly - by the third chapter of the eleven or so in the game, I was already struggling a bit.
As I said before, the actual combat part is probably the best part of the game - it's simple, as you only need to hammer the X button to slay monsters, with the option for pulling off fancier moves if you'd prefer. Enoch has a total of three different weapons in his arsenal - the Arch, a fast sword-like weapon, which also doubles as a glider to get over gaps; the Gale, a series of missile-like projectiles you can fire at enemies; and the Veil, which is essentially a shield strapped to each arm and is useful for smacking enemies and objects in the environment. But instead of just being able to switch to these weapons at will, you actually need to pinch them off your foes instead - simply beat them up until they're 'unconscious', shown by a blue circle around them, then press LB (on the 360) to steal their weapon, purifying it as you pick it up. I'm not entirely sure what this whole 'purifying' business is for though, seeing as all it seems to do is change the colour of your weapon from orange (because as you beat the enemies up, your weapons get covered with "bad" purple gunk) to a nicer white-y blue. I imagine it may do more damage when in it's purified state, but the game's never really cleared that up.
While trying new things in the games industry is incredibly important, sometimes, sadly, games can't quite manage to bring all their new ideas together. With a bit more of a focus on the user experience, El Shaddai would be a much more accessible game - and a much better one, too. When you first pick things up, you're hopeful - there's an in depth tutorial, and it all feels so fresh and original. OK, so the story doesn't make much sense, but it'll get better, right? Sadly, things just get more convoluted, and as more and more things pop up that seem to hamper the gameplay because of the art style, you start to realise that maybe El Shaddai's been designed to be watched rather than played. The moral of the story is don't let an artist design an entire game, and to make sure you understand your source material before you start. It's a game which undoubtedly will split people down the middle, but from an accessibility point of view, El Shaddai falls too short.