The way you experience both flavors of gameplay are fairly direct, as you move from section to section: jump until you get the next circular area, then the invisible walls pop-up and it’s time to beat up goons until the walls drop. The devs shake things up occasionally, including one fun and completely unexpected motorcycle race, though when they stick with such the dependable set-up for an action game it’s still fun, just not revolutionary. (Quick note about the inventive approach to death in the game: instead of a collection of lives, each time you die you need to mash buttons as fast as you can to regain consciousness, with each mashfest tougher than the last, meaning if you’re fast enough you may never see a game over screen.)
Where the game makers decided to really get experimental was everything that’s set around the title’s structure. Honestly, El Shaddai is one of the most gorgeous games we’ve ever seen, with seemingly each stage more artistically inventive than the last. When exploring a stage, we were continually enthralled by the artistic achievement of each level. The separate sections had their own unique feel and flow to them, their own stylistic impression to make. You can tell this game was made by someone who got their start in the art side of gaming, as it looks like he was given so much freedom with how to decorate the stage that you end up with some lovely work you won’t see in any other game.
There are ethereal planes that involve riding cresting waves in the clouds, there’s the colorful and distressingly childlike Nephelim playground, and stained-glass tableaus your silhouette is imposed on. Even in more grounded stages, like a faux-futuristic world, a singular style is present. And there's always a great soundtrack backing it up. We felt like we were getting more and more culturally enriched as the game progressed. Even if El Shaddai played like crap (which is certainly doesn’t), it would be worthwhile to anyone who wants to appreciate true art inside their games.
El Shaddai dreams big, making most of them a reality. It paints so beautifully on its canvas that we feel anyone could enjoy that, though we wish the gameplay could always be as grand as the visual design. The combat never falters, but doesn’t do enough new, and at times the platforming drags, though that shouldn’t deter you from the overall experience. Games like El Shaddai are sadly few and far between; when they come around they deserve our attention, as big budget experiments like these become increasingly rare.
Aug 16, 2011