I'm finding it funny that I'm playing catch up to all the uniquely visual games of 2011: Alice: Madness Returns, Rayman Origins, and now El Shaddai. Whenever we have games that go for unique visual styles, the question always comes up if the visuals distract from the gameplay. El Shaddai is going to be an interesting discussion on this matter and a hard game to analyze.
Story wise, I'm not going to get into too much detail about, one because it's hard to follow (more on that further down.) And two, the plot is focused on religion and belief. As someone who doesn't follow religion I don't want to offend anyone and I'm just going to put it aside for this analysis. You play as Enoch, who must ascend a tower built by fallen angels and take each of them out to save humanity.
The visual style is the game's strong point. Each chapter of the game takes place in its own unique art style. From a 2D fluffy cartoon look, to a futuristic cyber city and even more insane backdrops. The game is definitely a treat for the eyes even on a SD TV.
Gameplay is split between 2D and 3D platforming and 2D and 3D combat. The combat system is fairly simple: one button to attack, one to block/modify actions, jump and purify (more on that in a minute.) There are four ways to attack: a sword, dual bucklers, some kind of long range device and your hands and feet. Each one of the three weapons is part of a rock, paper, scissors balance: sword beats shield, shield beats long range, and long range beats sword.
There are three twists to the weapon system. First is that the primary way to acquire them is to steal them from enemies. The majority of the enemies wield one of the three weapons and if you do enough damage you can stun them. Stealing a weapon weakens the enemy and gives you a brief damage boost.
The second twist involves purifying weapons. As you continue to use the same weapon, it becomes corrupted by the enemies and will change color. Fully corrupted weapons do less damage, requiring the player to either steal a new weapon or purify the current one. Purifying a weapon leaves you momentary stationary, requiring the player to pick the right time to do it.
The last twist involves the platforming sections, as the sword and long range weapon allow the player to perform additional actions in the air. The sword gives you the ability to glide, while the ranged weapon lets you do an air dash. The buckler however provides no new ability making it the last weapon you want when it's time to jump around.
Overall the combat flows well and the platforming makes a suitable challenge. However, going back to the first paragraph unfortunately the focus on art did get in the way of the gameplay. First the combat system is just a little too simplistic to hold up for hours of play. Each weapon is controlled the exact same way and the most complicated maneuver is the guard break. This requires the player to delay pressing the attack button during a combo.
Not helping matters are the enemies, as I mentioned further up, the majority of the enemies wield one of the three weapons. However, the actual types of enemies you fight are limited. The enemy, who wields the sword, will attack the exact same way no matter what part of the game you're at. The only times that the player is tested, are the boss and mini boss fights which require more strategy. If there were just a few more variations of enemies or more differentiating factors between the weapons things would be alright.
Another area that feels underdeveloped is the side quest involving going into the underworld to find an item. As the player is searching, there is a pool of darkness rising up and if it hits the player, not only do they die, but they have to sit through about a minute of cut-scenes and loading to get back to the game. The item in question doesn't even have an impact on the gameplay.
There is also this item that shows up during boss fights, that lets you see what weapon type the enemy is weakest against. The strange thing about it is that it seems to show up randomly during the fight. This becomes annoying against later bosses that change forms and weaknesses in mid fight.
The last issue has to do with the story, as I mentioned I'm not familiar with the Religious story that the game is loosely based on. With that said, even with post level recaps, by about halfway through I had no idea what was going on. Characters, who were supposed to be major players, seem to die or disappear without warning and good luck understanding the ending.
El Shaddai falls into the same camp as titles like Killer 7 and No More Heroes: A game which was designed in a very specific fashion to tell a unique story. Love it or hate it, I would still suggest trying it out to see what the game has to offer.