Shane Bettenhausen of UTV Ignition took precious GDC time to show me around El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, a game that stubbornly defies classification. At times a third-person action game and others a 2D platformer, what El Shaddai is throughout is beautiful.
The game's art is similarly difficult to pin down, at times drawing on woodblock prints, at others on watercolor brushstrokes and often with surprisingly vibrant hues. With the game's Director, Producer and Art Director all sharing Okami credits, it's easy to see an artistic connection. Even so, the game is visually surprising. Much deference is given to the game's aesthetic, with no meters, bars or even combo indicators onscreen. Your health is measured through your attire, Enoch's armor and clothing falling away as you take damage. Enoch sports some rather nice jeans, a gift from Lucifel (Lucifer), who is fond of the future, designer duds and his cell phone calls to God. Enoch's deliberately asymmetrical armor does leave his left bum cheek covered only by his pants - his Achilles' heel, perhaps? It's when Enoch reaches a state of shirtlessness that you know you're in trouble. Once knocked out the screen will begin to wink shut as Enoch's eyes close, but mashing the shoulder and face buttons quickly revives him. Each successive near-death makes it more difficult to revive Enoch, however, and ultimately you can die. In the meantime, Enoch shrugs it off with a simple, "It's okay, no problem."
The art in 2D presents some interesting and beautiful moments - like using a cresting wave to traverse an area or times when inky blackness represents a pit but others where it is quite solid. In a bit of platforming trickery some distances are too long for Enoch to traverse with his double jump, but falling off the ledge allows for a third jump that spans the gap. There are no enemies in these 2D portions of the game, so the environment is both challenging and ripe for appreciation.
Act 3: Ezekiel is an early level in the game. Enoch begins weaponless with the ability to punch and kick, and once you've pummeled enemies into a blue aura hitting L1 allows you to steal their weapon. Not only do you deprive them of the weapon you now have a new, purified one to use. Purification is necessary as battling causes your weapons to become "defiled" and glow an angry orange. Swiping a weapon from an enemy solves the defilement problem as does skirting the battle and hitting L1. Since Enoch can only carry one weapon at a time doing battle with mixed enemies makes swapping weapons a strategic necessity.
While different weapons are better suited to different enemies, those preferring swordplay will be partial to the Arch. The Gale weapon lends itself to ranged combat as it allows for rapid movement and fires on enemies from a distance but becomes defiled more quickly, and trying to purify your weapon while under attack is a hazardous thing - none of the enemies will sit back and wait for a T.O. while Enoch goes about his weapon purification, these guys are aggressive. Enemies will also pummel you with two shields that make for powerful, if slow, attacks useful against a particularly large and nasty enemy I encountered in the demo. Later I battled two giant armored pigs, and trust me, giant armored pigs make formidable foes.
Since I wasn't played the dumbed-down for the press easy mode (or so they told me), battles were challenging and engaging. Taking down bosses requires skill and time. Combos are a matter of timing, and blocking just before an attack allows for parry. Bettenhausen says the game will take most players 12 hours to complete, but there is an in-game taunt that it is possible to complete in in 8 hours. How much of that requires pure skill versus evasive maneuvers remains to be seen.
El Shaddai's uniqueness may make it difficult to classify, but appreciating beauty, platforming and combat should come naturally to gamers.
P.S. The game will have Japanese and English voice acting as well as localized text in six EU languages.