There was a time in the 1980’s when religious imagery was banned from video games. Of course this wasn’t a law but a corporate mandate from Nintendo to avoid the controversy of satanic panic. These days, no such restrictions exist and yet not much has changed. With developers creating agnostic univeries or relying on unpracticed and completely fictional versions of spirituality as mystical substitutions. Resulting in a more universally acceptable form of entertainment. Afterall, who wants their deeply held beliefs to be transformed into something as inconsequential as a game?
Surprisingly, pleaty of people. Video games based on the Judeo Christian faiths have been a constant in America for nearly four decades. Mostly well intended titles for younger audiences or shameless patronising repackagings of commercial failures. Some even appearing on the NES, though without Nintendo’s famous seal of approval. These days, with the cost of development exponentially higher than previous generations, most biblical games have quietly made the transition to mobile platforms.
But even more uncommon are those that split the difference. Borrowing the themes and otherworldly locations of the most popular religions, while still catering to the core video game audience. And though it’s true dogma and rituals have already established an inseparable influence on storytelling and art, these examples embrace the written scripture as inspiration. Usually resulting in commercial failure.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a look at three uniquely spiritual and occasionally blasphemous titles. To see their original renditions of deities, demons and the afterlife.
And this week, we’ll start with one of the most unusual games ever released on a major console. The cryptically named El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. An obscure title based on an obscure apocryphal text, today most commonly associated with the dead sea scrolls and occasionally tied to grandiose biblical conspiracies. Referred to as The Book of Enoch or First Enoch, it’s contents are largely unknown outside of scholarly journals and classrooms.
And in a way, that ambiguity perfectly matched publisher Ignition Entertainment. A British company founded with a sole focus on the handheld market, specifically games developed by Archer Maclean’s Awesome Developments and SNK Playmore. While none of their catalogue became a major hit, they performed well enough to attract Indian media conglomerate UTV Software Communications. And in 2007, UTV purchased Ignition.
But this would be more than a simple acquisition, as the once small publisher’s ambitions grew into international expansion and internal development. Founding two studios. The first, in Florida, would begin work on a gritty future fantasy shooter titled “Reich” While another studio located in Tokyo would take a far less conventional path.
Specific names and details are hard to come by, but according to Ignition’s former Director of New Business Development, Shane Bettenhausen, there was an employee within the UK headquarters who regularly read and researched religious text. Seeing the success of Sony’s God of War and Capcom’s Okami, he argued the newly opened Japanese studio should develop a game based on the Book of Enoch. The rest of the team became excited by the concept. It was an original choice for an adaptation, especially as most people, even devoted believers, were completely unaware of its significance.
And as luck would have it, Sawaki Takeyasu, the lead artist and character designer of Okami, was leaving CAPCOM after the closure of Clover Studios in early 2007. Seeing a surplus of available and experienced talent, Ignition hired a number of the Okami team to help found their Tokyo location. The instructions were direct yet open to interpretation. Use the template of Enoch and produce an action game. The publisher deliberately withheld creative guidance, their interest wasn’t in the concept itself but it’s unknown result. What if a Japanese developer created a game based on old testament scripture?
Takeyasu immediately recognized the irregular combination of artistic freedom and financial support. Already in charge of the game’s character designs, he applied to become it’s director, a career first. Ignition agreed, allowing him to continue as both the project head and visual lead on the then named Angelic: Ascension of the Metatron.
But what exactly would the game be about? As a foundation, The Book of Enoch didn’t offer much in the way of direction. For starters, it’s widely considered an apocryphal book, and while it frequently references the apocalypse, this name actually means untrue story. And as such, it’s not include in either the christian or hebrew bible. Like all written works, the bible is the result of revisions and edits, a collection of different texts passed down from church leaders across generations.
So why not Enoch? Well, biblical scholars included each book, such as matthew, mark, genesis and exodus, if it was found to be canonical. It’s not enough to be about god, the text has to be inspired by god. It must be determined that a divine force or holy spirit directed influenced the author. And even though Enoch was widely regarded as an important work, and despite some conspiracy theories, is not banned by organized religion, it was just never considered to be scripture.
What it is, is confusing. Enoch isn’t without theme or purpose but the connecting ideas are virtually none. Reciting precisely how the righteous will be rewarded and the transgressors punished. Describing the four corners of the earth and different types of weather. Before plunging into a lengthy record of astronomy. And finally, in some sort of consistency, the writer explains the same story twice, the first with time humans and again with allegorical animals.
El Shaddai wisely ignores the vast majority of Enoch, instead centering on the first and most controversial section known as The Book of Watchers. The Watchers were 200 angels that overlooked the earth in the early days of man. Enticed by human women, the angels, who are all given male pronouns, voice their desire to bare children. And so, they descended to earth to meet with mankind and procreate.
Perhaps the most interesting concept in Enoch is the idea that scientific knowledge is chronological and finite. The Watchers drastically excellerate Earth’s technological capabilities by teaching humans sorcery, astrology, and metal crafting. But even with these enhancements, society was ill equipped to deal with the unholy merger of the divine and mortal, when the angels offspring called nephilim were born.
At a height of 325 feet, the giant nephilim quickly consume all of the harvest before devouring livestock, wildlife, and even humans. When god learns of this, he commands the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Suryal, and Uriel to bind the Watchers for their crimes and destroy the nephilim.
At the same time, God instructs Enoch to inform the watchers of their fate. What’s remarkable about Enoch is he was once a human being, who became so admired by god, he was taken to heaven while he was still alive, becoming an angle. The Watchers all knew of Enoch, giving him the title of Scribe.
When he confronts his former friends, they plead for him to speak with god to avoid punishment. But forgiveness is denied, and the fallen angels are bound by their hands and feet, thrown inside the darkness within the desert for 70 generations, waiting for the end of the world to be thrown in eternal fire.
Apparently that would not be enough to cleanse the land, as years later Enoch’s great grandson Noah would witness the great flood that destroyed the Earth.
A pretty interesting story. But how do these handful of paragraphs become a modern action game? Surprisingly with only a few liberties. Sawaki Takeyasu was an ideal candidate to head up the project, retaining the central narrative while expanding on it’s visual interpretation. In fact, unless you have direct knowledge of the game’s inspirations, you’d likely never know this is an adaptation.
First, El Shaddai merges the parallel stories from the book of Watchers, giving Enoch center stage while Micheal and the rest of the Archangels appear off screen as voices, aiding his journey. Enoch is briefly acknowledged as a scribe, though in this version his duties have expanded beyond confronting the fallen angels, but defeating them in battle. In this story, only 7 of the 200 angles are said to have survived the fall from heaven. And staying true to video game tropes, The Watchers and their human followers are no longer on earth but all reside within a pocket dimension, inside an enormous tower.
However the narrative’s biggest departure is Enoch’s new partner, Lucifel. Who according to the development team is meant to be Lucifer or Satan before his fall from heaven. An angel who exists outside of time and can be regularly overheard talking on his flip-phone to god himself. It’s an incredibly bizarre but effective way to communicate the mission’s progress.
The rest is, for the most, a series of expanded concepts. But it’s Takeyasu's experience as a designer and artist that allow El Shaddai to take full advantage of the book’s vague descriptions. And there’s no better example than the forumless slime portrayals of the Nephilim. Who are still totally acknowledged as dangerous abominations capable of ending civilization. While also given the playful, curious, adorable blank design of an anime mascot.
This is totally contrasted by the realistic human faces and chiseled jawlines given to the rest of the cast. And the rest of the world’s aesthetics are a kaleidoscope of styles. Resembling colored pencils, glasswork, paintings, geometric shapes, and watercolors. These small differences create a sense of distrust and exhilaration as each area transforms into something new.
For example, The Armaros boss fight takes place on a pop music stage show while his followers flood in to attack Enoch. Azazel’s technology resembles a future civilization complete with motorcycles and skyscrapers. And earlier stages show an abundance of building water, hinting at the impending cataclysmic flood. Heck, I’m pretty sure these trees are from the book. Now of course the exact circumstances are never mentioned in the original source, but the minimalist writing leaves a lot room for interpretation.
Which brings us to the gameplay. An unusual blend of simple platforming and arena combat, all of which are influenced by the player’s current weapon. The sword or Arch allows for nimble slashes and grants Enoch hovering whole jumping. The Gale is a long distance projectile with an additional air dash maneuver. And the Veil is a defense heavy shield that with slow yet powerful attacks.
What’s fascinating about El Shaddai’s combat is it’s unconventional simplicity and rhythm. Everything is based around four buttons, attack, jump, guard, and cleanse. Performing basic offense seems almost independent from the enemy actions. Any sort of rapid button presses will usually leave Enoch defenseless. Instead players must calmly tap along with the animations, spacing them out just enough to activate extra powerful combos. At times it can feel like unlearning the basics of 3D action hack n slash, destruction through patience.
Adaptability also plays a major role, as Enoch must steal his weapons directly from enemy hands, cleansing them of their sin to reach full strength. In this design, it’s better not to have preferences and simply work with the tools at hand. There’s no real weak link and so strategy comes from efficiency. In a nice touch, Uriel the archangel can be summoned to quickly defeat enemies. Despite the game’s lax difficulty, these spectacles add a bit of diversity in the mechanics. Even failure states are given a unique twists, with players mashing on the buttons to reawaken Enoch from death.
So there you have it, an original take on combat, an unlikely narrative source, and a visionary director. So why doesn’t it work? El Shaddai feels like an appropriately small idea pushed into meeting the standards of AAA games. Or perhaps a game with greater creative aspirations, cut short by financial problems. It’s hard to tell where there the disconnect begins.
First there an extended period of uninspired platforming sequences that dont serve much of a purpose beyond padding out the 9 hour length. And actually clash with many of the artistic choices, which look great while exploring but these filters make precision jumps unclear. Not to mention these sections always push towards another circle where a handful of enemies must be defeated.
The gameplay issues all boils down to hard cuts. The 2D platforming is seperate from the 3D platforming that is seperate from the fights that is seperate from the boss fights. Nothing flows togethers, and as such, each new free flowing environment feels like window dressing to a strict order of recycled ideas.
Enoch must frequently battles the fall angles in scripted events where players are forced to lose. Though this is meant to show the growth of Enochs’ power, it really undercuts the drama of these fights.
Then there’s the overly dense story. My first playthrough of El Shaddai was completely fresh and I was unaware of The Book of Enoch. This second time, I’ve researched and read the text myself. And yet, I’m still not sure what to make of many of these moments. Like when Methuselah arrives looking like a cave drawing. He’s seriously only in the game for 30 seconds, but is still given an on screen introduction.
Between the hints at greater storylines with grandiose wars, reused assets, and a disappointing amount of padding, It seems El Shaddai might have been intended to be bigger than the end result. And because of this, the already finished aspects were stretched thin, with cut scenes filling in the gaps.
And this hypothetical is given more credibility when you look at the history of Ignition Games. By late 2010, months before the launch of El Shaddai, the publisher was forced into drastic restructuring. Their London development studio was closed and their game Project Kane was outright canceled. The Los Angeles publishing headquarters left the state, reopening in Austin, Texas. Likewise, the Florida studio was closed after burning through 23 million dollars and numerous allegations of inappropriate conduct. And their parent company, UTV Software Communications, would itself become a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Corporation, which had no intentions of operating more video game studios.
Surprisingly, the least commercial game would be the only one to survive Ignition’s development expansion, when El Shaddai released on April 28 in japan, August 16 in North America, and September 9, 2011 in Europe. Despite promising first week sales in Japan, the game quickly ended up in bargain bins. Ignition Tokyo would close that same year.
And you might assume that would be the end of the story. But less than a year after it’s release, El Shaddai would return as an episodic mobile title, though only one episode would ever become available, followed by another mobile title El Shaddai Social Battle, which was announced in 2012. Then in 2013, Takeyasu announced his acquisition of the El Shaddai IP. By 2014, he bagan work on a prequel manga. In Japan, the game had achieved a much greater cultural footprint, inspiring a number of internet memes and even a promotional cross over with it’s own brand jeans.
And in May of 2017 Takeyasu revealed his next project, The Lost Child. A first person dungeon crawler, turned based RPG. With it’s cast including Enoch and Lucifel, and some of it’s soundtrack directly lifted from El Shaddai. From the looks of it, this is more of a spiritual spin off than a chanotical successor. Though I suppose we’ll have to wait and see when it arrives on the Vita and PS4 in North America later this year.
But back to El Shaddai, is it still worth playing today? Sure, if you have an Xbox 360 or PS3, you can easily snatch up a copy for less than 10 bucks. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into. It’s hard not to notice the rough edges and budget saving solutions, but at the same time, many of these issues can be forgiven because of the game’s ambition.
It’s hard to believe any publisher would willingly allow, let alone encourage, this sort of direction. The market wasn’t asking for games based on apocryphal books, this wasn’t Takeyasu’s passion project, he was handed it. It was a concept totally devised by a room of inexperienced AAA publishers wanting to see what would happen.
El Shaddai in its final form is bizzare, beautiful, original game that never should have existed.
The fact that it does is it’s greatest accomplishment.