For long, new Indian videogame producer UTV has been hyping up Wardevil, a title that was supposed to be its first step into the world of gaming. But, unexpectedly, the first title it has previewed — at last week’s Tokyo Game Show — is the below-the-radar El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. It has been developed by Ignition Entertainment, a company UTV bought a few years ago (see box: Reaching for Game) and the development was led by Takeyasu Sawaki, who had earlier developed the hit Devil May Cry. Not surprisingly, El Shaddai has turned out an exceedingly “Japanese” game whose art cannot be fully appreciated in any printed pictures — you need to see the online trailers for that.
The story is oh-so-very loosely based on the ancient Book of Enoch, and follows the story of Enoch and his ascension to the role of Metatron, the voice of god. Japan’s curious relationship with Christian themes often produces narratives that only make sense at three in the morning — like in Bayonetta — so I won’t go into detail there. In short, Enoch must fight against fallen angels who are hell-bent on destroying Earth.
He’s not alone. On his (your) side are archangels Raphael, Uriel, Gabriel and Michael. And Lucifel (Lucifer before the fall), who dresses in a rather sharp suit and is constantly chatting with god on his cell-phone. Enoch, meanwhile, carries a giant arch that he uses as a two-handed sword and wears jeans and what appears to be Madonna’s cone-bra, but is actually divine armour.
At this point, you may think of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, or any other superb game from Japan that transcends cultural barriers simply through amazing game-play and astonishing visuals and music. The preview videos of El Shaddai seem to deliver on at least the second of the two counts.
The visual direction of the game is thoroughly abstract, described as a living watercolour; to me, it felt more like watching anime. The backgrounds are often stunning. At times it’s clear that the visual clarity of game elements has been sacrificed to create a more attractive screen. While the whole effect seems flat and uninspired when seen as stills, in motion, there is a fluid artistry that’s uncommon.
In the psychedelic fantasy world of El Shaddai, Enoch is guided and assisted by Lucifel, who lives outside time and therefore has access to things from the future. Like cell-phones. And jeans. Seriously, he’s why Enoch wears a pair of designer jeans under his heavenly armour — they’re a gift. It’s not been revealed yet, but a little guesswork based on names and being as farfetched as possible makes me believe that the final battle will be against Lucifel, above a giant lake patrolled by sharks, armed with lasers and guided by Lucifel sitting in a mechanical octopus. Though looking at the game, I wouldn’t put it past the developers to trump that.
The look and story aren’t the only distinctive qualities. The game features no on-screen interface elements whatsoever, with damage being measured by the condition of Enoch’s armour. The idea is to remove all distractions and help you feel a part of the game-world itself. This seems to work well. The combat is easy to get into, with just one button for all attacks. But the contexts change the nature of the attacks along with the weapon, which you can steal from the enemies you fight. About a tenth of the game is supposed to be 2D; around half is in 3D exploration and platform jumping, which seems to play better, and the rest is combat, which is fun but simplistic.
The game, with its eerie otherworldly look and bizarre story is probably not the game UTV would have wanted to release first. Wardevil would have been a nice generic release. But perhaps it’s for the best that this is the game that comes out first. If it’s as successful as, say, Bayonetta, El Shaddai can go a long way in establishing UTV as a significant player. That’s the test it’s up for.
Reaching for game
If El Shaddai is being published by an Indian company, why is the underlying mythology of the story from the Bible and why is the game’s entire aesthetic so very Japanese? In a recent interview, publisher UTV’s boss Ronnie Screwvala said, “The major videogame markets are international — there is nothing Indian about them. Our market in India is insignificant.”
So, parallelling the recent trend of Hollywood celebrities getting into game development, Screwvalla’s UTV is making its debut as a publisher. The Indian company bought UK developer Ignition in 2006 and started three top-of-the-line (AAA) projects — Wardevil, Reich and El Shaddai. While the first two projects are going slow (possibly because of a late decision to turn them into multi-platform games), El Shaddai was recently showcased at the Tokyo Game Show. In 2008, UTV also bought True Games, which specialises in online gaming.
Despite the severe shortage of experienced talent in development, programming and motion capture in India, there’s another big player in the sector now. A few months ago, Reliance BIG Entertainment bought 50 per cent in Codemasters, a company which has made some successful racing and cricket games, among the most popular genres in India. Reliance’s gaming arm, Zapak, has only dealt in casual online games, a low-risk, low-yield strategy that has worked well so far. Now the game will change.
UTV and Reliance are making what seems to be the only move available to an Indian company interested in game design — buying existing studios. They can use their might to bring gaming to the Indian mainstream. But for any of it to really work, for now, El Shaddai is the key.
Gopal Sathe is founder of the gaming site, www.split-screen.com