"Calm and soothing" isn't exactly the most common design aesthetic among the creators of game booths at the Tokyo Game Show - which is perhaps why UTV Ignition's booth for El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron stands out so prominently.
Shrouded in billowing white drapes and softly lit in soothing, understated pastel colours, it's a curious oasis of calm in the middle of a show floor dominated by the bold, the brash and the exceptionally noisy.
Yet if El Shaddai's booth is strikingly different from those of other games, that's no more than an expression of the game's own artistic feel. Ever since the appearance of the very first screenshots of the game, El Shaddai's visual style has intrigued. On seeing it in motion and being given a chance to actually walk through its world for a while, that sense of intrigue is only heightened.
Where the vast majority of games on the HD consoles are focused on realism, using the power of the systems to deliver ever more complex depictions of reality, El Shaddai repurposes that power to create a visual style that's deceptively simple.
Epic landscapes, rather than being crisp and detailed, are drawn in broad brush strokes, looking like a cross between a watercolour painting and a child's chalk drawing - yet never losing a powerful sense of scale and place.
Through this curious landscape move the game's characters - its hero, Enoch, and his morally ambiguous friend, the pre-fall Lucifel. Set in biblical pre-history (and loosely based on some of the ideas found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is rather new territory for videogame narrative), the game sees Enoch tasked with rounding up rogue angels who have descended to Earth and started causing havoc.
Like the landscapes, the heroes and their foes are depicted with deceptive simplicity. The game employs flat-shading, giving an artistic effect which is similar to cel-shading but with its own unique feel, and regularly throws modern items - umbrellas, mobile phones, and even designer jeans (the game has a rather curious sponsorship deal with a Japanese designer denim label) into the mix, creating deliberate contrasts in the art style.
While the game's artistic style is both unusual and exciting, however, its gameplay is innately familiar. It's a third-person action game in the mold of Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, and while the short demo which was playable at TGS obviously can't showcase all of the game's depth, it seems clear that anyone expecting the kind of complex, involved combat seen in games like Ninja Gaiden or Bayonetta should look elsewhere.
Instead, the game and its creators are actively proud of the simplicity of their combat, which is designed to be balletic and graceful without being very difficult to get the hang of.
Only a handful of buttons are used by the game - jump, block and attack, essentially - with your ability to fire off dramatic special attacks being based on timing and rhythm rather than complex combos.
The game's director, Takeyasu Sawaki, makes no bones about the fact that El Shaddai is designed to appeal to more casual players than other games of this ilk - although many hardcore players will probably be attracted by the unique art style and atmosphere. Indeed, when asked to list the game's key features, Sawaki places the art style first on his list without a moment's hesitation.
Yet none of that is to say that El Shaddai's combat is actually bad, or dull. The same simplicity which the developers hope will open the game up to more casual players also provides for a fantastic sense of speed right from the outset of the game, with Enoch kicking, flipping and slashing around his foes at a lightning pace.
The basic beat 'em up style combat is underscored by a weapon system, which allows Enoch to steal demonic weapons from stunned foes and transform them into angelic versions.
During the demo, we got to play with two different varieties - a bow-shaped weapon with blades on either end, and a pair of powerful, heavy gauntlets. Upon equipping either of these, Enoch's entire play-style changed - from fast and nimble to slow and powerful, respectively.
According to Sawaki, the finished game will essentially feature three different classes of weapon, balanced using a classic rock-paper-scissors system. Other systems were only hinted at in the demo - Enoch occasionally starts to glow after a few moments of frantic combat, a charge which can be used to fire off a special ranged attack if you have an appropriate weapon equipped.
The final game will be around 10 hours long, in Sawaki's estimation, and it will be interesting to see how the combat evolves over the course of that time. Given the team's stated intentions, it seems unlikely that it'll ever develop serious complexity, but the quality of the animation and responsiveness of the character suggests that it won't outstay its welcome either.
One aspect which provides a bit of variety is the inclusion of two-dimensional platforming sections. These break up the pace of the game quite nicely and give the team a chance to showcase some of their beautiful 2D artwork in the background.
The platforming section in the demo was entirely filled with exposition, with the still-loyal archangels who will assist in your quest being introduced by means of a gorgeous stained-glass portrait in the background and a voiceover in the foreground. Later stages, I was assured, will feature much more combat and more challenging platforming.
At present, El Shaddai is shaping up to be a solid, competent game wrapped in some of the most glorious packaging we've seen in ages. The bold art style and striking visual touches combine with excellent music and animation to create a truly memorable whole. Right now, the combat doesn't excite quite as much as the presentation does, but nor does it actively disappoint or detract from the experience.
The demo we played was, in Sawaki's rough estimate, about 70 per cent complete. However, it certainly felt polished and accomplished, even at this stage. We're hoping that a longer play session with even more complete code can't be too far off, and will answer some more of our lingering questions about whether El Shaddai is just a pretty face - or an action game of truly biblical proportions.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is in development for PS3 and Xbox 360. A release date has yet to be announced.