Game of the Week: El Shaddai

That was a trip.

I went away for a couple of weeks and somebody turned the games industry back on.

When I went on holiday (southwest US road trip, Grand Canyon etc., wonderful, thanks for asking) our Deus Ex: Human Revolution review and the impending release of the game were like a long, cool drink of water to our parched throats after the summer drought. I return from the Utah desert this week and all of a sudden, we're drowning.

It's not all good news, to be honest. As grateful as I am to Xbox Live Arcade and the other download services for keeping us going during the downtime with gems like From Dust, that soothing trickle has become an inappropriate gush - and just when gamers are looking forward to having some boxes to buy, too. Eight XBLA games in two weeks is just silly, and we haven't been able to give as much attention as we'd want to the likes of Rock of Ages and the charming Kinect experiment Leedmees, which was released this week (look out for something on it soon). After the Summer of Arcade so expertly highlighted the potential of download games, it would be a shame to see more interesting titles lost in another senseless, App Store-style stampede.

Meanwhile, as the high season for boxed games gets underway, Deus Ex may have played the role of point man to perfection, but the troops following it are in some disarray. There are lots of new releases this week, but they're a motley bunch.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine drapes beautiful presentation and polished fan service around a very limited action game. It's tempting to portray Dead Island as its opposite - a rickety realisation of an interesting idea - and to some extent that's true, but the fact is that they share a common principal flaw: repetition, repetition, repetition.

Rise of Nightmares served up similar cack-handed innovation within the medium of zombie bludgeoning. Platform holders Sony and Nintendo, at least, pulled their socks of professionalism up with the highly enjoyable (not to say functional) Resistance 3 and Star Fox 64 3D. We'd happily recommend either, but you'll have to forgive us for not getting too excited about a FPS sequel that no-one really asked for and a remake of a 14-year-old rail shooter.

Thank goodness that there is another original out this week.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

El Shaddai is an original in the sense that it's not a sequel, and in the sense that it's unique. It's also an original in the way that you might call your most eccentric uncle, the one who collects spoons and starts conversations in the middle, an original. It's raving mad.

Beautiful El Shaddai footage lands

The story of its creation - in brief, boss of small UK-based games publisher approaches his favourite Japanese game artist and instructs him to make a game based on ancient Jewish religious lore - is wildly improbable. The result is infinitely surprising in every way but one: this is what happens when you let visual artists lead game development.

This only happens very rarely these days, and there are plenty of sad stories like that of Katamari Damacy's Keita Takahashi, who had to leave Namco Bandai when he lost interest in squeezing his one hit dry and the publisher lost faith in his weird play experiments. Hopefully the same fate won't befall Takeyasu Sawaki.

Some have looked at El Shaddai's deceptively simple combat and occasionally rudimentary gameplay and, understandably enough, called it style over substance. But El Shaddai's style is its substance, by virtue of the way that style constantly changes as you play.

It's not just the endearing nuttiness, but the restlessly shifting perspectives, scenarios and visual treatments that Sawaki applies to a simple core that keep the game so fresh and exciting all the way through. El Shaddai does exactly what Space Marine and Dead Island don't: it constantly reinvents itself.

"Like Bayonetta, like Rez, like Okami, it changes the way you think about games - and yet it's remarkably unpretentious," wrote Keza in our El Shaddai review on import back in June. "It's not got quite enough gameplay meat on its bones to position it alongside those classics, but it's been the most refreshing experience of the year so far, and visually it truly is incomparable."

Three months on, every word holds true.

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