El Shaddai is a wonderful thing. It's brimming over with hyperactive creativity, as stylistically varied and interesting as any game of modern times. It's also totally insane, something that I really hope will help it make an impact on the charts when it belatedly comes out over here this Friday.
It's delightfully auspicious that such an unusual game had such an unusual development process. Takeyasu Sawaki, the game's director, lead artist and designer, had some incredible work in his name. He's the man behind all the monster design and game-world art in Okami, which is quite a credit, and he worked on games from Devil May Cry to Steel Battalion whilst at Capcom. When Clover closed, he went freelance, working with Nintendo and Platinum Games amongst others - until he found himself presented with a very unusual offer.
Back in 2007, the then-CEO of UK-based publisher UTV Ignition Vijay Chadha found out that Sawaki had left Capcom. Chadha was a big fan of Japanese games, and he especially liked Sawaki's art style. He came all the way to Japan to find Sawaki, talk to him and convince him that they ought to do a title together. Specifically, he wanted to do an action game in Sawaki's art style - one loosely based on the Book of Enoch.
From there, Sawaki was more or less given free reign. He chose his own team, from programmers to artists to fellow creative leads. "I feel that there was a lot of creative freedom for me in developing El Shaddai, but because I created my own team - literally recruiting programmers and every position needed from scratch - it was really hard in a different sense, because there was a lot of preparation involved in gathering a whole team together," he says. "In the past I've always worked for a big company, where they already had all the people they needed."
That collaboration between an all-Japanese team and a Western publisher, feels Sawaki, made for a very smooth and collaborative development process. "I feel I was lucky because the parent company HQ is in the UK, and that meant we always had feedback from outside - a foreign perspective, as it were," he says.
"So people did come to us and say that some things were really too weird, and they did it whilst it was in development. Unlike my past experiences, I was more confident that the publishing team would speak out - that the game wouldn't be already done by the time they came to criticise it. Instead there was ongoing input, and it was like a collaboration. I was so lucky in that sense."
El Shaddai certainly doesn't have an easy-to-pin-down artistic direction. Unlike many artistically worthy Japanese games - including, of course, Okami - its style is not clearly tied to traditional Japanese art. It's not clearly tied to anything. It incorporates clear biblical influences, but then spins wildly off into different styles - it's constantly transforming and re-transforming the visual, surprising you in unexpected ways with each new chapter. It's a bit of a sensory rollercoaster.
"The main theme of this game was always the constantly changing visuals, that's something I've always said," Sawaki says, asked where all these various styles came from. "That's one reason for doing what El Shaddai does and constantly doing the unexpected. As a game creator, it's a shame to create a game where you can assume what the whole thing is like after playing just three stages.
"I had to betray the gamers in a way, by always doing something really surprising. I had to stay ahead of the audience, and their expectations. That's why it goes a bit mental. I really worked hard so that the audience doesn't put the controller down. Did it... did it work? Was that betrayal OK?"
I can't help but laugh at this point, because El Shaddai's subversion of your expectations is the precise thing that makes it so appealing. It comes across as terribly earnest at first, and when it reveals itself to be, in fact, utterly mad, it's a wonderful discovery. If you play a lot of games, it's very easy to feel like you know everything a game has up its sleeve after the first hour or two. To find a game that messes with your preconceptions is inordinately refreshing.
It's also the very clear product of a strong creative vision, something that seems to be coming out of Japan less and less frequently these days. Tempered by the influence of large publishers looking for cross-cultural appeal, there's been noticeable identity loss in the Japanese games industry over the past three to five years, if not even longer. Individualism gets passed through the many hands of a large development team, and what comes out at the end can feel hollow.
"I really feel that way too," Sawaki agrees. "Personally I feel that in order to stay on the unique and individualistic course, you have to have a specific mindset where you're committed to what you want to accomplish. Myself, I've been in big companies, and I'm very Japanese, so I can understand that Japanese people like to feel secure, and try not to do things that are off-limits or different. It's a cultural thing."
But with El Shaddai, things were done differently. "In general, I feel that individuality is compressed. In my case, with this team, I tried to pull out the individuality in my talented team," Sawaki explains. "There were a lot of talented people. Especially at the beginning, when I was coming up with the whole art style, I had three more really good artists, and so the four of us together were the unit that led the whole team. I couldn't have done it without them."
The two main characters of El Shaddai, though - white-armoured Enoch and smooth-talking, modern Lucifel - are Sawaki's creations, products of his long history in character design. Interestingly, the two characters were designed as opposite stylistic extremes - one designed to appeal in Japan, the other abroad.
"Lucifel's very thin, very elegant, very pale, a bit of a gay-boy look. Japanese men and women go for that style, they think that's good looking. I look like him," grins Sawaki. "Thin is the definition of good-looking. Western, though, you want to get tanned, you want to be muscular, have a good build - that's Enoch."
But the Western reception of Enoch has come as a bit of a surprise for Sawaki. "I just realised here at E3 that Enoch actually isn't that macho," he laughs. "Even he is kind of effeminate to Western tastes. Now I understand, I look around and everybody walking about is so strong-looking and big, and characters in Western games are huge."
Speaking of male depictions, it interests me that El Shaddai does not resort to the eye-rolling female character stereotypes that Japanese games often unfortunately fall back upon, choosing to depict handsome and occasionally sparsely-clad men rather than women whose clothes disappear when they perform a magic spell.
"A lot of Japanese gamers don't have girlfriends," offers Sawaki as an explanation. "They've got a crooked way of looking at women, that's probably why you get these depictions. Me, though, I have a wonderful girlfriend," he grins.
I'm hardly surprised.