Lucifer is charming in what is probably his biggest video game appearance of the year. He's a pal. He's smooth. He calls God on a cell phone. He wears fashionable jeans.
"Lucifer is likable in this game," Shane Bettenhausen told me as he was recently showing me his company's next big adventure, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron "The presentation of Lucifer is very cool. He's funny and attractive."
Lucifer, the guy many of us grew up thinking of as the devil - as the ultimate bad guy - is a good guy in this game. "That's going to be challenging for some people," Bettenhausen said. It will be challenging, because El Shaddai is doing what most big video games don't do: tell a story based on Biblical figures.
American gamers have been able to play flipped, warped video game versions of Greek mythology in God of War and unconventional takes on Norse mythology in Thor games and in Too Human. Judeo-Christian lore, however, has been largely unexplored in interactive adventures released in North America.
"We've had Norse mythology. We've had Greek mythology. We've had Japanese mythology," Bettenhausen said, recounting a conversations people at the England office of El Shaddai publisher Ignition Entertainment had when considering backing this Japanese-made game. " Can we have Christian mythology? Is it something we're allowed to do? Will it offend people?"
As he played through parts of the flashy El Shaddai game for me recently, Bettenhausen didn't want to get too specific about just what might throw Judeo-Christian gamers for a loop when they get their hands on the controller. Spoilers, I guess. But even the set-up about what El Shaddai may unsettle some people.
The game is a fanciful retelling of the Book of Enoch, an alternate version of the Book of Genesis. It features rogue angels - not Lucifer - corrupting humanity, and a man named Enoch who works in Heaven and is dispatched to stop the angles, lest God unleash the Great Flood and destroy the Tower of Babel. The angels are designed to look like David Bowie and Marlon Brando, among other celebrities.
The player controls Enoch, who has to punch and kick his way through the bad angels and their minions. But when Enoch isn't getting assistance from cel-phone-toting Lucifer - known as Lucifel in this game - they may forget much of the religious reference in the game. After all, it looks like few Bible adaptations before it and appears to be more of a crossover between action games like Devil May Cry and trippy visual spectacles like the Walt Disney cartoon Fantasia. (That image atop this post is a screenshot of the game in action, you know.)
I played the game, and it did not feel anything like going to Church or theology class. El Shaddai is a slick brawler, a game that cleans its screen of health meters and keeps its controls simple to just a few buttons. It's extraordinary to look at, a wild cartoon come to virtual, interactive life. It features magic weapons, re-assembling armour and bears the odd gameplay feature of never making death permanent - as long as you mash the buttons furiously, you can bring Enoch back to life, though by the fifth consecutive death in one of the game's chapters, it does at least feel impossible.
Bettenhausen is right to remark that El Shaddai's religious trappings feel unusual. Last year's Bayonetta notwithstanding, there rarely are games that pull too much from the angelic settings of the Bible. A re-created crucifixion of Jesus - presented as a play - in last year's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was an outlier; references to Judeo-Christian religion have long been scrubbed from Western games. And yet here comes El Shaddai, a game which Bettenhausen said is for action-gamers first. "We don't want the stigma of being a Bible game," he told me, though he was drawing a distinction of quality, not one of subject matter.
Are you ready for Lucifer as a video game buddy? Remember, Bettenhausen said, Lucifel hasn't fallen yet in the fiction of El Shaddai. And yet… "He knows what is going to happen. He knows he's going to fall and that will challenge people to like him."
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is scheduled for release in North America later this year on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.