Game demos are unfortunately a dying breed. While broadband has made it easier than ever to distribute demos to PC and console gamers, they've become more expensive and risky to make. They seldom come out before the full game, especially for AAA games. Developers realize their games are crud and that a demo is just going to make people not want to buy it.
Atlus and Ignition Games, companies as different as game developers can be, have both bucked the trend by releasing demos for their respective upcoming Xbox 360 games Catherine and El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. Truthfully, these are two games I would have normally passed on, but the demos reeled me in... and they're wonderful. It was a smart move for both companies. Even better—they are both scheduled for a North American release on July 26th.
Japanese developer and publisher Atlus is known mostly for their hardcore JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games). Catherine has elements of those games, particularly the flagship franchise Persona, but takes you to places you've never been before. The protagonist is a 30-something slacker named Vincent. He has a long-term girlfriend named Katherine who wants to get married, but Vincent has doubts, which is partly responsible for starting some odd dreams—where he dons ram horns and has to compete with humanoid sheep to reach the top of sliding, block puzzle towers before a giant can catch and eat him from below. And at the start of these new dreams, a mysterious blonde named Catherine also forces her way into his life, and seems to be related.
With me so far?
This erotic horror game appears to be split between scenes from Vincent's real life, which is basically a visual novel, and the puzzle dream, which looks like a cross between Intelligent Qube and Ico. The graphics in the waking parts of the game combine hand-drawn anime and in-engine graphics, both looking spectacularly good. I could go on about them all day, or just tell you to watch the video above in 720p and brace yourself. The actual gameplay during these portions seems to consist mostly of advancing through dialog and making conversational choices, like a traditional Japanese visual novel.
The puzzle/nightmare parts of the game are wacky, but solid. They consist mostly of sliding blocks that make stairs and climb upwards. It's like climbing a Jenga tower, where you have to pull the blocks out far enough to make steps without causing them to fall completely. The player collects pillows for extra lives while avoiding the giant below, who periodically tries to stab him with a fork while screaming about how "there is no escape". The atmosphere is intense, but self-aware and bombastic enough that it remains kinda funny, at least... so far.
Remember Okami? It's one of the finest games ever made. The studio responsible, Japanese group Clover Studio, was shuttered by their corporate parent Capcom before they could make a sequel to their masterwork. So, what happened to the talent behind what might just be the most beautiful game ever?
This upcoming game will be a familiar, but different enough experience, to make any Okami player slobber with lust.
El Shaddai's demo provides very little setup. The player is dropped into the most stylized fantasy world I've ever seen in a game. More so than even Okami. The backgrounds are seas of shifting color and the objects impressionist silhouettes, except for the protagonist Enoch, who is rendered in pretty cell-shaded 3D. Gameplay is a third-person, action-adventure affair with plenty of running, platforming and combat, much like Okami. Unfortunately, like Okami, the platforming seems pretty dodgy and hopefully will not be a major part of the final game.
I could try and describe the world of El Shaddai—Old Testament angels mixed with suit-wearing cell phone users—but it would be largely futile.
Download the demo if you have an Xbox 360, and if not, watch these videos. Then get pumped.