In 2011, Sawaki Takeyasu sought out to deliver a truly unique take on the action genre with the release of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. It stands today as a very cult hit, incorporating the biblical book of Enoch – an ancient Jewish religious work, and had players assume the role of Enoch, who in the game is a scribe seeking seven fallen angels in hopes of preventing a great flood that could wipe out humankind. Lucifel is your “guardian angel” and deuteragonist throughout the story who would be your go-to resource for information on the world, fill you in on your purpose throughout the adventure, and act as your save points throughout your journey. It was a clever take on the role of Lucifer, who here is responsible for the protection of the world, and existed outside of time, to the point where he could freely stop it and offer Enoch advice, or even rewind it should Enoch die. In this very modern portrayal, he was seen conversing with God via a cell phone.
It felt like a game with a lore and setting that barely scratched its own surface, and yet despite that I was immensely intrigued with the idea behind it. I remember enjoying the vistas and wonderful architecture that El Shaddai presented, and the unique planar shifts from 3D hack-n-slash to 2D sidescrolling in segments, platforming and its absolutely jaw-dropping artstyle. I also remember it being rather mediocre in its combat mechanics, despite being inspired by games like Devil May Cry and Okami. Nothing terrible, mind you, but nothing to write home about; regardless it holds a warm place in my heart as an expierience like no other.
Flash-forward 7 years, and we now have a return to the lore first established in El Shaddai. Sawaki Takeyasu had left the developers at Ignition Tokyo, and UTV Ignition Games, and was taken on by the developers at Crim (who had recently acquired the El Shaddai IP), with the Kadokawa and NIS America as the publishers for what would be the spin-off title within the world of El Shaddai; however, rather than borrowing from action titles like its predecessor, this was largely inspired by the pen-and-paper dungeon crawler games like Shim Megami Tensei, or Etrian Odyssey. The Lost Child serves to expand upon El Shaddai’s world in its own twisted way, as it manages to weave Christianity and the Cthulhu Mythos into one story. Not only that, but peppered throughout the core religious hierarchy are examples of Buddhism and Ancient Egyptian polytheistic deities that all seem to fall under the one God as its hierarchical leader and figurehead.
You are Hayato Ibuki, who is a journalist for a niche Japanese magazine dealing with the Occult phenomena that get reported. While investigating a series of mysterious suicides happening at Shinjuku Station, you are suddenly pushed out onto the tracks, only to be saved by a mysterious woman, who leaves a briefcase in your possession before fleeing the scene. She leaves telling you not to use the case, but also leaves the ominous impression that it’s your best chance at living. You then encounter another woman, dressed like a witch, who asks if you’ve seen a woman that describes the lady who left you with the briefcase. She notices the case, and reluctantly informs you on what you now have in your possession. Inside the briefcase is a mystical-looking gun, called the “Gangour” and it’s used to capture and use fallen demons and angels, who seem to be invading the Earthly plane. She also immediately tells you that she is an angel sent on a mission from God, and explains that Hayato must be God’s Chosen One, to be able to wield the powers of the Gangour – a feat no mortal should be able to accomplish.
The rest of the game focuses on you returning to your work, investigating unsolved or unexplained mysteries, and discovering the demonic influences that actually exist in the world and are the central cause for these occurances. A Layer (or a dungeon from a game’s standpoint) is a place that exists between our world and other dimensions. You must rid that area or sector of this demonic influence that is wreaking havoc among the citizens. To do so, you must explore each level of each layer, and ultimately find the Obelisks, deep within the Layer. Obelisks are essentially pillars that have the power to send souls from the mortal world to Heaven. Guarding the first Obelisk is an evil deity called Hatsur (the Unspeakable One for the Lovecraftian fans). The player is informed (keeping the characters ignorant of the fact) that Hatsur is one of the main rulers along with Cthulhu, who are your core enemies to defeat, and thus save the world from an unthinkable future. It's a truly weird take on the Dark vs Light archetype, whereby different religions (Buddhism and Christianity, most prominently) are portrayed as the religions in Heaven, with the Cult of Cthulhu and its Mythos as the central antagonists. The typical usage of the Devil or Lucifer is totally absent, and instead Lucifel is much like how he operated in El Shaddai; an entity with time-bending powers, who can influence the course of the game at his whim, and seems to be aiding you (and God) throughout the journey.
I wasn’t too impressed with how the story unfolds for the player, however certain religious aspects and elements that the game uses to tie the narrative together are genuinely interesting. The story itself can be quite fragmented at times, and a lot of it is told in a deliberately jumbled manner that unfortunately sacrifices the narrative’s cohesion in favour of being able to give you a chance to embark on the investigations in your order, however you wish to do so. While the freedom of choice is always a welcome mechanic for RPGs, it takes an impressively bonded story to keep things focused, and that just didn’t happen with The Lost Child. There were times it felt it truly could stand out on its own legs, but ultimately feels like it just doesn’t reach the same impact as other stories in Dungeon Crawlers achieve. Another minor complaint is that, while this is largely considered a Spin-off of El Shaddai, it doesn’t really feel like it ties into the events of the game; instead it seems to just reuse assets like characters and designs and tries at something completely different. For instance, this game’s explanation of God’s creation seems to have some issues in continuity with the events of El Shaddai. In this Ceta is a planet with which God introduces “the metatron plan,” and creates Earth after Ceta is destroyed. In El Shaddai, the entire “metatron plan” takes place on Earth, and Ceta is referred to as the manifestation of God’s power.
The gameplay itself is very inspired by the aforementioned dungeon crawlers. It’s played from the first person perspective, where you do not know the layout of the maps, and must chart them out yourself. Some of the layers are fairly rudimentary while others pose quite the labyrinthine design. Enemy encounters are frequent, and you are either left choosing to defeat the waves of enemies, or, capture them and “purify” them so that you may use them against other fallen angels or demons. Each Fallen Angel or Demon has an ascribed element associated with them, and the game does grant you an advantage if you utilize one element over another. Despite these advantages existing, some of my core teams throughout the majority of the game were Wind-ascribed Angels and Demons and never felt a true disadvantage, or that I was missing anything by not having Lightning, Fire, Wood or Water users.
Another issue I found, fairly early on, is that it’s too easy to become overpowered in the game. Your “Astrals” which is the group identity for all purified Fallen Angels and Demons you use throughout the game, have a tiered systems whereby you can evolve them (EVILve, as the game puns it) into their higher form. Towards the beginning of the game, you are given Enoch, the protagonist from El Shaddai, as an Astral to use throughout your journey. He easily becomes one of the most powerful figures for you during much of the story. In fact, the moment I got him to his mid-tier level, he would effortlessly one-shot enemies within the first 8 hours of the game. This greatly reserved any true feeling of challenge with the bosses, which is unfortunate.
The world map presents a few interesting things to do when you aren’t investigating. There’s a spa that grants you certain buffs or advantages when entering a Layer, there are shops to buy, sell, or appraise weapons and equipment, and there is also an interesting way to transfer skills between Astrals. To do this, you select the Astral with the skill you desire, and it is placed on a visual scale. The weight tips in the desired skill’s favour and you must then compensate by offering a skill that can either even out, or overcompensate. The point is that you cannot pitch a lesser skill for something more desirable, in essence. Regardless, it’s a strategic way at inserting the skills you wish to use more often, at the possible cost of getting rid of something you may want, or hopefully something you don’t need.
R'lyeh Road is definitely one of the cooler aspects the game has to offer. Touting itself as one of the "largest dungeons in history," it's essentially an ever-expanding labyrinth of dungeons that continues to build upon itself with the number of mysteries you solve. 99 mysteries solved = 99 levels, in short. Each floor has a riddle or puzzle to solve, and the progression to the floors below rests with you taking an item known as the Trapezohedron. Each floor has one, and each floor (and Trapezohedron) is guarded by Nyarlathotep. Rather than being represented as a "tall, swarthy man, who resembles an Egyptian pharaoh" this portrayal is very otherworldly, and resembles a large membrane surrounded by tentacles. The moment you retrieve the Trapezohedron from that floor, it sends Nyarlathotep on the hunt, and each floor becomes an tense game of cat and mouse. It is possible to avoid or trick it into searching another portion of the floor, allowing you to swiftly move past it. However, as the floors progress it becomes harder and harder to do so, and eventually you will have to encounter it. At first, it's painfully tough to beat. However, going back to my previous gripe with regards to the ease of becoming overpowered, the first few floors become a breeze, and Nyarlathotep becomes far more manangeable.
The visuals for the game are a bit of a mixed bag. What I’ve loved with the Person series, and the SMT games in general, is that they do a pretty good job offering some uniquely designed dungeons and some impressive creature designs. Unfortunately, the background level designs for the Layers and environments feel too repetitive in some cases. It’s great to hear the histories behind where you’re going in Japan, but then you cut to the actual Layer and it can be far too familiar to another Layer you’ve explored. That's not to say they aren't distinguishable; some do have genuinely unique aesthetics that stand out from the rest; the Mount Fuji Layer immediately comes to mind. However Akibahara and Minakamiyama feel far too familiar, as they're both still underground tunnels in essence. Some of these Layers have some unique looking vistas, however some are also far too visually similar that they don't go unnoticed. Conversely, each layer has some unique gimmick or puzzle that you need to solve to progress further. Minakamiyama's later floors are blocked by magma, and so you need to find a way to cool it down; Umeda relies on the movement of storage crates to open up new paths.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, the game does a great job in sprinkling some history within the game's world; for instance, one map is in Minakamiyama, and explains the historical significance of it as a military facility back in World War II. The tunnels were built to house the Imperial Palace, but the soil couldn't support the scheme, forcing them to then change the tunnels into storage facilities. This served as background information to one of your investigations, as there were reports of "ghosts-lightings" seen in northern Nagano, which eventually led to the discovery of a Layer within the abandoned tunnels. A lot of these backstories are what really drove my genuine intrigue and want to continue exploring the game's world, and how it weaves religious (or horror) works within the fabric of Japan and Japanese history and folklore.
Overall, despite its flaws, I ended up genuinely enjoying The Lost Child. It left me wanting in a few aspects of the game, like some of its pacing, and padding with some of its puzzles. That being said, I can’t seem to stop playing it. Maybe I have a penchant for the repetitiveness of the dungeon crawling, or maybe I just really want to like it despite feeling like it’s a pale shadow of better games in the genre. Regardless, it says a lot about a game that holds your attention for so long, so much so that I haven’t really had an urge to play anything else since. If you’re starved from something to play, or just want to try a JRPG with a unique marriage of Shin Megami Tensei meets Call of Cthulhu, The Lost Child should definitely keep you entertained.The Lost Child was reviewed using a Switch Digital Copy provided by NIS America. You can find additional information about Gaming Union's ethics policy here.
|Really liked the blending of Lovecraft's Cthulhu with Christianity, Egyptian Polytheism, and Buddhism, told from the perspective of an Occult Journalist.|
|Some of the Astral designs are twisted and impressively drawn.|
|Getting a taste of Japanese folklore, and historical marvels like Minakamiyama's purpose in WWII, for example.|
|Fragmented storytelling can really take you out of the experience, when you're left retreading your steps. That being said, the story takes some pretty cool twists and turns.|
|Becoming overpowered can be fairly easy to accomplish and almost eliminates any real challenge early on, excluding boss fights.|