El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron Review

Developer: Ignition Entertainment / Publisher: Ignition Entertainment / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Teen (Animated Blood, Fantasy Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes)

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When I consume entertainment that contains either a religious (eg. Neon Genesis Evangelion) or a philosophical (Xenogears) angle, often those themes are given time to build up over multiple hours to make it easier for people to absorb. In the case of El Shaddai, you’re thrown into the depths of a biblical narrative right from the get-go. It is a lot to take in, not to mention a lot of names to track, sort of like how some viewers found it challenging to keep tabs on all the characters in the first season of The Wire. Yet it is easy to roll with because first and foremost it’s an action game, one that is engrossing enough that you worry less about who’s who when you’re caught up in El Shaddai’s frenetic gameplay.

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STORY

Biblical-themed games aren’t anything new, but you’d be hard-pressed to find something this well-packaged and appealing to those who are unfamiliar with the scripture. Based on the Book of Enoch, you play the book’s title character, a very strong and agile priest who is tasked with returning several fallen angels back to the heavens or risk subjecting mankind to a second great flood. His point of contact on this mission is the pre-downfall version of Lucifer, named Lucifel. He’s quite fond of Enoch, always acting as his cool cheerleader. Lucifel also marks Enoch’s save points and is often on his cell phone, giving God updates on Enoch’s progress, painting The Almighty as a rather neurotic deity. His frequent use of cell phones is indicative of Lucifel’s fondness for 21st century goods, which also extends to the game’s fashions.

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GAMEPLAY

If there is one aspect of El Shaddai that will divide the action game fans it’s the simple control scheme. In 2011, I’m used to games were every single button has a purpose. That’s not in El Shaddai, where the gameplay feels like a streamlined take on Devil May Cry. The basic attack button takes care of the majority of the offense, but there are a couple other available weapon-specific attacks.

This degree of perceived simplicity also extends to the weapon selection. In a year where a game like Shadows of the Damned can be criticized for having a shallow weapon selection and upgrade system, El Shaddai by comparison is amusingly minimalist and impressively so, relying on only three weapons (not counting fists and feet attacks). These weapons are called (in order of appearance), Arch, Gale, and Veil. Arch was the weapon I ended up using the most; it’s a long curved blade that offers a couple of effective combo strings as well as an often-effective air juggling move. Gale has an even further reach as it’s the ranged weapon attack of the game, with the unsurprising trade-off of dealing less potent blows per hit when compared to the Arch. Its satellite design is reminiscent of mecha from the Gundam universe and Zone of the Enders. The Veil is the most defense oriented weapon and is fittingly made out of a shield split in two. Its attacks are potent, but the combos are the slowest out of the three weapons.

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Despite providing only three weapons, Ignition Entertainment manages to maintain a  level of complexity with the combat that will keep your attention. The enemy behavior is about as challenging as anything from Devil May Cry; they can block until they’re blue in the face (or at least until I changed my tactics) and they be mercilessly aggressive. Moreover, they use the same three weapons, so one can imagine what a handful it is when you want to take on an Arch-wielding enemy, while another foe is ruining your combo with Gale attacks. For as talented as the enemies can be, one move that can be truly advantageous is the ability to disarm a briefly dazed opponent and take his weapon. There are very few things more insulting than being beaten by your own fist, so to speak. El Shaddai’s various bosses have their own move sets and weapons, and while some might be easy at first, many also have multiple forms where the attacks are the same but come a whole lot faster. Adding to the combat depth is the ability to block as well as execute counterattacks, provided you get your timing right. Adding an extra pinch of religion into combat, any weapon you use often needs to be purified occasionally in order to maintain its potency or you’ll have to face an inconveniently longer battle. The last factor you have to consider works in your favor. Near the halfway point of the game, you’re granted a godly assist from the Archangel Uriel, who will be able to help you from time to time with a powerful fire attack enhancement that almost makes you temporarily invincible.

The biggest non-combat challenge is the platforming, which can be figured out, but some might find to have a slightly longer learning curve than other platformers. The game does give you enough options to reach platforms, where you have both a double jump and the means to glide for a brief period. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to use both skills in a given jump. And the 3D platforming portions of the game do show Enoch’s shadow as a helpful guide for landing.

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GRAPHICS AND SOUND

There have been enough preview clips online that accurately represent the overall imagination that’s brought to El Shaddai‘s visuals. As a full game, you quickly learn that each chapter is intended to have its own visual identity. The first full level, with its sunlight effects and washed out white, is the most traditionally heavenly looking area. The way one of the areas uses touches of black is more reminiscent of comic book artist Jack Kirby. It’s a testament to these designs that I felt I’ve seen some of these surroundings in my dreams long before this game even existed; that’s how otherworldly these levels look.

When gazing at Enoch and the fallen angels, the wispy character designs gave me the impression of more commercially viable rendition of Yoshitaka Amano’s work. It translates very well to this universe, where Enoch looks quite human but we’re not surprised he is more than that.

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What also allows you to fully appreciate this world is the game’s immensely clean HUD. The only feature that can be classified as the HUD is the glowing red color that frames the edges of the screen after Enoch takes a beating, not unlike the health measurement method commonplace in first-person shooters. Yet unlike most first-person shooters, you can’t stand around to heal. You can also tell when Enoch is getting hurt as indicated by his loss of armor after every enemy hit. When he’s down to nothing but his jeans, the next enemy hit will knock out Enoch. That’s not automatically Game Over, since rapidly pressing four buttons on the controller revives Enoch. It just gets harder and harder to revive him each time, where you end up getting a Game Over by about the sixth or seventh revival.

El Shaddai’s music has a very palatable throwback appeal about it, especially if you enjoy early-to-mid 2000′s Japanese RPGs. Many of the up tempo tracks could easily fit in games like Final Fantasy X or the Tales series. When the music doesn’t pull on the nostalgia strings, it can be surprisingly soothing and wouldn’t be out of place at a day spa. One can argue that these zen tracks do not fit with the context of slicing waves of enemies with the Arch, but they’re so well composed and easy to accept in El Shaddai.

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BOTTOM LINE

While we wait for how Ninja Theory plans to reboot Devil May Cry, you’d be hard pressed to find something better to tide you over than El Shaddai. The narrative might feel like a bold form of videogame storytelling, but doesn’t overshadow the boldness of the game’s visual style and the incredibly streamlined yet engrossing combat. When you do strip away the deep religious overtones, what you have is one of the best action adventure platformers this year, with pacing that is often reminiscent of 8- and 16-bit side scrollers.

8.5 / 10

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