Color. Shape. Line and motion. Texture and composition. These are the tools of a visual medium, and not many videogames use the entire set better than El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. That such a visual masterpiece sprung from the mind of Takeyasu Sawaki (Devil May Cry, Okami) is no surprise. What amazes me is that I had so much fun with the hybrid action/platforming gameplay.
Even weirder is that a game made by Japanese developers based on an ancient Hebrew text is coherent at all. One of the chapters of The Book of Enoch found in the Dead Sea Scrolls tells of a group of Watchers, fallen angels who left Heaven to build a kingdom on Earth. Ignition Tokyo took that seed of a plot and crafted a story of Enoch, a human brought to Heaven to learn God's wisdom and then sent to find the Watchers in their tower and purify them. El Shaddai doesn't succumb to the simple Mega Man/Super Mario story of beating each angel in turn. I appreciated that I wasn't just talked at in endless cinematics; monologues and story details are usually delivered while jumping or beating up enemies.
Being guided on the journey by a smooth-voiced angel in black leather named Lucifel feels like foreshadowing. Yeah, I know he's on your side right now, giving the Almighty updates on an anachronistic cell phone and serving as your save point throughout the game, but he's going to fall from grace one day, too. And he knows it. Lucifel is a constant teacher on Enoch's journey, as are four archangels who appear as giant swans and lend guidance with their voices. All these seemingly disparate details might seem hackneyed in a lesser game, but their sum is a deeply engaging story about the grace of God, and the loyalty and love between angels and humans.
But all that'd be worthless if El Shaddai didn't feature a terrific combat system and challenging platforming sections. Fighting the various enemies seems ho-hum with only a single button press executing most combos, making the combat feel like a button-mashing undertaking you've played a million times before. Combat gets more complex after all three of the weapons made from God's wisdom are introduced. The Arch is good for a quick slash, the ranged Gale looks like six spaceships surrounding you, and the Veil doubles as a shield and heavy melee bludgeon. All of the weapons degrade over time and you must purify them with a simple shoulder button press to restore the healthy blue glow in order to keep them sharp. Pausing to purify adds flavor to the combat but it can get irritating when you are pummeled right after the purification animation plays.
Other than the uncommon power-up that allows Enoch to choose one of these three weapons, you can only get them by stealing from the bad guys. Because certain armaments are more effective against some enemies, there is strategic complexity in figuring out whether you should steal the Veil before killing the guy with the Gale, or just stick with the Arch you've got. Determining which one works best is a trial-and-error affair, unless you can grab the Eyes of Truth power up that color codes enemies based on what you're holding. The Eyes of Truth are even handier in the many boss battles so you don't end up whaling away at that Giant Bug Angel with the wrong tool for the job. Despite these strategic decisions being important to succeed, fighting as Enoch doesn't feel much different than similar action games.