El Shaddai Review

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.

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In fact, using strategy in the combat on easier difficulties is hardly necessary at all because when Enoch loses all his armor and dies, all you have to do is repeatedly press buttons to get back in the fight. The time available and the necessary franticness of your button mashing increase each time you die so that, say, dying the fifth time makes it nearly impossible to revive yourself this way. I’m actually of two minds on this death mechanic. On the one hand, I like that you have to be on your toes and tap the buttons quickly to prevent reloading, but it makes most fights other than the difficult boss battles feel a bit inconsequential. Couple that with many fights early on that Enoch isn’t meant to win and some of the combat feels pointless, even if it’s still fun to slash at dudes in the air.

All that is moot though once you spend the ten to fifteen hours needed to beat the game on “Normal” and unlock the harder difficulty levels. Here, the designers wanted to challenge the savvier players with a way to rack up points and compare scores for each chapter online. Being able to quickly revive yourself to try new strategies on “Extra” difficulty is a godsend, in both senses of the word.

The platforming sections are a consistent challenge. Whether in 2D or 3D, these portions of El Shaddai are evenly-paced with the action. Sometimes, easier levels with only rote jumping are used to underlay exposition and I found the balance between listening to the voiceover and controlling Enoch quite pleasing. Getting from platform A to platform B can sometimes be controller-tossingly hard until you get the timing down but, with enough gumption, you can usually get past the trickier parts after only a few reloads. While the platforming is certainly fun, the challenges presented are conventions you’ve seen before: floating platforms and spring blocks, oh my! I would have loved to have been surprised by something new.

To make up for dying multiple times trying to get to that elusive floating island, it helps that Enoch is often leaping through some of the most magnificently rendered environments I’ve ever seen in a videogame. The visual design was clearly a focus but I was impressed that the careful addition of sound means the game needs no user interface. The player knows when Enoch is damaged based on how much armor he is wearing, and an audible cue of armor shattering makes it clear when he’s been hit too many times. After you’ve beaten the story once, a user interface appears letting you know exact health totals and the points you earn for each action, but I quickly turned that option off because it mars the beautiful vistas.

The visuals in El Shaddai are just breathtaking. Mere words can’t really encompass the wonder that I felt just traversing through each distinct environment. Like most action games, the designers hid little areas that you discover with a bit of exploring. Often, these held little story tidbits as collectibles but, more than once, the only reward was just a different view of the gorgeous scenery laid out before Enoch. That I felt just as rewarded by a change in perspective of the 3D canvas speaks volumes. I easily lost myself in the magnificent visuals of El Shaddai.

The combat and platforming are a lot of fun, but neither introduces original mechanics that places the gameplay above what the industry has produced before. What elevates El Shaddai is its beauty, but your personal enjoyment will vary based on how much you appreciate the aesthetic or whether you care about how beautifully rendered a game world is at all. For me, guiding Enoch through wondrous representations of the Watcher’s tower of eyes, a nether realm of impressionistic textures, or a room of perfect cubes stretching to infinity was enough to delight and entertain for hours.

Bottom Line: A visually stunning game with simply fun action and challenging platforming, El Shaddai is only slightly marred by the death system and unoriginal mechanics.

Recommendation: Whether you are excited about games that push the visual boundaries of the medium or you just want to slash at some bad guys with a pretty background, El Shaddai is worth the purchase.

[rating=4.5]

This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.

What our review scores mean.

Game: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Ignition Tokyo
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Platform(s): PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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