The Gamer’s Corner: “El Shaddai”

“El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” is a fantastic journey from beginning to end. Its unique, constantly changing abstract art style continuously encourages you to progress ever forward. While the stunning visuals’ impact on the mood and story is easily the most exciting aspect of “El Shaddai,” the game features a solid foundation of both platforming and arena combat that makes your trip through the game worth taking without hesitation.

The “Book of Enoch,” an ancient Jewish religious work, serves as the inspiration for the game’s story. As Enoch, you are tasked by God to slay seven angels who have fallen to Earth and have begun to corrupt the land and humanity. Should Enoch fail, God will flood the Earth killing everything on it. Fortunately, Enoch isn’t entirely alone on his quest as he has five Archangels to look after him.

The story is fairly straightforward, but it gives the artists plenty of room to create bizarre new realities for Enoch to progress through. The fallen angels are hiding in the massive Tower of Babel that they have constructed. Each floor, built by a different angel, contains an entirely unique version of reality that is nearly impossible to describe in words. Every floor’s changing art style is interesting not only in the range of emotions they invoke, but also how the art conveys the story.

For example, one location that is reminiscent of “Tron” feels entirely claustrophobic and oppressive. The slick, black buildings in the skyline stand in stark contrast to the playful nature of previous worlds filled with idyllic expanses. There is a feeling of dread upon entering the city, for in spite of the technological progress presented, it feels devoid of life from the start. The city itself, with no need for exposition, conveys that the fallen angels’ vision for guiding humanity’s evolution is inherently flawed.

There are many different artistic techniques employed in “El Shaddai,” but one recurring element of the unifying art style that I find intriguing is placing an image on top of the action. While “El Shaddai” may not be the first game to utilize this technique, it nonetheless subtly raises the tension of any scene and feels particularly novel.

Experiencing the game’s visual splendors is definitely the game’s greatest appeal, but “El Shaddai” is further successful because of the core gameplay’s strong mix of platforming and combat. Both activities are influenced by the weapon Enoch is carrying. In addition to being unarmed, there are three weapons in the game: the Arch (a light sword), the Gale (a ranged weapon) and the Veil (heavy gauntlets and a shield).

For the most part, the platforming in “El Shaddai” is an enjoyable affair. The penalty for death isn’t terrible, as the checkpoints are very forgiving and it gives you time to appreciate the visuals. The 3-D platforming is definitely inferior to the 2-D platforming because the camera is often set at a bizarre angle that makes it difficult to gauge where you are in 3-D space. What makes it more frustrating though is that the various weapons have different effects on your movement. The Arch not only lets you glide to slow your descent, but it also lets you redirect yourself mid-jump. Platforming thus feels too easy with the Arch and frustrating without it.

Counterbalancing the platforming is the satisfying combat. On paper, one button combat sounds like a terrible idea, but there is a surprising amount of depth involved. Each weapon has unique combos tied to the timing of your button presses. Pressing the button as fast as possible dishes out quick combos that are useful for dealing damage, but useless against blocking enemies. Knowing when to delay your attacks is key, as it allows you to pierce enemy defenses and counterattack. The AI can be ruthless, so button mashing will not help you succeed in “El Shaddai.”

Combat has a few extra complications thrown in to keep the gameplay interesting. Your weapons slowly degrade and become impure after several strikes. This forces you to either take the time to purify your weapons or force you to steal a fresh weapon from your enemies. A final twist added later in the game is deciding when to call on the Archangel Uriel to amplify your attacks and grant the use of a devastating finisher attack. The whole system proves satisfying throughout an entire playthrough on Normal mode and is even more enjoyable on the unlockable higher difficulties.

As awesome as “El Shaddai” is, there are a few elements that are particularly disappointing. Though the game is fairly lengthy at roughly 10 hours long and offers a satisfying conclusion, it is frustrating that a few of the angels (essentially potential bosses) are killed off before you reach them. This often happens in a way such that you aren’t aware some thing has defeated them until you’ve already left their floor.

Considering the bosses you do fight are all pretty awesome and the angel boss fights take the game to a whole new level, it is a bummer that these fights do not occur. This frustration is not just limited to the bosses either, as a few other characters are seemingly introduced as major players in the story and then are promptly tossed away and forgotten. As satisfying as my journey through “El Shaddai” was, at times it felt like almost half of it was missing.

In spite of some story and gameplay concerns, I loved the time I spent playing “El Shaddai.” It is an incredible audiovisual experience backed by strong gameplay, cool characters and even a sense of humor. “El Shaddai” is not just an artistic triumph, it’s an amazing game.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5