Platforms: PS3 (reviewed) | Xbox 360
Developer: Ignition Tokyo
Publisher: UTV Ignition
There aren't many games that place you in the shoes of a Biblical figure, let alone one whose place in theological history was excised and canned. Nor are there many that have you engaging in Tron-esque motorcycle jaunts across futuristic cityscapes, fending off the robotic henchmen of a Fallen Angel, or hopping over beachballs pushed by cutesy cartoon Nephilim (it's a bit odd that the bastard children of Humans and Angels appear to resemble a cross between a frankfurter and a meerkat), or attempting to send a troubled Grigori back to Heaven by battling his minions while he engages it what can only be described as techno-fuelled interpretive dance.
Suffice it to say, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is not your average game.
The actual premise is actually fairly high concept and straightforward: you play Enoch, a man who had his own eponymous Apocryphal text, who is sent by God to round up seven Fallen Angels, purify them through combat and return them to Heaven where a certain amount of justice might be served, in the hope of preventing God from unleashing a massive flood. Find Apostates, beat them up, save world. Simples. In order to do this, however, Enoch has to battle his way through the seven trans-dimensional floors of reality of an enormous, foreboding Tower, each of them housing a different Angel and their subjects.
He does this by stealing the weapons from the Angels' assorted minions - I say 'assorted', but there are really only three basic templates that correspond to the weapons: the Arch, the Gale and the Veil. The Arch is by far the more versatile of the bunch, resembling a cross between a Klingon bat'leth and Travis Touchdown's beam sword, it is a fast melee weapon, capable of flashy, swift attacks, acrobatic counters and balletic charged attacks. If you prefer your attacks to be heavy-hitting, however, then it's all about the Veil - a powerful set of gauntlets that allow you to bring both parts together and form a shield as a nice bonus. Finally, there is the Gale, which sees Enoch raining down ethereal attacks from a distance.
Initially, it seems that the combat system is woefully underdeveloped, but there are slight nuances to the deceptively basic system. Timing, you realise is everything. It's not quite Batman: Arkham Asylum, but getting into a rhythm - particularly with the Veil - leads to some very pleasing combos indeed. Leave a little gap between attacks, and you'll be able to bypass your foes' attempts to block, with the Gale, for example, switching to an arcing attack from above and the Arch having Enoch perhaps slide through an enemy's legs and attack them from behind. You have two special moves, too - one will present a modified attack, the other serving a defensive purposes such as an agile leap or shockwave dodge.
You have to keep your weapons tidy too. In 'Purifying' these sinful creatures, their dark taint transfers itself to your holy tools, reducing the damage you do. In the midst of battle, therefore, you'll need to find a second or two to occasionally clean the muck off of your stuff. After a short while, the warrior Angel Uriel will finally explain why you've been picking up orange orbs this whole time, and tell you that he can augment your combat powers with a tap of both bumpers, giving you the option to Boost and then unleash a mega-attack of sorts called Overboost.
Much of your time, however, will be spent ogling the weird and wonderful surroundings in which you find yourself. Landscape traversal and platforming make up a massive part of the game as well, and this really allows you to scrutinise the amount of creative, loving detail that has been pored into the game's aesthetic design. Every level is different. The first floor sees shadowy, inky, hand-drawn structures abound before you flip into a 2D section set against a backdrop of stunning painting glass. Azazel's realm, as mentioned in the introduction, incorporates a futuristic urban metropolis and a frenetic motorcycle section. Much of Sariel's floor is spent engaging in 2D platforming levels that see you dodging inflatables and hula-hoops as the playful Nephilim jump and prance about as if they've just stepped out of a Saturday morning cartoon. On your approach to the tower, you'll be flitting across shining, black, circular platforms and flicking switches as what look like millions of torches glimmer hundreds of feet below you, neon fireworks exploding on the horizon with an ethereal chorus spurring you on.
The character designs of Enoch and Lucifel (Enoch's guide - an Al Calavicci to Enoch's quantum leaping Sam Beckett) look as if they've just stepped out of an obscure anime movie rather than the Dead Sea Scrolls: the former a blonde hunk dressed in fitted jeans and what initially looks like scraps of loo roll, the latter swanning about in a trendy suit, offering save points and giving God mission updates on a mobile phone. Both of them have excellent hair.
But is a frankly captivating art style enough to make a great game? There are games that have toyed with 3D and 2D elements before, not to mention large and imaginative bosses. But El Shaddai's weakness is that it's gameplay simply fails to match up to its appearance and, here in the West, consumers pay over the odds for conservative-yet-solid gameplay over aesthetic creativity.
The variety in aesthetic does not, for example, extend to enemy design. Whilst the game is unafraid to present the player with an enormous robot or gargantuan fire Nephilim or two armour-plated boars weeping blood at the end of a level, the minions you battle in between are really just placeholders for the Arch, the Gale and the Veil. All of them are interchangeable across the various floors of the Tower. There's no getting away from the paucity of depth, either. Yes, it's surprisingly fleshed out for a one-button combat system. But holding it up to something like Bayonetta or DMC is frankly laughable. On the higher difficulty levels the game presents more of a challenge and there's some satisfaction to be had, but you're fighting cookie cutter enemies time and time again, whether breezing through them or grinding out results, it still becomes repetitive.
A note, too, on platforming: Whilst the 2D sections perhaps offer the finest aspects of the gameplay, the same cannot be said of the 3D platform elements. The fixed, unyielding camera makes for some occasional difficulty when it comes to plotting a path through the vertical. This, though, is a relatively minor gripe, as checkpoints are fantastically generous and respawns happen literally with a snap of the fingers.
El Shaddai comes so close to being an utterly triumphant achievement. When at its best, the visuals are exhilarating, captivating even. If you are so inclined, if aesthetics mean a lot to you (and there's no reason why they shouldn't, this is a visual medium after all), you will find a treasure trove of wondrous delights here. The simple fact of the matter is that this is a game that looks like no other, a mish-mash of rendering and animation styles from East and West, sound design and concept art that forms a gaming carnival. It is a game that is easy to fall in love with, a bombshell of a game - alluring, exotic, excitingly colourful and promising much. But although as you progress the game improves, divulging wonder upon wonder after the initial couple of hours, it never quite comes together and, even as the world around Enoch changes, the combat remains resolute and, sadly, it forms enough of the game to matter.
From a technical perspective, it is difficult to recommend. There are a number of games out there, whose synthesis between aesthetic and gameplay are both worthy of the highest applause - the aforementioned Bayonetta is one of them, as is Braid and so is Shadow of the Colossus. As it is, El Shaddai bombards the player with so much aesthetic information, that its greatest strength will probably be weakness of sorts for many - an indication of unclear focus, a fault of editing much like an overly long film or novel, ideas too precious to cull to service the whole. But for those willing to overlook certain weaknesses, for those looking for something that appears a bit different, unafraid of imperfection, this is not quite the game you have been waiting for. But it will tick all of the right boxes until that game comes along. A flawed gem.
- Utterly beautiful to behold, the aesthetic direction is fantastic
- 2D sections offer up a fine variety of platforming challenges
- Captivating in its originality
- Combat is overly simplistic and ultimately repetitive
- Not including bosses, there are about five enemy types in the whole game
- Fixed camera causes occasional issues
The Short Version: El Shaddai's design aesthetic is truly spellbinding and, if that sort of thing floats your boat, you will absolutely adore this game. However, a lack of variety when it comes to the combat sections, not to mention the cookie-cutter enemies and occasionally inexplicable plot, proves frustrating. There will be those who will fall utterly in love with game as they did with Rez and Okami, and also those who are left cold by the gameplay. Neither reaction would be wrong.