El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron Review
Written : Thursday, September 08, 2011
By: Richard Walker
As the old adage goes, 'good things come to those who wait', and that couldn't be a more apt statement for El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, UTV Ignition's deceptively simple and narratively convoluted hack and slasher that starts out as a study in portentous, preposterous pseudo-religious madness, and then pings off in unexpected directions. You may initially think that El Shaddai is a bit boring and repetitive, and for the first few chapters, you could be forgiven for making that assumption. Given time however, El Shaddai really does come into its own. You just have to stick with it.
El Shaddai is a very Japanese game in that it's inventive and gorgeous to behold, which is no surprise coming from the mind of Takeyasu Sawaki, best known for his work on Devil May Cry and the stunning Okami. It defies definition and is hard to sum up using mere words, but we'll try our best. It's also completely insane and off-the-wall, which is a pretty good start in describing the game, and its environments are some of the most remarkable we've ever seen in a game of this ilk for some time. Effortlessly flitting between ethereal dream-like vistas to eye-watering futuristic cityscapes where you'll even ride a motorbike, El Shaddai is an aesthetic marvel, able to keep on surprising and delighting you at every turn.
What might prove a sticking point for some however, is just how long it takes to get going. With only three weapons to wield, and a seemingly endless stream of repetitive enemies, El Shaddai can feel like a tiresome, button-bashing slog at times, which is missing the point. It might take a while before the penny drops, but when it does, it all seems to make sense. From a gameplay perspective that is. El Shaddai's story on the other hand, makes about as much sense as a fish wearing high-heeled shoes. Our advice would be to simply submit to the silliness of it all, and just let yourself be swept along for the ride. It's much better that way.
"That's for wearing my pillowcase!"
Combat utilises only a single face button, which seems to fly in the face of what you might be used to. Usually, we'd be jabbing Y for a heavy attack and X for a light, quick attack, but in El Shaddai, you can use either of these to string together strikes, using rhythmic button presses. And while you may think only three weapons is a meagre selection, there's a great rock, paper, scissors method to it, making it all gel brilliantly. Again, it may take time for it to click, but when it does, you'll know which weapon to use in any given situation, whether it's the blade-like Arch for its floating jumps and swift all-round attacks or the Gale for its ranged projectiles. Then if its brute force and robust defence you're after, the Veil – a heavy pair of gauntlets that double as a shield - is the way to go.
Getting the rhythm right during combat can be tough though, making it hard not to resort to good old-fashioned button-bashing, which will only really get you so far, especially against the game's seven Fallen Angels who act as El Shaddai's bosses. Wearing black armour with a single giant eye, the Fallen Angels, Azazel, Sariel, Armaros et al constantly pop up to remind you of just how vulnerable the game's heavenly hero Enoch really is. You'll experience countless encounters with these pesky, pontificating bastards before fighting them for real, in some taxing battles of attrition that actually prove to be pretty gratifying, once you're let off the leash to do some damage.
Somewhat less gratifying though are some of the irritating platforming sections, particularly the 3D ones, where the busy art style and fixed camera angle can sometimes hamper your ability to pick out where it is you're supposed to land. The perspective, sense of depth and Enoch's inaccurate jumping doesn't help matters either, and even becomes an irritant in the side-scrolling platform-jumping bits. These parts are equally diverse and intermittently annoying, but the beautiful sweeping waves and celestial light giving way to weird, surreal traversals through cartoon landscapes inhabited by the jelly-like Nephilim – wobbly organisms formed from the unholy union of humans and angels – help keep you from going insane with frustration.
"Paper aeroplanes are awesome."
They're perhaps not quite as surreal as fighting a giant Transformer or a disco dancing maniac with his own troupe of backing dancers you have to defeat while he touches and obscures the screen to make things more difficult. That'll be the underwater boss battle against Armaros then... Like the bosses, enemies in general require you chip away their armour, which provides pleasing feedback during battles, even when a lot of them do play out in the same way with rather repetitious antagonists spawning into closed arenas. If your own pure white armour is chipped away down to Enoch's fashionable denim jeans, you're given the opportunity to jump straight back in by hammering buttons though, which can ease the pain when you're struggling.
On the off-chance that you do die in battle, the checkpoints are always fair, and you're also able to save whenever you come across Lucifel chatting away to God on his mobile phone. No, we don't know what network he's on. Besides, it's unlikely that the combat element of the game will give you too much trouble. It's the aforementioned platforming that is most likely to make you fall out with the game, as they are undoubtedly the most infuriating aspect of El Shaddai. Still, when the art style is so rich and unique, it's easy to forgive a lot, even if during the moment you may be cursing the game.
"Sound of hair being torn out not included."
From an achievements standpoint, El Shaddai's is a varied list, with some simple ones assigned to performing certain actions repeatedly or disposing of so many enemies, and there's the usual progression achievements peppered with some supplementary challenges that involve avoiding going into a recovery state or finishing a stage without dying. Some will just pop as you play, like defeating 500 enemies, or stealing 100 weapons, but others like finishing the entire game – a good 12-15 hours - without a game over screen are incredibly hard. Multiple playthroughs are also required to bag the full 1000, as you have to finish the game to unlock hard difficulty and then complete Extra mode too.
Infuriating at times, and riddled with niggling flaws, like dodgy lip-syncing, badly implemented platform leaping and the occasional feeling of repetition during fights, El Shaddai is nonetheless a beguilingly beautiful, retina-scorchingly psychedelic trip and a true one-of-a-kind game. The combat is refreshingly accessible, yet tough to master and the ability to steal and purify God's weapons keeps things fresh, even with only a paltry trio of tools at your disposal. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron might not be to everyone's tastes, but if you like the idea of playing a work of art, then this is quite possibly the closest you'll get to heaven.
For a game based loosely on the Book of Enoch and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the soundtrack is wonderfully choral and orchestral as you'd expect. The English voice work is fine too, but the lip-syncing is way off.
Truly stunning in every sense. El Shaddai's dreamlike and ethereal visuals are completely mind-blowing and just get better as you progress through the convoluted, nonsensical story. There's always a surprise waiting around the corner to confound your expectations too.
The single-button combo system might seem a bit mad, but it works remarkably well. The best way to describe the gameplay would be to say that it's something like a pared-down Bayonetta, but without the sexual overtones. El Shaddai is almost just as challenging though.
There's the story to complete, which is a good solid chunk of game to work through, and then you unlock the 'Extra' mode in which there's a HUD and a counter for your combos, shifting your approach to the game. You can post your high scores in this mode to leaderboards too. A decent package in all.
This is as tough an achievement list as we've seen in some time. Simple progression achievements are just the tip of the iceberg. Try finishing the game without a game over screen, or completing chapter 8 without dying once. Very difficult indeed, but some might persevere.
El Shaddai has its frustrations and annoyances making it something of an acquired taste, but if you can get a feel for the rhythm-based hack and slash gameplay, and if you find the game's eclectic and achingly beautiful art style as arresting as we did, then you'll be in for a divine treat that's unlike anything you've played before.