El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron PS3 Review

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron PS3 Review How much art can an art game have until an art game won’t have game?

What They Say
Journey to a world that no mortal has seen…

Experience an adventure that perfectly balances and fuses together different types of gameplay – 3D exploration, 3D battles, 2D exploration, 2D battles, and even driving! Lose yourself in constantly changing dreamscapes crafted with a revolutionary artistic style – prepare for an intense audiovisual trip into the mind of visionary game director Sawaki Takeyasu. Easy to learn, hard to master – experience blistering action with simple controls that anyone can learn! Selectable difficulty levels allow both casual gamers and veterans to enjoy this epic quest.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
El Shaddai is certain to be one of the most controversial games of the year, and not because it’s loosely based on the apocryphal Book of Enoch. Had Child of Eden also not come out this year, El Shaddai certainly would have been the most self-consciously “arty” (some might say pretentious) studio-released title since Killer 7. Helmed by Devil May Cry and Okami character designer Takeyasu Sawaki seeks to revitalize the platformer through striking, avant garde presentation. Some will argue that El Shaddai tries too hard to be a work of art, and fails to be a successful game. Others, that El Shaddai hews too tightly to the conventions of gaming and thus fails to succeed as a work of art. The game confounded my expectations numerous times during my first play-through, and I oscillated between both viewpoints. Only by collecting all of the game’s bonus content was I able to once and for all settle my opinion on the work. El Shaddai is one of the year’s “must-see” games, though not necessarily one of its “must-play” games.

El Shaddai’s presentation is striking, even down to the packaging. The cover features a scene of Enoch cleansing an Arch, while energy and light crackles around him. The game comes with a 25 page full color manual, with art, a backstory, and character profiles.

It’s difficult to describe El Shaddai’s graphics, as they flout the trend of games aiming to be photorealistic in their presentation. El Shaddai has a distinct style of abstract minimalism. Some levels may have just one or two colors that shimmer as the camera approaches. Others feature abstract shapes hovering over animated backdrops. The easiest to describe is the second level, where long, curved platforms like the grooves in circuit boards zig-zag across the sky. A great tower with massive carvings of eyes stares out from the background, and the sky shimmers with laser lights and fireworks. It’s an aesthetic that truly must be seen to be appreciated. While the design and direction are astounding, character models and backgrounds do tend to have a low polygon count, so they are nowhere as detailed as they might be. However, it’s clear that El Shaddai has prioritized a kind of ethereal simplicity, so the lack of detail isn’t particularly jarring.

The music in El Shaddai is as strong as the graphics. Tracks vary from electronic to new age to choral, complementing the specific mood of the level you are traversing. Outside the tower, for instance, chants of worship from the people below rise up into the sky. A later level that focuses on the changing of the seasons is a softer, ambient track that allows the visuals to dominate. The game only features English voice acting, but I found this to be satisfactory. The somber, dispassionate delivery of most of the angels fit their otherworldly nature, and your companion Lucifel’s arch, dry delivery seemed only too appropriate given his character’s infamous legacy.

In El Shaddai, you play as Enoch, a righteous human allowed into heaven to work as a scribe. Trouble begins when a group of 7 “Watchers”, angels tasked on observing the progress of mankind, become enchanted by humanity and decide to fall to earth to live amongst them. The angels mate with humans, giving birth to the cursed Nephilim, who threaten to destroy all of creation. In order to save the world, Heaven’s Council of Elders decrees it is necessary to flood the world to rid it of this impurity. Enoch pleads with God to stop the flood, and God agrees, on the condition that Enoch return to earth and capture the Fallen Angels. Enoch sets off to earth with angels Lucifel, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and Uriel to assist him in his mission.

At its core, El Shaddai is a linear platformer. Enoch must advance through 11 levels of 2D & 3D platforming, interspersed with weapon-based combat. While there are some very well hidden areas and items along the way, most levels are straight courses without any side-quests or alternate routes. Perhaps due to his righteous nature, Enoch feels very lightweight, making him initially hard to control. Double-jumps are often required between platforms, so Enoch often seems to be floating about. Complicating things further is the fact that the often surreal level design makes it somewhat unclear what exactly is solid ground, and what is not. Sometimes, trial and error is required before Enoch can find the necessary foothold he needs to continue. Thankfully, the platforming is rather forgiving. If you fall off into nothingness, you’re only penalized a small bit of health, and you’re returned to solid ground not far from where you fell.

The combat system is based around a rock-paper-scissors relationship between three kinds of weapons, which Enoch must steal from his enemies. The first weapon is the Arch, a sharp curved blade that also allows Enoch to float in midair, a great aid in some of the more unforgiving platforming sections. Second is the Gale, a set of mind-controlled piercing arrows that also give Enoch the ability to make dash jumps to far off areas. Lastly is the Veil, slow, powerful armored gloves that allow Enoch to smash some environmental obstacles. The Gale is strong against the Arch, the Arch can slice through the Veil, and the Veil can guard against the piercing Gale. Thus, if Enoch encounters three enemies, each with a different one of the three weapons, it is to his advantage to fight them and steal their weapons in a specific order. If you attempt to fight by mashing buttons, you’ll quickly become frustrated by the enemies’ ability to block. The key is to delay your button presses to a certain rhythm, allowing you to break down their guard and shatter their armor. Though it takes some practice, it’s very satisfying to perfect your attacks and listen to the sound of your foes’ armor breaking like glass. While the relationships between the weapons allows for some fun strategy, it does mean that all enemies in the game are one of three varieties. Towards the end of the game, combat can get monotonous.

A final word must be said about the game’s very unorthodox method of storytelling. In certain sections, Enoch will progress through a level while the story plays out behind him in the background. Other times, Enoch’s consciousness will be attacked by a Fallen Angel, and a boss fight will begin and suddenly end without warning. Much like the graphics, much of the story is told though abstract symbolism and suggestion, and upon reaching the game’s conclusion, many questions will remain unanswered. Some background information can be filled out by collecting items known as Ishtar’s Bones, hidden in bonus stages throughout the world. Those hoping that definitive answers can be found will be disappointed, however, by the sublimely silly bonus that is unlocked when all of them are found. The basic game can be cleared in around 8 hours, after which Score Mode is unlocked. Any level can be selected to attempt to place on online leaderboards or find any secrets you might have missed the first time around.

In Summary
An unconventional mix of God of War and Child of Eden, El Shaddai is certain to awe and frustrate in equal measure. El Shaddai refuses to offer a standard game or narrative experience, instead providing 11 stages filled with unique sights, sounds, and ideas. Clearly not for all tastes, it’s a title that shouldn’t be missed, even if you just decide to watch a friend play.

Content Grade: B+
Graphics: A
Sound: A
Text/Translation Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: A
Controls: B-

Age Rating: T for Teen
Released By: UTV Ignition Games
Release Date: August 16, 2011
MSRP: $59.99
Approximate Play Time: 8 hours
Replay Value: Moderate

Review Equipment: Playstation 3, Sony Bravia 1080p 40″