From its obscure title to the fact that it’s based on an ancient, religious text, “El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” promises gamers something different, but is different necessarily better?
“El Shaddai” (rated T, $60 for Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3) takes its inspiration from the Book of Enoch, a noncanonical Old Testament-era text. Enoch, a human scribe for God, travels to Earth to retrieve seven Watchers, powerful fallen angels who have fallen in love with humans and begotten a race called the nephelim. These Watchers have taken up residence in an enormous tower and, in typical video game fashion, have constructed their own distinct worlds. At Enoch’s side is Lucifel, yet to become the Prince of Darkness and still very much God’s right-hand man.
When firing up “El Shaddai,” which I previewed here and here, you’ll immediately notice its lush visuals. Creative Director Takeyasu Sawaki worked for the now-defunct Clover Studio on the gorgeous, watercolor-inspired “Okami,” and it’s obvious “El Shaddai” draws from that game’s visual tradition.
The levels flow and pulse with the energy and vibrancy of a living watercolor, making “El Shaddai” worth playing for its unusual look alone. Whether you’re jumping along the tops of billowing, wave-like clouds or racing along a skyway amidst a field of neon, there’s usually something fantastic to catch your attention. Complementing these gorgeous levels is a majestic, celestial soundtrack befitting an epic quest to hunt down rogue angels and spare humanity the purge of a great flood.
Though the anime-inspired character designs are well executed, they’re not always a match for “El Shaddai’s” levels. Too often Enoch and his enemies stick out, like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon character dropped into a Lifetime TV melodrama. The excellent reimagining of Enoch for a motorcycle-riding level set in a futuristic, William Gibson-inspired city suggests Ignition missed an opportunity to integrate the look of Enoch and his adversaries more thoroughly with each world.
Though the levels are stunning to behold, they’re not always fun to play. “El Shaddai’s” gameplay is a blend of 2D and 3D platform jumping, plus third-person action combat akin to what you might find in a game like “God of War.” The 3D platforming is most difficult. Because of some frustrating camera angles, the only sure-fire way to judge where Enoch is jumping sometimes is the circular shadow that appears beneath him. But shifting backgrounds and occasionally inelegant controls make things harder than they need to be. What’s more, in a couple of spots, Ignition applies a visual filter that blocks your view of the action. (The effect is as if a small child fingerpainted on your TV screen. It looks cool and arty but ultimately impedes gameplay.)
Mercifully, there’s little penalty for Enoch’s falling to his death, short of having to replay that particular section. But it would’ve been nice if the solution to, “These jumping parts are too hard,” was, “Hey, let’s fix them,” rather than, “Let’s eliminate penalties for dying.”
On the flipside, the 2D jumping and combat in “El Shaddai” are immensely satisfying. Though Enoch only wields three weapons, the swordlike Arch, shieldlike Veil and projectile-launching Gale, the enemies have access to the same arsenal, and the three weapons have a rock-paper-scissors dynamic to them. (Arch beats Veil, while Veil beats Gale and Gale beats Arch.)
Enoch captures his weapons from enemies and typically will face multiple weapon types at once, meaning you must carefully dodge and parry while picking your spots and capturing the optimal weapon for each situation. Additionally, many of the biggest battles are against Watchers or underlings that undergo several transformations, with each form being vulnerable to a different type of weapon.
The combat, which revolves around this dynamic and timed presses of a couple of buttons, is simple to grasp without being mindlessly easy. Two additional difficulty levels unlocked after completion of the 10- to 12-hour game should help players fully explore “El Shaddai’s” nuances.
That said, you’ll occasionally run into fights that Enoch cannot win. It’s common for video games to feature battles the player is supposed to lose for the sake of the plot. These kinds of fights show what we’re up against and get us fired up when we eventually take down that jerk who administered an early-game beatdown.
“El Shaddai,” however, goes to this well so many times I lost count. Early on, it’s abundantly clear Enoch is in over his head when one of the Watchers kicks his butt six ways from Sunday. But Ignition’s development team decided it wasn’t enough to have Enoch lose just once. After all, this is a game about a quest to return seven fallen angels to heaven, so that means seemingly every Watcher and his brother gets to line up in a gantlet and whip Enoch as he runs by.
This fail-before-you-succeed aspect to “El Shaddai’s” story isn’t served well by the game design. For starters, all the Watchers, save for one, look pretty much the same, meaning the encounters run together into what feels like a blur of beatdowns. Secondly, though the game tells you that Enoch is getting more powerful as the game progresses, you don’t see that reflected anywhere but in the fights against the Watchers. At the end of the game, Enoch is wielding the same set of weapons and, with one exception, possesses the same abilities that he had at the start. He’s wearing the same armor, and roughly the same number of hits from the game’s rank-and-file enemies will kill him. From a gameplay perspective, there are no obvious signs of Enoch’s growing abilities, making it difficult to sense the arbitrary point in time at which Enoch is allowed to start beating the Watchers in combat.
This makes these fights both demoralizing and tedious. After about the third such conflict that Enoch had no shot at winning, I lost interest in trying. The first time I got to a fight against a Watcher that Enoch could actually win, it was a surprise when he fell in battle. Instead of watching yet another post-failure movie, I was prompted to mash buttons to help him rise to fight.
That’s not to say “El Shaddai” isn’t enjoyable. The track record of video games based on religious texts is dominated by the Bible and isn’t particularly lengthy. The source material, gorgeous levels and stirring soundtrack will mean the game appeals to players on the lookout for something new. While some critics have slammed “El Shaddai’s” story as convoluted and difficult to follow, I had no such problems. But “El Shaddai’s” flaws are noticeable and frustrating enough that for many players it will be a more appealing buy at $30 or $40 than for its current $60 price tag.