Monday, March 5, 2012

Review: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

This is a peculiar one. It feels like it just came out of the blue and everyone forgot about it reasonably quickly. Why is beyond me, as I’ve never seen anything quite like this gorgeous marvel. No, this is not just a pretty game with no depth. This is a genuine A rank game, and I fail to see how so many seem to have passed this one up. I admit when I played the demo for the first time I was lost regarding the storyline and battles where you seemingly were supposed to die, but I was however taken aback by the esthetic visuals.

  • Reviewed on PlayStation 3
  • PEGI: 12+ / ESRB: T
  • Reviewed by: Marty

El Shaddai tells the story of a group of angels who at the sight of Earth descended upon it, as they all fell in love with it and mankind. This deviated from God’s great plan for humanity, as the Fallen Angels, also called Watchers, taught mankind things they weren’t supposed to know yet and copulated with them. God sees no other option than to send a Great Flood to exterminate all life on Earth, but a scribe named Enoch opposes this idea. He proposes that he be sent to Earth to bring back the Fallen Angels for their heavenly judgment, in order that the Great Flood will be prevented and thus humanity spared. He descends to Earth and with the guidance of four archangels and Lucifel, he has to seek out and bind the seven Watchers, who are found in an enormous tower.

As you can imagine and as the game states, this is all based on old religious texts, particularly on something called the Book of Enoch. The many names of the characters and angels seem to mostly be of Judaic origin, but I believe there’re also Christian and there may be Islam works involved. It’s all been “developed and produced by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.” Because of all this and the unique style of the game, the storytelling might feel a little alien to you at first. There’re a lot of characters who seemingly appear out of nowhere, and little to no background information is given about them. I suppose this is the nature of something that’s being based on very ancient apocryphal works. Even the style of the dialogue feels very esthetic and keeps you intrigued. There’s an echo effect to the dialogue that, coupled with the visuals, make it feel like you enter this mystified, almost drugged fantastical landscape. The voices can be set to Japanese or English, and both are made with high quality. It should also be noted that Enoch himself is more or less a silent protagonist, but this does not impede the story itself. In fact, it probably took a while for me to realize this fact.

The gameplay is generally very straightforward. You go through each level of the tower, each level corresponding to a story chapter, beating up enemies, do some platforming, and end up against a boss. I would like to call it a timing-based action/hack’n’slash because doing guard breaks requires that you delay your button pressing, and you’ll end up having to do that a lot, as you can’t just button mash yourself through this. The combat is also really fun for being as simple as it is. You beat enemies up, and when they’re incapacitated, you can steal their weapons. There’s only one attack button, and the attack you do depends on how quickly you press it. If you delay the button press, your attack will be more powerful, and if you hold it, you can charge up an attack. You can also make a special attack by holding the block button and pressing the attack button, as well as jump and attack in mid-air. Combine all these to make really nice-looking combos. Finally, after taking some damage you’re able to go into “Overboost Mode” where the archangel Uriel will assist you as you smash up the baddies, and activating Overboost while in Overboost utilizes the most powerful attack at your arsenal, as well as ends Overboost itself. Seeing this is a real treat for the eyes as it involves some great choreography.

There are three kinds of weapons, and they work in a rock-paper-scissors relation to each other. There’s the arch, which is the main melee type of blade, and as the name suggests, shaped like a bow. The gale is a projectile type weapon that shoots green… well, projectiles and allows you to dodge quickly, and the veil, which is more of a heavy melee weapon that looks like two gauntlets that can also become a shield. You can only possess one of these weapons at a time, and they must be used strategically against various types of enemies, depending on what weapons they fight with. With frequent use of the weapons, they gather vileness, shown by turning red or dark, and must then be purified to become effective again. This is done with another button. There’s no real targeting system other than manual controls, so I guess that leaves something to wish for, but I would rather have full manual control than Enoch auto-target the closest enemy as per Crisis Core for example. I guess what I’m saying is that you sometimes end up hitting thin air, so it can be a little precise at times. There are times you wish there were a Z-target function or similar.

The boss fights are also great. You’re usually given the opportunity to use any weapon and to try and find out which weapon is effective against them, but there’s also an item that I think you’re randomly given now and then that lets you see what weapon works the best. It’s also not solely about beating the hell out of them, but some strategy comes into play as well, like luring a bull-type boss to rush into a wall, so that it becomes dazed and vulnerable to attack. As I mentioned in my introductory statement, there are sometimes “mock fights” with the Watchers, as you progress through their levels. The real purpose behind these remain a little bit of a mystery to me because I believe you can’t do anything other than lose them, at least I never seemed to win any, and they appear quite randomly as well. I believe it’s basically just to add some dialogue into a game that otherwise wouldn’t have a lot of interaction. Regardless, they are not as bad as they sound, and they are still over quickly.

There’s no HUD in the game (on your first run), so taking damage is instead illustrated with gradually losing armor parts and a red heartbeat effect that becomes more and more prominent on the screen, and the armor breaking is also true for enemies. There’s something really satisfying about making an opponent’s armor shatter, backflipping over them, striking them in the back, and then upon all of the humiliation, take their weapon from them. Anyway, I like the choice of not having a HUD that way, as it emphasizes the landscapes and style of the game. Upon dying, you are prompted to button mash all buttons available to come back a life. I wasn’t fond of this system, but every time you die, you have to try harder and push faster if you want to come back, so it’s still not like they don’t punish you for dying. Failure results in a load of the last checkpoint.

There are platform parts, and I have to admit that these suffer quite a bit from what could possibly be a poor camera. There’s no camera control at all, and it’s often not a problem, but it is here. Enoch controls fine really, but for some reason, it can be difficult to deduce where exactly you’re gonna land. You have to rely a lot on your shadow. Without that, many platforming parts would be almost impossible. However, falling down does not result in a game over, but a simple rewind of time. There are a few times the game becomes a 2D sidescroller, and it’s then the platforming gets better. It’s not as good as the 3D parts of the game, as the 2D part is solely platforming and little or no combat. It’s still nice to watch the backgrounds float by, but it all feels a little out of place in this game, or maybe that’s just controlling a character in 2D space with an analogue stick, although I usually don’t have a problem with that… Luckily however, there aren’t many of these parts.

The visuals look like nothing I’ve seen before. There isn’t a part of the game that lacks imagination or creativity. The colors are bright, lush, extravagant, and they’re all blended in bizarre worlds that could only be visualized in the most abstract of dreams, and there’s a great deal of variation in these. Throughout the journey we get to see really white ice landscapes, a futuristic, cyberpunk city, a seabed, and a crimson red festival-type of city full of fireworks, in addition to the many inexplicable areas in this game. It’s true that you won’t get to go around in these cities; it’s not that kind of game after all, it’s linear by design, as you actually walk on platforms above them. The piercingly razor-sharp HD graphics lend a great hand here, and most of the time the frame rate is absolutely top notch. There can be slight slowdown when fighting multiple enemies at times, but this is hardly noticeable. You’ll be more overjoyed at how good the frame rate is when it really is good than vice versa. Many fights do take place in what looks like bizarre, alternate dimensions without walls, and with breathtakingly beautiful backgrounds with floating, indistinguishable shapes of objects, that’ll have you staring at them a lot of the time instead of the actual action, even if I love leaping around the back of my enemies swinging the arch in their backs.

Somehow it’s all like a big painting or a series of paintings in ornamental fashion. A lot of the levels apply filters on your screen that obscure parts of it, like one makes the TV render a lot of stuff in red and blue with sharp black lines. This artistic choice is another one of those bizarre features, but it adds greatly to the overall beauty of this game, even thought it could potentially obstruct your vision and make you not see as well what’s going on. I believe some sort of cel-shading is utilized, and it makes the shadows of the landscapes look absolutely fantastic and super crisp. The characters and in-game cutscenes are no short of great either. I especially like Lucifel’s design; both by physical appearance and his personality and role as God’s right-hand man (he also calls God on a cell phone to save your game). You might also be surprised that Enoch’s default costume consists only of a pair of jeans that his white armor partly covers, which is peculiar given the setting and tone of the game. Although, I suppose this game never really ceases to surprise you.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the music side of this is superb. The soundtrack is well varied with influences like African chanting/bongo drums/tribe music, ecclesiastic (I love organs), epic choirs, and atmospheric, void-like, mystic songs. Violins, wind instruments, and piano/keyboard all seem to be commonly used as well. All in all, it’s a very mixed and appealing soundtrack coming from a group of composers.

While a run is relatively short, I would guess it took me somewhere around 10+ hours to finish (in fact, Lucifel even tells you you could finish it in 7 hours if you’re good enough), you do get some stuff for finishing it, including two new difficulties, two costumes, online leaderboards with score charts, a chapter select feature, and some concept art. The new difficulties are the real meat and potatoes here. Although it’s still challenging on Normal, it would likely get too easy with subsequent playthroughs, so I believe there should always be options to make things harder.

In the end, it seems many people found this title lacking. Although, I spit on God of War and I defecate No More Heroes. This is the deity among action beat ‘em ups of that fashion. El Shaddai is simply no less than a piece of art.

Final Evaluation:
9/10 - Amazing Game

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for loving El Shaddai. I can never see enough praise given to this game.

    You're right about it being old-school, I felt like I was playing the best-looking PS2 classic ever, my game of last year.