Review: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (Microsoft Xbox 360)

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
Genre: Action/Platformer
Developer: Ignition Tokyo
Publisher: UTV Ignition Games
Release Date: 8/16/11

As I’ve mentioned before, games based in Judeo/Christian religion generally aren’t very good, despite the theoretically rich subject matter they can draw from. Instead of games featuring reinterpretations of Biblical concepts and Samson slaying enemies with the jawbone of a mule, however, we get poorly conceived and designed casual games, terrible strategy games based off of Left Behind and poor Diablo clones based around Buddy Lembeck turning into a Power Ranger. Presumably, people don’t like the idea of basing video games around living religions, but if Kratos can make multiple great games from Greek and Roman mythology, it doesn’t seem like it’d be too hard to make a good game from the pages of the Bible. Well, Ignition seems to have realized the same thing, sort of, as El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is based on the biblical Book of Enoch, a book of disputed biblical canonicity… so it’s kind of like the Extended Universe in Star Wars, for the non-religious. Not that El Shaddai is particularly biblically minded either; while it retains the names and core concepts of the Book of Enoch, it features angels in dress shirts, jeans and sandals, and has one character carrying around a cell phone… in a story that takes place before the events of the Great Flood, some several thousands of years ago. Needless to say, El Shaddai is more of a creative retelling of the Book of Enoch more than an actual straight presentation, and the game is better for it, as it ends up being an exceptionally presented action/platformer hybrid that is incredibly artistic and very much one of the best presented games this console cycle. Mechanically, on the other hand…

So El Shaddai, as noted, places you in the role of Enoch, who has been tasked by God to bring seven fallen angels back to Heaven. It seems said fallen angels have essentially caused a whole mess of problems on Earth, due in large part to a massive inter-dimensional tower they’ve created, and as a result, Enoch either needs to bring the fallen angels back to Heaven for purification, or God will flood the Earth to fix everything, more or less. Now, the Book of Enoch, or more specifically, the Book of the Watchers from the Book of Enoch, deals with this concept as well, though aside from the names and places mentioned between the two, they couldn’t possibly be more different, but this is probably for the best, as the biblical Enoch is somewhat of a passive figure. The game, by contrast, makes great use of artistic liberty, turning Enoch into some sort of beautiful battle scholar in jeans and angelic armor who is assisted in his quest by Lucifel, he of open to the navel black shirts who saves your game by calling God on his cell phone. So, biblical authenticity is not the point, is the point I’m making here. The plot is actually rather straightforward, but expressed in such a way as to be a bit more vague than one might expect. Lots of disembodied voices pop up to spout random bits of information that add flavor to the plot, and cryptic bits of dialogue and text pop up here and there to give the plot some personality, but the basic concepts of the game are pretty easy to understand; it’s not the concept that’s complicated, in other words, but the execution. Also, while the game is based in religious concepts, one need not be religious to understand things in the game, as the game offers sufficient explanation of its more obscure concepts, and it does so fairly clearly, if you’re paying attention.

Visually and aurally, El Shaddai is a masterpiece, showcasing obvious attention to detail that indicates its creators were heavily interested in making a game that was unlike anything else in its presentation. The game world is easily the best part of the visuals, as it’s incredibly beautiful, constantly changing, and makes great use of special effects to bring things to life. The stages are often presented in a way that shows parts of the environment seemingly fading away into dust, giving those stages a very ethereal appearance, and you’ll find yourself traversing arctic wastes, futuristic cities, shadowy grey pits and ruined angelic towers before your journey is over. The characters are all very well rendered and animated as well, and while Enoch and the fallen angels you face are the best of the lot, the regular enemies you’ll face also feature some interesting designs and feature their own interesting animations. The game music is also as varied as the environments, featuring plenty of interesting orchestrated tracks, exciting electronic beats, and strange ambient soundscapes to amplify the experience, and the tracks are matched up well to the associated environments. The voice acting is quite solid as well, thanks to some excellent casting decisions and voice direction. The show is essentially stolen by Jason Isaacs as Lucifel, both thanks to some witty writing and excellent line delivery, but the various Archangels and fallen angels who pop up are also very effective in their delivery, thanks to the contrast in their voice work, with the Archangels being portrayed as more flat and emotionless and the Archangels being portrayed as more emotional and passionate, if for the wrong reasons. The sound effects in the game are also very effective and appropriate, and also fluctuate fittingly between ethereal and realistic as the situation dictates.

El Shaddai spends its time switching between being a third person action game that vaguely resembles a Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, being a 3D platformer, and being a 2D platformer, though the controls for each section remain largely identical from one to the next. The left stick moves Enoch around, A and B jump and double jump, X and Y perform the same basic attack combinations, the left bumper can purify and steal weapons from enemies, and the right bumper allows for blocking and some additional combat techniques from the block stance. When you’re in a 2D platforming segment, your plane of movement is obviously restricted to two dimensional movement, but in 3D platforming segments and combat segments you’re offered the full range of motion you’d expect. The game does some minor things to break up the basic flow, such as putting you into a motorcycle combat stage, giving you a different character to control at one point and tossing some random enemies at you as you pull off your platforming feats, but for the most part, it cycles through these three basic play styles throughout the game. You’ll wander around in 3D for a while, stopping every so often in a combat arena sort of zone to fight some enemies, then wander around some more and repeat until a 2D segment pops up, and repeat the process as needed until the end. As such, you can learn the basics of the game within the first hour or so of play with little difficulty, though the game does some things to try and mix the experience up a bit.

For one thing, Enoch isn’t restricted to one weapon, but rather, has three “angelic weapons” available to him. You have available to you the Arch, which is a medium damage and speed bow-shaped blade that allows Enoch to float when jumping, the Gale, which is a fast but weak long-range weapon that essentially looks like angelic floating daggers and allows faster movement, and the Veil, which is a slow but powerful pair of gauntlets that can also form into a shield for blocking while moving. Enoch can’t carry all of these weapons at once, however; instead, you can steal these weapons from stunned enemies when you encounter them or pick the weapon you want from weapon icons that pop up occasionally. Your choice of weapon, as you’d expect, doesn’t just affect battle, however, as you’ll also find their latent effects useful in the platforming sections. It IS important in battle, however, as each weapon is strong against one of the other two and weak against another, meaning that swapping weapons between enemies on the fly can make battle significantly easier than relying on one weapon of choice as you progress. Weapons can also be broken by powerful enemy attacks, however, leaving Enoch to defend himself with his fists, and while this isn’t particularly effective, it can allow you to take down a foe and quickly steal their weapon to regain the advantage. As Enoch uses his wielded weapon, it will gradually become tainted and turn from its purified white into a dark red and black thing, reducing its effectiveness and abilities. Purifying the weapon with the left bumper brings the weapon back to its pristine state, but this takes time and can leave Enoch open to attack, which often makes for another good reason to stun enemies and steal their weapons instead, since Enoch is invincible during this event. Enoch also gets different combination attacks with each weapon, as well as different dodge actions from the block position, so you can dodge forward with your shield up with the Veil, or launch upward for combination attacks with the Arch, for instance, adding some extra depth to the combat.

Enoch can also enter Overboost mode after a certain point in the game, as the Archangel Uriel offers his assistance to Enoch’s quest. During battle, Enoch’s back will begin to bristle with flame and Uriel will announce that he wishes to aid you, at which point pressing both bumpers will bring his power to bear for your benefit. In this state, Enoch’s damage output jumps significantly, allowing you to dish out a hurting on enemies you face, and Uriel adds additional attacks to your arsenal in battle. In addition, normally, Enoch’s armor pieces shatter when he takes enough damage or falls into pits enough times during jumping sections, and can normally only be repaired by collecting angelic hearts from defeated enemies or broken objects in the game, but invoking Overboost sidesteps all that. When in Overboost, Enoch will gradually find his armor repaired of its own accord, allowing him to recover when near defeat or minimize damage in particularly difficult situations, as the case merits, so he can keep on fighting the good fight. Enoch can still recover from defeat even outside of Overboost mode, however, if the player repeatedly spams the buttons while Enoch’s vision goes dark; doing so will bring Enoch back to full armor and allow him another go at whatever enemies have done him in at that point. You’ll need the help, though, as aside from the normal enemies you face, there are also several fights against the fallen angels you’ve been sent to take down, and while many of these fights are just simple “first person to lose some armor loses” fights that end as abruptly as they began, they’re also good ways for you to learn the basics of combat and how not to die. You’ll also face a few monstrous enemies and giant bosses as you progress, which will also make for some interesting challenges.

You can get through El Shaddai in around ten hours if you stick to the storyline and don’t do much exploring, depending on your skills, though there are some incentives to explore around should you wish to do so. There are several Freemen, humans who have not been brainwashed by the glamour of the fallen angels, poking around for you to run into and collect information from if you’re invested in the storyline. You can also find Darkness stages that essentially task you to find Ishtar’s bones within them and escape, which adds more to the story of the game as well as some additional challenge, since you have to contend with the rising darkness below you that can kill you instantly. The game also offers the ability to go back to the completed stages and earn ranks for your performance once you’ve completed the game, as well as four different difficulty levels to face down and complete. You can also unlock various Achievements based on your performance in the game, as well as unlockable costumes that you can use to play through the game again. The core game doesn’t change in any dramatic way once you’ve beaten it, of course, but there’s a decent amount of content to work with once you’ve finished the story, giving El Shaddai some solid replay value for those who find it to be a fun time.

That said, El Shaddai plies itself almost exclusively on its exceptional and interesting presentation, as the gameplay, frankly, isn’t good. The combat sections of the game don’t blend well into the rest of the game and often feel disruptive, but beyond that, they’re also very limited. For the first half of the game, you’re given a good balance mechanically, with new toys and powers to work with as you progress, but after the motorcycle section that more or less marks the halfway point of the game, the game has one oddball boss battle to throw at you before it essentially just repeats the same tricks its been using up to that point. The combat becomes tedious after a while, simply because it has nothing new to show you, and it more or less keeps that pace through the remainder of the game, as Enoch doesn’t gain any new skills or abilities to speak of and the enemies don’t do much more than they did prior to that point. It also doesn’t help that there’s a dearth of variety to the weapons, and you can’t do anything with the weapons to improve them, making them mostly unexciting after you’ve played around with them for a bit. Swapping between the weapons also seems like a nice mechanic in theory, but in practice, it only really plays into a couple of boss fights; you can essentially just pick up the Veil and beat the mess out of anything you see in battle, then leave an enemy with the weapon you actually want for the upcoming platforming section alive and steal their weapon to move forward on most difficulties. While harder difficulties can make for more challenge, they can’t make the gameplay any more interesting, unfortunately, and you’ll find that upping the difficulty doesn’t do anything to make the combat less repetitive.

While the combat might be tedious, however, it at least plays fairly well, which is something the platforming segments can’t claim. Both the 2D and 3D platforming segments are hampered by the controls, which feel floaty and don’t allow for any sort of great or even good precision when making jumps between platforms. The 3D platforming sections are also seriously hampered by some significant perspective issues, as the game doesn’t really allow you to do anything with the camera, and the camera, bluntly, sucks out loud. As such, you’ll spend more time than you wanted falling into pits or jumping to the wrong platform because of the spotty jumping mechanics, which is pretty much a death sentence for any game, let alone a game where the platforming is fifty percent or more of the game, and doubly so when you get to the last few stages and find yourself having to deal with some maddening jumping puzzles. The game also has some weird issues with its revival system; dying in battle allows you to spam buttons to come back, but dying by falling into pits or in the Darkness sections is Game Over, full stop, which is doubly confusing since you can run to a portal of sorts in the Darkness sections but there seems to be no reason to do so since you have to start from your last save either way. The game also has some minor glitches here and there; if you get hit hard enough to knock Enoch out as you’re attempting to take an enemy’s weapon, you’ll go into the fading out state that indicates a forthcoming Game Over as the animation of Enoch stealing the weapon kicks in, and if there’s a way to recover from here I didn’t see it, as the game just… ended at that point. In two separate Darkness stages I was also saved from the Darkness long before I reached the actual goal for no apparent reason, which was annoying since in both instances I hadn’t found Ishtar’s bone and had to reload because of it.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is, for lack of a better way of describing it, an “art game”, IE a game that people who appreciate the artistic merit of the title will enjoy immensely while everyone else scratches their heads and wonders why. It’s not that the game is bad so to say; the presentation is fantastic and easily the best part about it, and it’s one of the best looking and sounding games produced this console cycle. Further, the story is interesting conceptually and workable in practice, the gameplay is easy enough to learn and understand, and there’s plenty of optional and extra content to give the game value if you like what it has to offer. However, and this is the thing, one gets the impression that the emphasis of the game’s development was on the presentation and little else, as the game simply isn’t very compelling if you’re not massively into the style. The combat starts off solidly but ends up relying on the same tricks and elements throughout the game, offers little depth and substance to make it interesting, and runs out of interesting things to show you about halfway through the game. The platforming is also quite spotty, to be frank, between the floaty controls and the less than optimal camera perspectives in the 3D sections, making it more of a chore than it really should be. If you’re more interested in the presentation of a game than the mechanics, El Shaddai will likely win you over with its charm and excellent aesthetics, but if you’re looking for a more mechanically pleasing experience, you’ll not find it here.

The Scores:
Control/Gameplay: POOR
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: POOR
Miscellaneous: POOR


Short Attention Span Summary:
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a game that everyone should probably experience, both because it’s an amazingly presented product and because it’s a good example of how even the most promising and aesthetically pleasant game can end up not delivering on that promise. If you’re more about style than substance, the game offers a solid enough story and some of the best visuals and audio on the market, and you can learn how the mechanics work with little time and effort to allow you to experience that. If you’re interested in content, you’ll find multiple difficulty modes, unlockables and Achievements to earn if you want a game that will keep you coming back for a while. If you’re most interested in gameplay, however, El Shaddai is a harder sell, simply because what’s here isn’t great. The combat mechanics are easy to learn but devoid of variety and substance and you’ll have seen everything the game has to offer by the mid point of the game, and the platforming is hampered by some spotty controls and unfortunate camera angles which conspire to make the experience more frustrating than fun, and there are technical issues on top of that. El Shaddai can be fun, and is absolutely stunning enough to smooth over its flaws if you’re into the presentation, but if you’re more interested in games that play well over games that look and sound good, you’ll find this to be a less than satisfying experience, and one you won’t want to come back to complete, let alone repeat.



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