All style, flash and flair; not much substance
Takeyasu Sawaki is known for making visually striking video games. As the lead character designer for Okami, he implemented an incredible artistic vision to a story about the goddess Amaratsu who travels to the realm of Man in the form of a white wolf in order to cleanse the land of evil. Stepping away from his character design role, Sawaki would lead the production of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron which loosely adapts the Book of Enoch, an ancient Biblical text. Sawaki's artistic design is clearly the game's centerpiece as he renders a breathtakingly beautiful vision of a world ruled by fallen angels.
The story of El Shaddai is lifted from the Book of Enoch, a Jewish text that tells the story of Noah's great grandfather. Enoch, a human who has been granted the ability to see Heaven and its hosts, is commanded by God to walk the Earth and bring back seven fallen angels who have positioned themselves to be objects of human worship. As a means to earn more Old Testament-style Godly wrath, the fallen have created a holy tower (a la the Tower of Babel) and allowed humans to breed with them, thus creating the Nephilim, blob-like creatures that have a unique quirk - the Nephilim are consuming each other and as a result, they turn into deadly Fire Nephilim and threaten to scorch the Earth. Enoch must subdue and imprison these angels before God decides to unleash a flood that will destroy all life. Aiding Enoch in his quest are the archangels Michael, Uriel, Raphael and Gabriel who watch over him and aid in his quest. God has also sent the angel Lucifel to monitor Enoch's progress and has frequent chats with Him on his cellphone (yep).
Visually, El Shaddai is extraordinarily gorgeous looking game. Sawaki has been given a free hand to create arresting worlds that are unlike anything seen in a game before. Although Enoch is essentially climbing a tower, each of the seven realms are given unique styles that range from TRON-like megacities to...well, I can't really explain them that well, honestly. Check out this Google Images link to get a better idea of what the game looks like. Most levels will often switch from a 3D perspective to 2D, turning the game into an old style platformer. As a side note, what's with all the 2D side scrolling these days? El Shaddai joins Alice: Madness Returns and Shadows of the Damned in featuring side scrolling levels. I guess everything that's old is new again (once again).
As striking and bold as the game's visual design is, the same can't really be said for the actual gameplay, especially once you get to later chapters. Much has been said about the combat being strategic, that you must choose the right weapon for the situation, but I have yet to face a situation where the sword doesn't act anything less than the right tool for every job. As you move throughout levels, combat is a hack and slash affair that involves Enoch fending off ambushes by mobs of enemies. At the start of each tower, Enoch has no weapons, but he can steal them from enemies by stunning them during a fight. There are only three weapons for Enoch to use: the Arch (a sword), the Gail (a projectile) and the Veil (a sort of shield/gauntlet). As he fights, Enoch's weapons will become corrupt and will need to be purified which, easily enough, is accomplished by a quick press of the LB button. Lucifel will often allude to the fact that you, the player, must choose the right weapon to use against particular enemies. However, I've been doing just fine with the Arch sword and have yet to encounter a fight that has been too difficult. Admittedly, I am playing the game on Easy. When it comes to bosses, I just stick with the Gail and find them defeated in no time. There are times when enemies will block all attacks, but by following up an attack with a shield breaker move will cut right through the defenses. I can see the combat being more thrilling and technical at higher difficulties, but on Easy it barely gets in the way of the story.
There are several platform sequences in the game - both in 2D and 3D - but without the ability to move the camera around, it is really easy to overshoot platforms and fall to your death. Later on in the game, you must guide the hero through a level featuring platforming from the very depths of hell itself. These were not fun at all. In fact, it really turned me off from the game and all I wanted to do was rage quit. It didn't help that the level's coloring looked like something out of a bad acid flashback.
At the very least, El Shaddai is certainly worth renting just to take in the glorious visuals - you've never seen anything like it, that's the honest truth. The surreal nature of the art direction extends to the cast of characters with the fallen angels given peculiar (and monstrous) forms and Enoch looking like some androgynous guy lifted from a Guess jeans ad. As a matter of fact, Enoch does wear jeans underneath his armor (which gets torn away as he takes damage). Lucifel is almost similar in appearance, wearing a jacket with no shirt and dark slacks. The game's score isn't all that notable and most of the voice work is average at best. Still, El Shaddai is certainly a curiosity piece, especially in a time where sequels and franchises are given more attention over obscure, original games. Just be prepared for some less than exciting combat and maneuvering.