video_game_king's El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (Xbox 360) review

An incomprehensible experience like no other.

It is very difficult to find the proper words to describe El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron in an accurate manner. The game could best be described as a Devil May Cry-esque action game, but that is only part of what makes the game so unique (at least given its competition). What makes the game truly memorable is the various types of insanity on display. There is little to no cohesion between scenarios, and the game somehow manages to defy expectations and logic on an almost regular basis. Yet somehow, this display of madness synthesizes into a highly gratifying experience unlike anything seen this year, or perhaps this console generation.

Holding the experience together is a religiously motivated story, which performs its job competently enough. The story concerns itself with angellic warrior Enoch and his God-given quest to reign in a group of Fallen Angels. These Fallen Angels have created a type of Heaven-on-Earth for those willing to share in the love that God does not approve. Such a statement makes two things clear about El Shaddai: first, it is a heavily religious game. In fact, the multicultural warning at the beginning of the game merely hints at the religious imagery on display in the game. The writers at UTV Ignition managed to compile as many references to the Bible as possible into this game. Both villains and unseen mentors draw influence from Biblical figures (Ezekial, Raphael, Uriel, etc.) and the game offers its own interpretation of Biblical concepts in great detail ( Nephilim are the most prevalent example). Yet the greater focus is on the theme of love in its various forms. After all, the Fallen Angels created their utopia out of love of humans, something they are not afraid to profess. It is El Shaddai’s job to inform the player as to why God does not approve of this love. It is interesting, then, that, to a certain extent, El Shaddai portrays God and his allies as against love in general. Ignoring the religious issues at hand, much of the actions on behalf of God come across as insensitive and unfeeling. This becomes especially apparent at the beginning of chapter 8, when Lucifel (God’s messenger, unrelated to Lucifer) insults a Fallen Angel while he experiences genuine grief.

 Some of the platforming levels feel more at home in a Kirby game than a combat-oriented game like El Shaddai.
However, despite the large amount of (sadly unskippable) story, it only serves to justify and unite the game’s myriad of scenarios. Other than that, for much of the game, there is little to nothing holding together the various scenarios throughout the game, which is largely the beauty of El Shaddai. Such a special brand of fey lunacy is clear from the onset, when the game suggests an ancient/medieval setting. Despite this, Lucifel dresses in modern fashion and regularly calls God on an iPhone, and underneath Enoch’s armor lie only a pair of denim jeans. This example is actually very tame compared to what else El Shaddai has to offer. It is very hard to call El Shaddai a logically consistent game; it somehow manages to find a new way to present itself with each chapter. One part of the game could focus on vibrant, Kirby-esque platforming levels, while another could present a sci-fi environment more at home in Final Fantasy VII. The game will always find a way to surprise you in some way, yet still manages to present each aspect without faltering in any major way. Each section is receives its due amount of growth, helping to create a very memorable experience.

Certainly, one of the greatest contributors to this incredibly unique feel is the art style, which, much like the aforementioned scenarios, offers a type of experience unlike anything before it. The game uses every known art style throughout: it begins with cel-shading reminiscent of Catherine, but moves into playing with many different filters. On display are environments with high contrast lighting, outlined objects, pleasing blending of colors, experimenting with shapes, and even some areas that come off as conventional and normal, in comparison. (Obviously, this is not all at once.) It is hard to ignore that El Shaddai looks great. Even on a technical level, it looks amazing; every aspect of the game is smooth and refined, from the models and textures to the animations. Better yet, not once is there a moment of slowdown, making it easier to appreciate all the visual oddities on display, especially with the lack of an intrusive HUD of any type.

This game does not feature a HUD of any type, at least not at first. This is not as bad as it seems, since this means it is easier to focus on the art design.
Yet despite its unique brand of craziness, El Shaddai’s underlying gameplay mechanics are both recognizable and very well executed. At heart, it is a Devil May Cry-esque action game, which means that it has on display many options for combat. The game features three weapons: an all-around balanced Arch, a long-range combat-oriented Gale, and a defensive shield called the Veil. Although this may seem lacking, each weapon has a great variety of moves available, and every one can be used to set up very satisfying combos. While the combos cannot spread between weapons because of the lack of weapon switching, El Shaddai finds another option which surpasses immediate weapon switching entirely: stealing enemy weapons. Overuse of a single weapon will lower the damage it does (and sometimes risks breaking the weapon itself) and requires purification to restore it to its original state. Although not terribly useful on its own, it is a great motivation for stealing an enemy’s weapon. Not only does this add a lot to the fluid combat, but also adds a dimension of strategy. After all, not only is it important to steal the right weapon for a given situation, but also to plan out the order of stolen weapons (and thus the order in which to attack enemies) to make combat easiest.

In fact, one of the greatest parts of the combat is how balanced and smartly challenging it is. While it is possible to get through many fights with button mashing, it is not at all a good idea; doing so will lead to many deaths, and victory will most likely be a matter of luck. Instead, proper timing of blocks and counterattacks is required to win many of the game’s battles. Nowhere is this more evident than in battles against the Tower’s Watchers. While they certainly draw from a limited pool of attacks, it is hard to pin them to any patterns. Instead, defeating them requires quick timing to give yourself enough time to dodge and attack them after they have attacked. While other boss battles fall into the more traditional pattern-reading model, they still require a decent amount of skill to defeat.

 Fights against the Watchers do not strictly adhere to traditional boss design, instead requiring semi-spontaneous dodging and attacking.
However, there is more to El Shaddai than fighting enemies. There are also several platforming sequences interspersed throughout the game, varying in quality from standard to very enjoyable. This split is mostly along dimensional lines. The 2D levels are very standard, playing tropes of the genre fairly straight. There is nothing behind the aforementioned visual design to back it up. This does not hold true for the 3D levels.  By contrast, they are just as incomprehensible and inventive as the rest of the game. The creativity on display is very gratifying. As always, each chapter introduces something new and fun, ranging from jumping between pendulums reminiscent of Q*Bert to gravity puzzles à la Super Mario Galaxy. Even the levels not limited to single chapters are interesting; they often entail fleeing a rising tide of darkness while trying to retrieve secret items, adding variety and replay value to the game. The only problem with these segments (albeit a minor one) is their ease; should you miss a jump (difficult in itself when using the Arch’s glide ability), you are placed back on the nearest platform with very minimal health lost.

That is not to say that the entire game is easy. However, it would be inaccurate to describe El Shaddai as especially difficult, either. More accurately, progress through the game is, much like the rest of it, very confusing. Battles against the Tower’s Watchers often spring up unexpectedly, and disappear as soon as they came. Despite what the game may suggest, this seems to have nothing to do with prowess in that battle; you will just as quickly exit a battle that would have been victorious as you will one that would end in resounding defeat. After these battles come platforming levels which the game has insinuated are optional, in a sense, making it not only hard to tell if such sections are necessary, but even if it is possible to exit them. The (oddly meaty, given recent trends) manual offers no help, instead listing off features that do not entirely seem to be in the game. For example, it goes into detail about a grading system that is only unlocked after the first playthrough, and explains a use for the orange orbs scattered about the game that is not immediately obvious. Worse yet, El Shaddai is an incredibly short game; achievement hunting aside, the game is only twelve chapters long, all completable in about seven hours (according to Lucifel) spread over two or three days.

Despite this, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is still an amazing game. Much of the game is unlike anything before it, displaying all types of creative and gratifying art and gameplay styles. Yet what parts that can be traced to other games do not detract from the game; far from it, these portions are, for the most part, very well executed and just as enjoyable as the more visceral portions. Sadly, it looks as though this game is being passed up in favor of other releases, making it even more necessary to recommend this unique experience.
7 Comments
Posted by csl316

Loved the game, despite an achievement glitch that caused a split second freeze after killing dudes. I'll definitely revisit it from time to time, since it's so jam packed with kick ass moments worth seeing again.

Posted by Jeust

I'm baffled... A clear writting from the Video_Game_King. Great review! I bought the game. I hope I'll like it. :p

Posted by Video_Game_King
@Jeust
 
You haven't seen clear writing from me? You should read my other reviews.
Posted by Jeust

@Video_Game_King: I will. :)

Posted by El_Galant

I hate to repeat myself but, I think your review is well written but the source of it is suspect...I think El Shaddai is one of the worst games I have ever beaten...even though experimental, the level design is unrelated, poorly finished and the gameplay is dull, incredibly repetitive, while the graphics & sound are the only thing that saves this game from being terrible. You can find similar technology in the game Catherine which is a lot more fun and engaging to play.

Posted by Video_Game_King

@El_Galant:

Worst? WORST!?........*calms self down* Far from it.

What the hell does "unrelated" mean? Unrelated to what? The rest of the game? I'm not sure how to take that without interpreting it in an entirely different manner.

I honestly don't mind that it's doing the same thing again and again, since the thing it's doing is solidly pulled off and still pretty damn fun.

I haven't played Catherine, so I'm not sure it's very relevant.

I'll just end it at "all my counterpoints could probably be found in the review."

Posted by Ujio

@El_Galant said:

I hate to repeat myself but, I think your review is well written but the source of it is suspect...I think El Shaddai is one of the worst games I have ever beaten...even though experimental, the level design is unrelated, poorly finished and the gameplay is dull, incredibly repetitive, while the graphics & sound are the only thing that saves this game from being terrible. You can find similar technology in the game Catherine which is a lot more fun and engaging to play.

I love how you say the gameplay in El Shaddai is repetitive and then proceed to use Catherine as your example of "fun and engaging."

Wow. Fail.

Other reviews for El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (Xbox 360)

    All style, flash and flair; not much substance 0

    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...

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