For as little mainstream coverage as it's gotten, I'm surprised I both remembered and desired to play Ignition Entertainment's forthcoming hack and slash effort, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. Actually, scratch that. With just how amazingly distinctive the look of this game is, I couldn't help remember it from way back in E3 of 2010. Now, one year, one Giant Bomb quick look, and one XBLA download later, I got to play the game for myself (well a demo anyway).
An adaptation of "The Book of Enoch", an ancient Hebrew religious text, El Shaddai is as eclectic in subtext as it is in visual flair. Sadly, none of the story details really make it into the demo, and so if you're not well informed, you're probably going to be scratching your head at some of the stranger aspects included here. All you really need to know is you play as heaven's scribe, Enoch. He's been sent to Earth equipped with God's finest armor, weaponry, and blue jeans in a last ditch attempt to get a group or rogue angels to return to heaven. If Enoch fails, God floods Earth. Bummer.
But even if Earth teeters on the brink of oblivion, you'd never know it because of El Shaddai's amazingly abstract interpretation it puts on all its visuals. This is just a demo, but El Shaddai is undeniably a beautiful game. I really can't praise enough just how much the ethereal look of El Shaddai can sell you on its world and even on its gameplay. It's both primordial and post-modern, and it looks gorgeous.
But good looks does not a good game make. Luckily, on top of having extremely solid, fluid, and responsive hack and slash gameplay, El Shaddai's got a couple of tricks up its sleeve. Firstly, combat in El Shaddai is handled by one button. While that may seem odd for an action game, it actually works quite well with game's second mechanic, weapon trading. Enoch will wield a total of three separate weapons in El Shaddai (though only two are seen in the demo), but can only carry one at a time and switch strategically by disarming enemies or grabbing one from certain points in the level. These each have unique properties; the Arch is your standard sword, while the Gail is a long-range projectile type weapon; and when combined with varied button presses and contextual factors, the combat becomes fast and frenetic.
Shaddai's minimalist approach continues with a lack of HUD, instead opting for visual clues to tell you when Enoch needs some help. Take damage, and Enoch's armor will start to chip away. Attack to much with your holy weapon, and it'll need to be purified or exchanged for a new one. These kind of things help preserve El Shaddai's beautiful aesthetic while staying functional.
That isn't to say everything about my time with the El Shaddai demo was positive. While the one button combat functioned incredibly well, it can be a tad difficult to execute your intended actions whilst under the pressure of a tight battle situation. Also, the demo doesn't provide any kind of context or hint for a progression system. While that's not a game breaker in the least, hack and slashers certainly have a curse of falling into repetition. That could be exacerbated if Shaddai if you're not constantly moving towards new talents and abilities.
Aside from those minor concerns this extremely short, but undeniably enticing preview of a beautiful action game is one that anybody with some kind of online access needs to download. At only about 700 MB (on XBLA), it's a quick download that's well worth the time. I'm more intrigued than ever for El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, and am definitely looking to pick this up when it's released July 26th.