Religion doesn’t have the most stellar reputation as a basis for video game plots. Sure, there can be loose aspects based on Armageddon as seen in the highly playable Darksiders or those delving into biblical fiction like Dante’s Inferno, but the grounding for both of these titles was the solid gameplay, not a reliance on Old Testament. A mash up of religious views and video games sounds like something out of a school teacher/parent/priest/rabbi’s fantasy.
You mean we can educate the kids AND they can have fun at the same time? Sounds like a pipe dream, and while El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron does use ancient religious texts as its basis, it is so disjointed, confusing and messily thrown together it’s hard not to wonder why they even bothered using it. The title isn’t doing itself any favours either, with “El Shaddai” a Hebrew term for God and “Metatron” meaning angel. There’s no doubt it describes the game succinctly, but it doesn’t exactly grab your attention or roll of the tongue now, does it? I bet the marketing guys had a ball with that one.
The plot is very loosely based on an ancient fringe Hebrew text the Book of Enoch detailing the priest Enoch’s journey to locate seven fallen angels and prevent a flood from wiping mankind from the face of the planet. On parchment this seems like a fairly straightforward idea, naturally lending itself to solid video game design with fights with minor angels and at least seven epic boss battles before you save the day and all of humanity.
If Ignition entertainment kept it super simple - letting you wail on minions until a sub-boss/boss fight - and changed the level design without getting bogged down in explaining it all, it would have made a hell of a lot more sense. As it stands it is filled with boring sub-characters who have a whole lot of nothing to say, long pauses for no apparent reason and allegedly pivotal plot moments where fallen angels confront you, kick your arse and leave mid-level - with no explanation or acknowledgement if it was an actual boss battle or plot device. Fair to say, it’s a jumbled mess.
Those of you looking at the score are no doubt wondering, so let me clear it up. The plot is the least engaging part of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. I just wanted to make sure you know what you’re in for. Where it fails in storytelling, it succeeds in gameplay and exceeds in overall atmosphere. I doubt you’ll ever play a game quite like it, as it looks like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Words cannot express it, but I’ll give it a shot. It’s like a mixture of abstract art, with a flowing morphing backdrop, a choir singing epically in the distance as if you’re on an acid trip. Each new level brings with it its own theme and style that is jarringly different from the last. Early levels will have you traversing a changing black and white landscape with ancient Hebrew text rolling underneath your feet before you walk through a doorway and are greeted by a Fantavision inspired wonderland, filled with platforms to negotiate as fireworks explode in the background. Later ones look like something out of Tron: Legacy with light-cycle styled adversaries and neon infused lighting everywhere.
It’s all just a little bat-**** insane, but incredibly visually arresting. Considering the project was helmed by Takeyasu Sawaki, lead character designer on both Devil May Cry and Okami, it’s of little surprise that El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron looks the way it does, or plays the way it does. It sits somewhere between the two and is every bit a unique experience as Okami was.
Gameplay is simplicity itself. Cut from the God of War mould, you need to overcome cannon fodder and platforming obstacles before getting to an epic brouhaha with a fallen angel. Just like its inspiration, the camera is fixed and you take down enemies with a flurry of hits and move on. You have three weapons at your disposal and can only carry one at a time.
There’s the Arch, a bladed weapon that allows you to float when jumping for a limited period and is best for quick attacks. The Gale, which fires projectiles and gives you a quick dash, is perfect for ranged attacks though it does offer the weakest guard of the three and lastly the Veil. The Veil is a shield that splits into two gauntlets and offers the heaviest hits and strongest defense at the cost of speed. Each have their pros and cons and work better against certain enemy types.
Once you’ve knocked them unconscious, you can steal an enemy’s weapon, a useful tactic to, firstly, leave them disarmed and secondly change your weapon type. You’ll also need to tap the left bumper every now and again to ‘purify’ your weapon - maintaining its effectiveness and removing any signs of corruption from slaying these unholy entities. If you do happen to get taken out, a bit of bumper and face button mashing brings you back to life without the irritation of restarting at a previous checkpoint. The choice of attack combinations could have been a little deeper, but it still manages to hold up quite well considering.
When you’re not wailing on the unholy hordes, you’ll spend the rest of your time platforming - which has a few of its own issues. At times you’ll appear to hit an invisible ceiling and plummet to your death and at others it can be difficult to judge your landing - resulting in guesstimations, rather than actual skill getting you to a safe landing. For the most part, it works quite well, but there are moments of hiccups.
Levels are also broken up by some 2D platforming sections, a la Castlevania, and are simply stunning to look at, often so distracting they’ll lead you to a case of premature death while drinking in the scenery. Some have enormous stained glass windows elaborately designed and depicting angels. Others have rolling waves of clouds that you’ll have to make your way across to get to the next section. These remained the high points of each level and were breathtaking to look at, a true testament to the brilliant flashes of design.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a game unlike no other. Every minor failing in gameplay or plot was cancelled out by a graphical marvel or auditory explosion. Some will love it, others will hate it, but if you like your games a little outside the box and are willing to persevere, you’ll be rewarded with an ocular orgy as you defeat the former heavenly host and save mankind from destruction. All in a day’s work for Enoch…