El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
You’re asleep, you’re dreaming. The night is cold and wet. It’s the early hours. You’re dreaming a dream no weirder than any other dream. You dream of giant blocks and grey shards swinging like pendulums. You dream of glass staircases, of bridges made out of water. You dream of ethereal women lusting after your every move. You dream of dying, you dream of darkness. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is the escapist, the architect and the dreamer’s dream. It’s a postmodern retelling of a biblical tale. It’s a dance of death. And it starts just like any story; with the beginning of a journey.
It all happens on the many floors of the ominous Tower of Babel, a monolithic structure built by the seven fallen angels – exiled by God for wanting to live on Earth, to wed and bed common humans, have children and live the rest of their days in humble matrimony. Protagonist and priest Enoch, portrayed in a dashing combo of pure white armour, golden locks and designer jeans, appears angelic and heavenly, and is sent to seek out these rebellious angels, or ‘Watchers’.
From outside, the Tower looms dark and menacing. The interior is anything but, as if the angels and architects had a sudden change of heart. Each floor is dramatically different from the last, making it all the more exciting every time a chapter finishes. The floors are so diverse and rich in style you can only wonder what the back-story for each design is, or where the relevance or context is. You soon grasp the idea that this game gives an excuse for the artists and level designers to go wild, and create interesting and beautiful worlds for you to leap and fight across.
You explore an underwater cavern, where waterfalls emanate from the sky and icy white trees hang over cliff edges. You’re taken to a land of pastel colours and abstract structures, where mechanisms work like clockwork and circular platforms hang in the air. You race through a Tron-like city of bright lights and futuristic highways, of transforming vehicles and black skys. Early on, tribal chanting can be heard from far below as fireworks explode high into the night sky, while the Tower teases in the distance. With El Shaddai, you learn to expect the unexpected, and you’re rarely disappointed.
The level design isn’t perfect however, as some floors lack the ingenuity of the more outlandish or dream-like floors. One in particular loses its appeal quite suddenly as the visuals are more realistic, and the environment more familiar – destroyed walkways and fireballs are the order of the day, and don’t hold the attention as well as some of the more visually arresting levels. The scale of each level can be lost through smoke and mirrors, as well. Technically speaking, each level is a very simple construction of a few basic elements, and the flashy backgrounds and colourful filters on the screen do well to mask this. Certain artistic techniques are overused to fool you, such as the repetition of various structures. This may make a world seem endless, but it also helps exhaust your enthusiasm for the place.
The camera perspective is always shifting, as you run through tunnels, up stairs and across narrow walkways, and it rarely falters. Occasionally you’ll walk into a new area and the whole plane will be in 2D, making for a welcome change of pace. Combat becomes more of a hit and run affair, and focus shifts almost entirely onto platforming. Arguably the most artistic parts of the game are in 2D, from the introduction of the Archangels in stained glass window-esque paintings, to the cel-shaded delicacy and cartoon inspired visuals of chapter four, eclipsing the Marios of this world for sheer style and polish. Waves made of wind act as moving platforms and time continuously shifts from day to night, while white flames threaten to kill as crumbling stalactites and rotating wheels of broken stone try and halt your progress.
The specific arenas you fight in are often radically different to the lands you visit, and are filled with vibrant colours and shapes, sharp lines and orbiting structures. Fortunately they never distract from the combat, only complement it, making Enoch’s battles seem more like ballet. Combine this with the furious electronic music and dramatic orchestral pieces that enhance every move and you have an artistic expression unlike any other.
Combat at first seems a largely simple and forgettable affair, with first impressions being that all effort has been put into the visuals, not gameplay. Spend a little more time with the fighting, however, and you soon see it shine. It may not have the depth of Bayonetta but it provides you with a solid set of moves that animate beautifully and combine as elegantly as a dancer on ice.
With three weapons comprising three play styles at your disposal, tactics come into play with the various enemies you encounter. The ability to steal and purify your foes’ weapons means you must decide which order to face them in, and carve out the best chance for yourself. One weapon – the Gale – sacrifices defence for speed, and is more projectile-based, while shield-like weapon the Veil favours a slow defensive strategy. The third weapon, curved blade The Arch, is more of an all-rounder, with an agile move-set and good power. It’s also the most fun to use, as its sharp blade slices and dices with the opposition. Feedback on each weapon is great too, with particle effects and sharp sounds accompanying every hit. It’s easy to settle on a specific combo, however, and you’ll often rely on a set of moves that is quite obviously more effective than the rest, making combat feel a little imbalanced.
Combat makes up the meat of the title – boss fights finish most chapters with a bang and rarely a whimper – but you also get to enjoy a spot of platforming. Not content to hold the player’s hand a la Enslaved, precise jumping is required when navigating across each level. Timing your jumps to avoid swinging blades, leaping between platforms that evaporate seconds into contact, climbing up steel bars and avoiding spikes – it never feels stale, and checkpoints are dotted around so much that frustration won’t be an issue. Sometimes the camera is placed such that guesswork is required to seek out the next possible landing spot, leading to some annoying deaths.
The story, while conceptually very interesting (religious tales are always fascinating), comes off a little flat. Lucifel, Enoch’s helper and guardian angel, is stuck to his mobile phone the whole time, and irritates with his spiked hair and lack of emotion or character. Meetings with fallen angels are over far too quickly, and cutscenes are confusing and lack exposition. There are elements that work, such as the story of Armaros, or Sariel’s deception, but this might be testament to the origin of these tales.
El Shaddai is not an entirely seamless experience. Past a certain point in the game, frequent freezing after kills stalls the flow and menus feel sluggish and ugly compared to the main game. It may not have the gameplay complexity many modern gamers desire, but there’s an argument somewhere that says it doesn’t matter. Play El Shaddai for where it takes you, what it shows you. It will amaze and excite, surprise and delight. At its best, you are enraptured. At its worst you are simply waiting for the next visual to reveal itself. It may be slightly shallow and bare in some of its features and mechanics, but it’s an experience recommendable to anyone. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is one of the best visual experiments of the last few years.