El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a beautiful game. That’s bound to be the player’s first thought so it seems like a fitting place to start. You descend from the heavens on a massive hand and immediately arrive in a region packed with dramatic mountains covered in brilliantly reflective icy surfaces. Each stage (and often sections within a single stage) takes you to an almost jarringly different location with its own well-defined and entirely unique aesthetic. That variety applies to the gameplay as much as it does to the visuals, too. El Shaddai never struggles to hold your attention because you never know what it has in store for you. Growing tired of all that hack’n’slash combat? How about some 2D platforming on flowing clouds? Want to go sword-fighting on a futuristic motorcycle? Ooh, let’s play with gravity next!
The game’s greatest pitfall likely lies in its storytelling. After some research I discovered that El Shaddai is based on the now abandoned Book of Enoch, which speaks of angel rebels that defied God by breeding with humans to create nephilim and were imprisoned by the archangels as punishment. While actually playing the game all I got was that Enoch was sent from heaven to defeat and capture a series of fallen angels as if they were Pokemon. He wears tight jeans, is followed around by a condescending man in black that seems to never actually do anything, and loves to follow around small girls that ride on top of phallic pets. There are a lot of cutscenes and conversations to be had, but most of them seem to only add confusion to the story and eat up the player’s time. Many elements seem to expect the player to already have an understanding of the Book of Enoch while others directly contradict it. Anyone looking for a good time may be better off simplifying the narrative in their heads to “there are bad guys, get them!”
Combat is visceral and satisfying. The simple controls are easy to pick up and your understanding of them seems to grow naturally. Enoch can wield three weapons (blade, ranged knives, gauntlets) in what is largely single button combat with a heavy emphasis on differentiating timing for access to different combos. Almost every enemy in the campaign also uses one of these three weapons, resulting in a very bare-boned rock-paper-scissors system. Your opponents unfortunately have a tendency to become more and more difficult to kill as you progress through the nine hour campaign. As the fights get longer and longer the repetitive nature of the fighting system starts to become tedious. For players who like to complete large chunks of the story in single sittings the fun may begin to come apart at the seams.
Boss encounters serve as both a high and low point for El Shaddai. The fallen angels that the story is centered around will attack you throughout the game, seemingly at random. When this happens you are torn from your world into a contained arena that bears a strong resemblance to how random encounters work in Japanese RPGs. A short battle ensues until the fallen angel inevitably defeats Enoch with a powerful attack and sends the player back to the level they had been working on. This sort of meant-to-lose fight can be a very effective way of building up an opponent in anticipation for your final showdown at the end of the game, but when the narrative uses this tool for seven separate characters that look nearly identical it loses all positive effects. The actual battle to the death for most fallen angels feels just like the meant-to-lose fight so rather than feeling tension the player will just be asking the game “am I allowed to actually beat this guy yet?” The fallen angels become a shockingly repetitive element in a game that otherwise strives for such remarkable variety.
Fortunately there are also non-humanoid foes to vanquish that lead to much more interesting encounters. Twin armored pigs that mirror the movements of the other in a circular room, a cybernetic opponent that changes forms, a massive laser-firing nephilim and many other creatures fit perfectly in line with the unexpected nature of the rest of the game. Some of the fallen angels even transform into strange creatures once you defeat their human forms. If the developers had removed the meant-to-lose encounters and gave each fallen angel a unique monster form there would be a lot less to complain about with this title.
When it comes to the final verdict I have difficulty recommending El Shaddai. Due to its more glaring flaws I don’t think I can recommend that players buy it for a full $60 asking price, but a rental or used purchase would mean not supporting the developer or the project. Buying a new copy of El Shaddai when it goes on sale may be the best way to save some cash while simultaneously sending some well-earned funds to the creative minds over at Ignition Tokyo. We vote with our money and lately we seem to be voting almost exclusively for gritty, annually released war shooters. I thoroughly recommend El Shaddai to curious gamers that are looking for a new and memorable experience. If you are on the fence or this seems like a game that is outside of your element a rental may be the only realistic course to take. Regardless, I’m interested to see what this developer will do next.
Second Opinion by Andrew Wilson; Quickie Overview:
I felt the combat could have been worked around better. I can appreciate the simplicity of not having to upgrade or have weapon stats, but once you get half-way through the game fighting just becomes tedious and near the end you practically wish you could run from fights. While I did enjoy the changing worlds and the unique gameplay mechanics there didn’t feel to be much payout for me in the end as far as story goes. You don’t really grow a bond to any of the characters while the game clearly makes you feel as though you should, and there are a reasonable amount of parts left unexplained.
As I said in the video review (below) if you want something that will take you for a trip, this game is worth a look, however, I wouldn’t recommend buying it for anything less than a bargain price or just rent it.