A confident and creatively crafted action adventure, El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron boasts one of the most striking and varied visual styles we've ever encountered. Its gameplay never quite reaches the dizzying heights of its artistic endeavour, but does a good enough job of contextualising the game's bizarre and intriguing journey.
El Shaddai is one of the best looking games we've played all year. It's key to get that point out of the way from the beginning, because it really is the game's most attractive proposition. From the outset you're thrust into beautifully realised worlds, packed with throbbing colours and thick, swirling brush strokes. It never stands still, pushing you between picturesque water colour labyrinths and eye-catching carnival skylines before you've had time to tire of what's come before. The game is an artistic and visual triumph in every regard.
El Shaddai's based (loosely) on The Book Of Enoch, a classical religious text that's largely shunned from the 'true' Biblical canon. The narrative development is a bit hokey, opting for cryptic storytelling devices as opposed to being upfront. The gist is that protagonist Enoch has spent time in Heaven while God cleansed the Earth in a great flood. Unfortunately a number of Angels have fallen to Earth and are threatening to mess things up again. In order to prevent another great flood, God sends Enoch down to Earth to tidy up and send the fallen Angels back to Heaven for judgement.
Even though the plot isn't always brilliantly handled, it's a cool premise and it lends itself perfectly to the structure of a video game. Joining Enoch is Lucifel, a sharp-suited Angel who acts as your guide — and save point — throughout much of the game. Oh, he has a mobile phone too, which he uses to relay your progress back to God. El Shaddai is a game not afraid to show its personality, a point which can be emphasised by a beautiful scene in which Lucifel explains the "brilliance" of the umbrella to Enoch as rain lashes down on the duo.
The majority of the game has you navigating a tower built by the fallen Angels, with each level representing a different Angel. This gives the game its structure, and also its designers the opportunity to go mad. See, each stage has a unique visual style designed to represent the personality and characteristics of its owner, and so the game never stands still, constantly switching up its art direction and challenging with new ideas.
While El Shaddai includes platforming components, the bulk of the game revolves around simple combat arenas in which you must purify a range of different foes. These antagonists come in a variety of looks and styles, from long-limbed blobs through to sharp-edged robots. And pigs.
The combat manifests itself around three commands: jump, block, attack. Though it presents itself as a button-basher, El Shaddai actually demands much more considerate use of the buttons. Like Bayonetta the game relies on timing, so it's the subtle pauses in your commands that will allow you to break enemy guards and really do some damage.
The game also cleverly introduces three different weapons: the Arch, the Gale, and the Veil. These are fancy names for three very common archetypes — the all-round weapon, the ranged weapon, and the powerful but slow weapon — but it's the way the weapons are implemented that is smart. Unlike in other brawlers you can only carry one weapon at a time, and you need to steal them from foes as you go. This opens up a number of interesting combat encounters, requiring you to think out your order of attack in order to ensure you have the right weapons at the right times.
The game has a rock-paper-scissors type backbone, with each weapon working differently against other weapons. Picking the right 'route' through foes is where much of El Shaddai's challenge lies, and that's where the beauty of the combat itself lies. Boss battles are decent too, though many of the conflicts with the fallen Angels are bizarre in that they can't be won. Which is never cool.
The game deserves credit for introducing a combat system that's deviously simplistic on the surface, while devilishly challenging underneath. The single attack button combat mechanic is a brave but brilliant one, and it's a system that grows in confidence as the campaign progresses.
It's not really the combat nor the visuals that make El Shaddai such a treat though. It's the game's ability to keep you on the tip of your toes and guide you through landscapes that you may never have experienced before that's the true underlying strength. El Shaddai meanders through such unexpected twists and turns that it's hard not to fall in love with the experience. It's completely matter-of-fact in its madness too — there's an authenticity to the experience that's quirky and contrary. The game feels like it's saying "So what?" each and every time it does something outlandish and nonsensical.
El Shaddai is imaginative and fearless from beginning to end. Its core elements aren't always as engrossing as its visual design, but the gameplay often feels like a window into the game's artistic endeavour, and for that it's unmissable. With a concise campaign, compelling content and an abundance for the unexpected, El Shaddai comes heavily recommended.