The title of this game is quite pretty but also a little bit confusing which, interestingly, proves to be a quite an accurate description of the game itself. You’re going to have to bear with me for a bit because even explaining the basic scenario is a bit tricky. The idea for El Shaddai – Ascension of the Metatron is lifted from the Old Testament of the Bible, the apocryphal Book of Enoch and a whole raft of other Christian mythology and literature. Don’t let that put you off though, the game is anything but preachy and the set up allows for some of the most imaginative and striking design you’ll ever see in a video game.
You play as Enoch, one of the ancestors of Noah, summoned by the Archangel Lucifel to go on a mission for God. Seven fallen angels have broken away from heaven and exist in a metaphorical tower in their own surreal and mystical dimension. They are known as the Grigori or The Watchers and your job is to hunt them down, capture them one by one and return them to face the judgement of God. These Watchers were the most human of the angels and were chosen to watch over the human race from their celestial realm. Over time they turned their backs on God and fell from heaven and now the decision has been made to bring them to account for their betrayal. Sort of.
In the celestial realm you’ll encounter a range of bizarre creatures including the Nephilim who are supposed to be the offspring of humans and angels but look like the blobs of oil that float in lava lamps.
Enoch is only a human being but he has got the Angel Lucifel with him as a guide. Lucifel is a pretty slick kind of guy with sharp hair, jeans and a really nice jacket. In theory he should be there to help you along. In practice what tends to happen is that you struggle away with some puzzle or monster while he chats to God on his mobile phone saying helpful things like ‘He hasn’t worked it out yet.’ and ‘He’ll be fine when he masters his weapons.’
Enoch acquires his weapons by stunning enemies and disarming them. The first he gets is the ‘Arch’, which is a sort of fiery sword, but he will collect more as the game progresses. Weapons need to be purified to make them effective and each one has a selection of moves to learn from basic attacks to more complex combinations that do more damage. Enoch tops up his armour and strength by collecting orbs along the way. There are no traditional life metres – you judge how much damage Enoch has taken by how much armour he is wearing. The more naked he is the more vulnerable to attack, and if he does fall in combat he can be resuscitated with a bit of frantic button hammering. If you revive him in time he rejoins the fray, if not you have to restart from the last save point.
The greatest strength of El Shaddai is the gorgeous visuals and they are so unusual and spectacular that it’s worth having a blast just for them alone. Characters have a stylish manga feel and the environments are quite unlike anything you’ll have seen before. They pretty much defy description although I’ll try and have a go. The places Enoch visits are in the celestial realm and they reflect the personalities and imaginations of the fallen angels that created them. Landscapes are reminiscent of abstract modern art with platforms, tunnels, bridges and passages that twist around against all the rules of logic and gravity. Disembodied faces appear and disappear and enemies emerge out of the floors and walls as you approach. Most enemies are small and easily dispatched but some are a lot more challenging and require learning a strategy to beat them. Enoch’s journey regularly takes him into larger arenas where he will face stronger bosses and eventually the Watchers themselves. Most of these creatures are very impressive but, sadly, the Watchers themselves are a bit disappointing. Without their armour they look human and with it on they look most like a chunk of Toblerone with a huge eye stuck in the middle!
The first few times Enoch encounters the Watchers they are far too powerful for him to fight. You need to master his weapons and fighting techniques before you’ll be able to take one of them down. This is frustrating to begin with but it does make it all the more satisfying when you are finally able to fight a battle with one on equal terms.
Combat is intuitive but rather limited. There’s no easy way to switch between weapons, you have to take the one you want from a stunned enemy, and it can be very frustrating to find yourself in a fight armed with completely the wrong weapon. Unfortunately the lack of variety means that the run-of-the-mill battles start to become a little tedious after a while.
Repetitive combat is nothing new but where things really start to go wrong is in the 2D sections that regularly interrupt the main gameplay. They are reminiscent of platforming from the megadrive era and really are a chore. The first few times you are asked to jump, bounce and slash your way to the next stage it is a fun distraction but before too long your heart begins to sink as you end up in yet another side-scrolling 2D interruption to the fun.
Where it works well this game is beautiful and exhilarating but it can also be frustrating, confusing and, inexcusably, boring in places. It’s a shame because there are enough flashes of brilliance to make you think there was the potential for a truly mind-boggling 10/10 game in there somewhere.
Ultimately El Shaddai is very much a marmite experience. Some players will love it for its astonishing visuals and quirky, eccentric gameplay. Others will simply be put off by the sheer weirdness and surrealism of it all.
Not for everyone then, but worth a go, and probably destined to be a cult game with a loyal and enthusiastic following.