With a striking art style and a story based off of an ancient Jewish religious work, Ignition's El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is the sort of game that could go in any direction review-wise. As it turns out, it did.
El Shaddai tells the story of Enoch, a priest seeking out seven angels in order to prevent a flood threatening to wipe out all of mankind. Finding angels is never an easy task, even when aided by the smart and stylish guardian angel Lucifel and the archangels Raphael, Uriel, Gabriel and Michael (Hi!), so Enoch's gotta fight his way through a series of magical landscapes, stealing weapons from enemies and hopping across colourful platforms, just like Moses did in the Bible.
I really need to re-read the Bible.
What I don't need to re-read are these six reviews of El Shaddai from the assembled video game reviewers, pieced together to give you, the reader, a glimpse of the bigger critical picture.
For better or for worse, it's always nice to see a developer try something truly different. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is one such attempt. It's a third-person, story-driven action game that depends upon a unique setting and an interesting graphical flair to grab the gamer and pull him or her into the experience. The thing is, El Shaddai is one of those attempts gone wrong, a game that simply doesn't come together despite everything it throws out there. It's more pretentious and muddled than fun and coherent, which effectively ruins its high potential.
With a developer whose staff worked on the likes of Okami and Devil May Cry, it should come as no surprise that El Shaddai features action adventure elements set against a gothic and mythology-filled backdrop. The main character, Enoch, is a mortal given a God-granted ability to traverse the afterlife and other supernatural locations. His destinations in this story are the dominions of a group of fallen angels planning to unleash Hell on Earth. Given the amazing creative powers of these enemies, the path laid out for Enoch is unpredictable. Each of the 11 stages has a unique look, and the urge to see the next crazy style will probably be the primary force driving you forward. Over the course of the game, you'll visit a vista sculpted from ice, an undersea lair, a futuristic cityscape, a light-hearted playland, a demon-filled disco, and much more. While the game has a unique concept and the hero characters have interesting things to say, the sometimes complex story often takes a backseat to the amazing visuals.
At the very base you get to see massive angelic landscapes and abstract environments unfolding in front of you. However, at points in the game you will see ages pass in the background as you progress. You will find space contracting and expanding as you move, teleporting you to dark rooms, crystalline mountains, and winding paths suspended in the middle of nothingness. There is one point where you run across the tops of waves as transparent drawings reminiscent of Japanese art control the wind around you. Branching paths take you through different locales, different time periods, even different states of mind. Sometimes all colour will fade and the world will become black and white; at other times the world will fade to total darkness. But everything I just described doesn't even come close to doing this game justice. It's truly one of the most awe-inspiring visual masterpieces that has ever been created.
Underneath this abstract and ambitious surface, you find that El Shaddai is a straightforward action adventure that blends combat and platforming in both 3D and 2D settings. Although gorgeous, the various stages you inhabit are mostly linear, allowing only slight steps off the beaten path for the rare hidden item. This confinement does limit your chance to shake free of the shackles and stretch your legs in this pristine world, but this design choice is not without benefits. What El Shaddai lacks in freedom it makes up for in razor-sharp focus. There is a strong push to move forward at all times, and you find yourself running into fights, leaping between platforms, and sprinting across magnificent lands without a moment's hesitation. The visual and audio design do a great job of keeping you excited to push on ahead. New landmarks spring into view every few steps, calling you onward, and the varied soundtrack shifts between songs to ensure your ears are just as happy as your eyes.
While it's tempting to label El Shaddai a button masher, there are enough variables and mechanics to provide sufficient depth. You can initially overcome enemies by simply attacking them head-on with no variation, but soon you realise that mastering the system's nuances is crucial. Parrying and mixing up your attack patterns are essential, as is selecting the right weapon for the job. Your button mashing skills will still be put to the test—should you fall in battle, the game gives you a chance to revive if you tap the face buttons quickly enough, which becomes increasingly more difficult as you progress through the game.
A game like El Shaddai is something that comes along only a few times in each console generation. The beautiful visuals, fantastic environments, solid (though slightly flawed) gameplay, and rich mythology combine to make a game quite unlike anything you've ever played. It has its occasional frustrations, but when the overall experience is this fantastic, you will be more than willing to put up with a few little annoyances. Above all, El Shaddai is a gaming experience you won't soon forget, and one that's worth every penny of its price of admission.
And lo, the game reviewers did look down from on high, and they found that it was relatively good.