California Literary Review

Video Game Review: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

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August 21st, 2011 at 12:14 pm

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El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron box art
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

Release Date: August 16th, 2011
Platform: Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Developer: Ignition Tokyo
Publisher: UTV Ignition Entertainment
Genre: Spectacle Brawler/Platformer
ESRB: T for Teen

CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

“We’re On a Mission from God”

Of the newer subgenres to have emerged over the last decade in gaming, the “Spectacle Brawler” (as I like to call them) is one of the most idiosyncratic. Fundamentally, these games stem from old school beat ‘em ups like Final Fight and Streets of Rage; you move through levels taking on lots of dudes and bosses focusing on melee combat. But as the name implies, one of the most important aspects of this genre is an intense focus on spectacle.

So the setting and enemies have to go above and beyond mere street-fighting with a handful of ninja goons. You need an ancient castle home to a host of demons (Devil May Cry), or a post-modern European nation and a choir of evil angels (Bayonetta), or perhaps the entire Greek pantheon (God of War). If at all possible, make sure the weapons are either abnormal (Kratos’ Sword-chucks), or used in a way that negates both physics and common sense (Bayonetta’s Stilletto Heel Pistols).The important thing is that the player has to be wowed by breathtaking scenery and flashy action choreography that would make The Matrix look tamer than a housecat on Quaaludes.

This brings us to El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.

A setting ripped from Apocrypha and myth? Check. Locations filled with enough visual splendor to make your eyes bleed? Check. Combat using fixed 3rd-person camera angles? Check. Strange and exotic weaponry, oh boy, that’s a double-check!

Yes, El Shaddai had all the requirements to enter the small, but ever-growing pantheon of this violent subgenre. But is it a glorious jaunt through an action filled Valhalla, or a dull drudge through the hells of repetition and mediocrity? The answer, like that of Earth in the above analogy, lies somewhere in between.

El Shaddai video game

Enoch. He’s ready to slide out of obscurity and into your heart! Marvel at his beautiful locks!

You know how police procedurals have episodes ripped “straight from the headlines”? Well El Shaddai’s story is kind of like that. Only instead of “the headlines” it’s ripped straight from The Book of Enoch.

For those that didn’t take Intermediate Religious Philosophy 2B, The Book of Enoch is one of the lesser known texts of the Judeo-Christian oeuvre; one considered non-canonical for most keepers of either faith. It, and thus El Shaddai, details a notable heavenly event, that of the fall of several high ranking angels onto Earth. These fallen angels lived among mankind, teaching forbidden knowledge and producing offspring with humans called Nephilim.

Though the game makes these Nephilim rather cute monsters (reminiscent of the Ghibli Kodama), it is maintained that they are an affront to the natural order of God. So they, as well as the fallen angels (and presumably most of humanity) are to be wiped out by a second flood unless a human can rectify the problem. Thankfully there happens to be one on hand: Enoch.

Ascended to heaven as a mortal man, Enoch has been whiling away eternity as a scribe, amassing a body of work that would put even Stephen King to shame. He’s pulled from this duty and selected for the task of ecclesiastic extermination by Lucifel, aka Lucifer (I can’t tell if the misspelling is intentional or purposeful), in a rare pre-Satananic rendition. Once he dons his holy armor (and in a bizarre bit of cross-promotion, modern jeans), Enoch rides the seven-fingered express elevator down from heaven to find hell on earth, and kick some angel ass.

El Shaddai video game

It’s a journey through several planes of reality and a lot of good use of negative space.

Don’t worry too much if you didn’t catch all that back story, for as with Dante’s Inferno (a similarly Christian themed entry into this genre), El-Shaddai plays fast and loose with its source material. In fact, it’s so loose that quite a few key events take place entirely off screen or in the background (literally) as you progress. How key? Well, let’s put it this way: Enoch’s journey to find the tower of the fallen angels, which takes three hundred years and comprises most of his interactions with mankind, is glossed over during the introductory credits.

Because really, who wants to see how Enoch behaves around plain old humans anyway? It’s not like that would you know; give him some character or anything. Oh no, wait, strike that. That’s exactly what’s needed here.

El Shaddai video game

Maybe Enoch just knows better than to compete with the game’s real star – the level modelers.

Enoch, though very pretty, is an anti-character. He has exactly one line of dialogue, which you’ll quickly forget was his when it’s repeated later, so he’s functionally mute. While mute ciphers can work, it’s only when they’re stand-ins for the player. Enoch is just well defined enough to prevent that association, yet isn’t given a personal stake in the matter at hand and rarely reacts to anything so he just comes off as boring.

The supporting cast is a bit better defined, but still mishandled. For example, young girl of destiny, Nanna, pops in and out of the story randomly without serving a purpose in the narrative till the third act. So do her clan, The Freemen, since you have to find them hidden away in the corners of the game. Don’t worry if you don’t though, this is just part of a subplot which happens mostly off screen. One which proves pointless by the game’s end so . . . yeah, score one for futility team Ignition Tokyo!

Archangels Michael, Uriel, Gabriel and Raphael appear, but as swans only offering advice without involvement or attachment. Similarly, Lucifel (as in Castlevania Lords of Shadow, still voiced by Jason Isaacs), acts as your save point but otherwise keeps his hands off the plot while playing Chatty Cathy to the man upstairs on his cell phone. At least the Morning Star does fill in the myriad gaps the story creates with some amicably casual narration between chapters, but this brings up another problem – his narration is the story – without it, the plot would be downright incomprehensible. While it gives the future prince of lies an excuse to look cool and sound charming, it doesn’t make up for Enoch, the dullest action hero since Bruce Willis mumbled lines in Mercury Rising.

Alright, so the story is a bit of a mess and characters are mostly weak. What about the game? After all, if the gameplay is good enough, it’s easy to forgive such “trifles” right?

Before that, let’s get this out of the way : El Shaddai is absolutely gorgeous. Each level of the tower of the Fallen contains unique and often totally surreal and psychedelic art design; from neon framed skylines, to impressionist landscapes of floating terrain, and an industrialized highway resembling the love-child of Tron and Blade Runner. Topping it off is just an impeccable use of cel-shading and filters that bring the often insane level architecture and world design to its perverse life.

El Shaddai video game

Hell’s Bells Lucifer! Why can’t you be the main character?

How Enoch explores the bizarre world before him is much more traditional: you’ll be platforming in either 2D or 3D, and duking it out in combat. The 2D levels are solid, but nothing to write home about other than the aforementioned eye-candy setting. If you’ve ever played a Mario game you’ll know what to expect: collapsing platforms, moving platforms and hazards along the way. The 3D platforming though, well it suffers from the standard problem that comes with fixed camera placement: you will blow jumps and fall into pits. Seems this problem can’t even be fixed by God himself, since it’s been in gaming since 3D hit the scene. Oh well, maybe next time.

Unlike most other Spectacle Brawlers, you won’t need to learn myriad button combinations with light and heavy attacks and four other sub-weapons. Here, all the basics are covered by two: a single attack button and a guard button, everything else is timing, charging and combining the two functions along with some jumping. It’s a simple setup, which could be a boon for neophytes unfamiliar with the genre, even if it doesn’t get too fascinating.

El Shaddai video game

I think it just kicked in. Hold it together, don’t freak out man . . .

What is fascinating though, are the weapons. As Enoch progresses he discovers three unique implements of divine wrath: the Arch, a sort of Klingon bat’leth shaped holy speed striker, the Gale, a fast firing missile weapon that shoots floating blades based on Enoch’s dancing prowess (a possible nod to P.N. 03), and the Veil, a shield that provides protection and can be broken into two heavy gauntlets for slow but strong gut-punching. These work within a rock-paper-scissors circle of supremacy, and you’ll often have to switch between them to counter the weapons held by foes.

But you won’t switch between these outlandish arms via an inventory menu, as not only can Enoch only carry one at a time, they’re also destructible and become less effective with use as they become filled with the vileness of battle. You can “reload” a vile blade by purifying it, but this leaves you open to attack. Stealing a new one is much more effective as it also disarms a foe. The end result is a battle-flow based on reassessment and reprioritization as you switch between combat parameters and abilities quickly and smoothly.

It’s an enjoyable system, also in part due to some solid enemy AI, and thanks to the simplicity of the controls, very easy to pick up. However, it also never really evolves or gets any deeper, and by a third of the way into the game new enemies stop being introduced in favor of palette swapped replacements. Once you get the hang of it, the lack of growth makes the battles become rote, and once you get the ability to perform super moves with Uriel, the game loses the appeal of challenge (also due in part to forgiving instant respawn systems) since it gets easy. You can’t counteract this ease with a switch up in difficulty either, that option only unlocks once you’ve beaten the game.

Then there’s the walking. I get that the designers at Ignition want me to look at the hard work they put into their background art, but the amount of time you will simply move Enoch along a long ledge or up a staircase with nary an obstacle nor enemy in your path gets a tad ridiculous. Sometimes it creates welcome breaks in the action, but there are several sections of Enoch slowly ambling towards something glowing in the distance that combine tiring with tedium.

El Shaddai video game

Oh man, I think I’m getting paranoid! Bad trip! Bad Trip!

Still, El Shaddai isn’t a bad game. It’s certainly well-crafted and has at least one interesting hook to its combat system, even if it gets repetitious by the end. It also, and this cannot be stated enough, will take you to some of the strangest and most amazing places you’ll ever see. Places that will make you want whatever drugs the developers were on when they thought them up.

So does Takeyasu Sawaki’s El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron earn its place amongst the best from Kamiya and Jaffe? Does it surpass them? Does it reach, like the Fallen Angels it portrays, to make paradise on Earth, at least for the genre in which it’s set? Is it pure action bliss coming from on high?

Well no, with its repetition and lack of interesting characters in favor of out Wonderlanding Lewis Carrol, El Shaddai simply focuses too much on the “Spectacle”, and not nearly enough on the “Brawler” to achieve true greatness. But damn if it doesn’t try for it though.

Of course, this might be a good thing. If El Shaddai got too popular, it could spawn an entirely new genre of games based on obscure religious errata. Then those would get sequels and soon we’d get to the The Dead Sea Scrolls 2: Dead Harder and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene: Cooking Mama 6.

Actually, wait. I take it back. Those sound awesome.

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El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron Trailer

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