If you think the title of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is bizarre, wait until you get a look at the game. The 2D/3D action platformer comes from Ignition Entertainment, creator of the delightfully weird (and unashamedly broken) cult favorite, Deadly Premonition. There was nothing broken about our hands on time with El Shaddai last week, however. The weird is on full display in both the art direction and story, but the game itself – released late last month in Japan – is silky smooth and fun to play.
El Shaddai tells the tale of Enoch, of the Book of Enoch, which is the game’s inspiration. Seven fallen angels have come to Earth and gotten busy with the humans, resulting in the creation of the Nephilim. Enoch, a human who lives and works in Heaven, is sent down to bring these rogue angels to justice and prevent a cataclysmic flood from occurring. Enoch arrives only to get his tail kicked pretty much immediately, so the powers of Heaven grants him a suit of magical armor and power enough to take on the angels and their Nephilim followers.
Fortunately, Enoch has more than just his armor and the backing of the Almighty to help him out. Also with him are four archangels – Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and Uriel – and the guardian angel Lucifel. You may know him by his other name, Lucifer. Before being cast out of Heaven, Lucifel was a top dog among the angels with a direct line to the Almighty himself. He stands alone among the heavenly cast as one who exists outside of time; in game terms, Lucifel is constantly seen wearing a sharp, modern suit and toting a cellphone around, which he uses to chat with the biggest of big bosses. He’s a constant source of story-progressing information who doubles as a save point.
El Shaddai offers a mix of gameplay, including the odd vehicle stage (which we didn’t get to sample), but the bulk of what you’ll be doing is a mix of 3D melee action in the style of God of War (or, better comparison, Heavenly Sword) and 2D/3D platforming. The 2D sequences are side-scrolling and quite beautiful, sharing the colorful characteristics of the game’s 3D art design but with a more painterly feel.
The core of combat in El Shaddai is built around Enoch’s three weapons, the Arch, the Gale, and the Veil. Only one can be carried at a time, which ties in with the key game mechanic of stealing your enemies’ weapons. Each of the three items functions differently, both from a combat perspective and from a puzzle-solving perspective, which forces players to constantly engage in a game of juggling the right weapons for the right situations.
The Arch is your first weapon, a bow-like staff that is a good all-around damage dealer. The gauntlet-like Veil deals more damage, and the ranged Gale is faster, so the Arch strikes a balance between the two. The Veil slows Enoch down considerably, but it also gives him the ability to block while moving. The Gale is the weakest weapon, firing clusters of some sort of projectile at enemies, but it also gives Enoch the ability to dash, which is essential for reaching certain areas of each map.
Regardless of which weapon you’re carrying, repeated strikes will cause it to slowly become defiled. Weapons don’t break in El Shaddai, but they do lose potency with use, reflected by each weapon’s blue glow slowly turning into a reddish-orange. Enoch can purify a defiled weapon at any time with a press of the Xbox 360 controller’s left bumper, but this process freezes him in place – and leaves him open to attacks – while the animation plays out. Alternatively, Enoch can immediately purify his weapon by stealing the same weapon type from a nearby enemy… but said enemy must first be stunned.
Combat boils down to a single button, with combos derived from the timing of each press and how it is used in tandem with blocks and jumps. El Shaddai doesn’t feel like a button-masher though, not after our brief play session at any rate. Blocking is essential, as is experimentation. Some attack combos are more powerful than others, or serve different purposes – such as one attack which vaults Enoch behind the targeted enemy – and the only way to really learn them is to play around with your button presses.
Simplicity is really at the heart of El Shaddai. You move with the left analog stick of course, but beyond that you really only have buttons for jump, attack, block, and weapon steal. There’s no HUD at all or any kind of character management menu screen, even though Enoch is constantly collecting orbs, which eventually rank up his abilities with each weapon. It all happens automatically behind the scenes. In the absence of a HUD, players receive visual indicators on screen, such as the color change for defiled weapons or the piece-by-piece removal of Enoch’s armor as damage is taken (health is only restored via pickups).
The play is just one half of what makes El Shaddai feel like a worthwhile experience. The game’s unique art style is equally important. Over the course of 12 acts, Enoch explores a variety of locations. Our play session saw him leaping from platform to platform high above the City of Martyrs as he made his way to the Tower of Babel. The dark sky and multi-colored fireworks-like displays give the impression of a 3D game world inspired by Super Stardust HD. Every location is markedly different from the last one in terms of presentation, right down to the music from Monster Hunter composer Masato Kouda.
It seems that we have yet another summer video game release to look forward to in El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. The Japanese import, built on the Gamebryo engine by former members of Clover, Konami, and Square Enix, was built with an eye toward making a more accessible take on Devil May Cry. Whether or not it’s a top-to-bottom success will have to wait for the final reviews, but last week’s short play session showed off an immediately entertaining and accessible game that we can’t wait to put in more time with.