Review: El Shaddai - The Ascension of the Metatron (12) / Developer: UTV Ignition Entertainment / Format: PS3, Xbox 360
Japanese creators have always found a mine of creative possibilities from western religious and theological texts. Perhaps through unfamiliarity on a daily basis, Japanese anime, manga, and of course videogames have long featured some striking adaptations on the biblical themes and iconography that (in an artistic sense, at least) many of us might take for granted. When you pair the subject material to a creative team headed by names like Sawaki Takeyasu (Devil May Cry) and Masato Kimura (Okami), it results in something genuinely stunning - something like El Shaddai, a character action game that features some of the most breathtaking visuals of this generation, and attempts to take the genre that Takeyasu helped birth in a new direction.
Based upon the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal text from the Dead Sea Scrolls no less, El Shaddai once again uses elements from scripture to take its narrative cues. Players adopt the role of Enoch who is tasked with heading to earth to return the corrupted fallen angels to their own realm, and in turn release the tortured souls of the Nephelim - the product of the unholy union between mortals and angels. I’m not sure how things played out in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but in this version Enoch is given an impressive arsenal of miraculous weaponry from God to take the fallen ones to task, and is guided through his journey by the Archangels, including the time travelling, fast talking, mobile phone using Lucifel. The premise is dizzying, but somehow over the game's progression, it all starts to make sense. Narrative advancement is a secondary concern in El Shaddai however, as the game presents a delightful and ever-changing visual setting to entrance the player while the action unfolds.
Aesthetically, the game covers a vast array of styles and themes too numerous to mention and often too staggering to accurately describe. It really has to be seen to be understood, and video footage alone from trailers and gameplay snippets can do no justice at all. In the space of just the first few levels, we are given icy watercolour landscapes, psychedelic monuments on alien looking suspension bridges that stretch and wind through Evangelion-like giant Kabbala, and a massive futurist cyber city on a scale that makes Final Fantasy VII’s Midgar look like a sleepy commuter village by comparison. A game that makes so many visual detours may normally feel disjointed, but it fits with the anachronistic era- skipping nature of the title.
The character action format has dwindled in popularity in recent years, failing to find the same obsessive audience that delighted in the 128 bit days of Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden. One could attribute the decline to players growing tired of the stiff challenge presented within the genre, that often required frame perfect timing of complicated combo strings and almost pre-cognitive extra sensory levels of reaction and understanding. El Shaddai makes the brave choice of removing the need for high level skills in the traditional sense, and instead implements a simplified rhythm based attack style for this new age of character action.
It takes a little while to get used to if you are familiar with the frenzied swathes cut by Dante and Nero, but once you re-educate yourself and adjust to what the game is encouraging, an accessible but deeply satisfying combat system unfolds. There’s a real subtlety and fluidity to the encounters, and constantly switching between the three very distinct and visually pleasing weapons avoids the creeping sense of repetition. Landing a perfect and uninterrupted combo still feels as gratifying, but there’s no panic induced in trying to pull it off.
Where former entries in the genre would need nothing more than a handful of super combos committed to muscle memory, El Shaddai beautifully combines the fast paced action of its predecessors with a control scheme suitable for the modern age of gaming, and thankfully does it without dumbing any of the challenge down. Fail states - the big taboo in modern gaming - are also taken out of the equation. Slip up in a platforming section and the game immediately reloads from nearby solid ground. If the player suffers defeat in combat they simply have to hammer on the action buttons to effectively wake Enoch up from his fall. It shows a great understanding of the modern audience and the fact that failure doesn’t always have to be so punitive, without shying away from giving you an old-fashioned beating when you deserve it.
El Shaddai: The Ascension of the Metatron marks a wonderful return from some of the industries most talented individuals, brimming with new ideas that can inject life in to the most burnt out of genres. A genuine triumph of creativity and intelligent design that many developers could only dream of matching.
'El Shaddai: The Ascension of the Metatron' is available now for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 (review format) from UTV Ignition Entertainment.