El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is an anomaly in today’s gaming world in more ways than one. Unashamedly unorthodox and erratic in its presentation, and eschewing being a bloody brawler in favor of a more exotic and ethereal experience, I have to commend both the crew behind it and the people who approved and published it. Something like this is a huge risk and unfortunately, it doesn’t fully pay off.
The plot, at least what can be made of it, is loosely based on a story from the Old Testament, following a priest named Enoch who is set on defeating seven fallen angels who are plotting to wipe out life on Earth. This isn’t something that the game clearly tells you; in fact, I had to look up some info on the game to figure things out. The game starts off with almost no explanation given for the plot or characters, and does little to change that as it progresses.
Enoch is guided by an angel named Lucifel (three guesses as to who that might be), who gives him the lowdown on his targets and provides the age-old game mechanic of recording his progress. Lucifel stands out for several reasons among the game’s cast.
First, his voice is provided by veteran actor Jason Isaacs, who brings the appropriate amount of laidback snarkiness the character demands. Secondly, his trademark action that he always is seen doing whenever you run into him is conversing with a higher-up (possibly God himself) on a cell phone, bringing them up to date on Enoch’s actions.
The third, and perhaps strangest, is his fashion sense. While the angels you fight against all wear abstract suits of armor, Lucifel is dressed in a hip set of jeans and a shirt that’s half-unbuttoned, along with a slick hairstyle and pale complexion that makes him look like a character out of a Twilight film. Enoch faces a similar problem – despite being a mighty warrior, he is a long-haired pretty boy that evokes shades of Fabio, and he wears fashionable jeans that bear the logo of a real Japanese brand.
It doesn’t help that the well-done voice acting is offset by some of the worst lip syncing in any game of this generation. When characters talk, not only do their lip movements not match, but it’s common to see their mouths continue to move silently after the line has been said. It’s likely that they were animated with another language in mind, as the game’s primary development was done in Japan, but it is a huge distraction regardless.
Enoch will run into other characters along his journey. These primarily include the seven villains, but he also meets a curious little girl interested in his adventures, and bizarre creatures called Nephilim, which can best be described as walking, beady-eyed bananas. The Nephilim actually take center stage at one point in the game that really throws things off balance.
While most of the game is dark and surreal, their level is bright and cartoonish, with friendly cel-shaded environments and the Nephilim themselves carrying parasols and balancing on giant rubber balls. It’s interesting but unfitting, to say the least.
The majority of the game takes place in a tower built by the seven angels, but you would never guess that each level takes place within a single structure, or even a single reality. The visual artists behind this game’s environments went all-out and produced a consistent string of truly stunning locations for Enoch to traverse and fight in.
Floating structures that defy gravity, beams of light in elaborate patterns, and various types of terrain and sky give each area identity and splendor, and are among some of the best in any game this generation. It only makes it more a shame that there’s not much to do in these environments other than run and fight, and that you weren’t always on such a fixed path of floating platforms.
El Shaddai is broken into two modes of gameplay. The primary mode has Enoch running across three-dimensional worlds and fighting the angels and their drones that materialize in front of him. While Enoch starts with his bare fists, he quickly acquires three weapons, one being the equivalent of a sword, one resembling twin shields or boxing gloves, and the last being a group of projectiles that hover around him and attack enemies at his command. Enoch can only carry one at a time, and can only switch to another when he finds a powerup in the level or weakens an enemy enough to grab their own.
The fighting system here relies heavily on a rock-paper-scissors system where each of the three weapons have advantages and disadvantages over the other two. The problem is that this is pretty much the full extent of the fighting system.
While other prominent action games like God of War, Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry brought combo moves and upgrade capabilities to their moves and weapons, you are left mashing buttons and occasionally holding them down for a charged-up attack or blocking. At one point, a more powerful mode for Enoch is unlocked that can be temporarily used when he collects enough red orbs from fallen enemies and breakable containers, but it’s not enough. The fighting is as basic and monotonous as it can get.
The other mode is two-dimensional platforming, where Enoch pulls a Mario and moves strictly left and right, running and jumping on more floating platforms of all shapes and sizes. While the landscapes keep their visual inventiveness and splendor going in these levels, the layouts are basic and uninspired. There are no unique moves or items in these levels, with Enoch occasionally using the three normal weapons to dispatch enemies with one or two hits, and the controls need work, as the jumps require too much precision and it’s difficult to change Enoch’s direction in midair.
It’s not hard to look at El Shaddai on its graphical merits alone and not feel a sense of missed opportunity. One can’t help but think it might have worked better as an arthouse animated film than a piece of interactive entertainment. As it turns out, the head developer on it was a character designer on the much better PS2 game Okami.
That is another game famous for beautiful and inspired visuals, but it also had the gameplay to back all of that up. In fact, though it was primarily a Zelda-inspired exploratory adventure, its battle system was arguably more involving and fun than El Shaddai‘s. This designer clearly has the chops to make something that looks great, but when given the reins to a project – or at least this one – he turns out a textbook example of style over substance.