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Game Review: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

By / Posted on 09 September 2011

El ShaddaiSome people will tell you that El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a game about an ancient text of the Old Testament in which the human Enoch is tasked with bringing seven fallen angels back into the fold by the grace of God. From a story standpoint, yes, that’s true. From a design and gameplay standpoint, El Shaddai is a game about battling Photoshop filters and mashing the attack button.

Okay, so there’s actually a more nuanced and mature combat system that involves disarming enemies and facing one of the three weapons against them in a rock-paper-scissors balance of power, but ultimately it boils down to tapping the shoulder button so that you can more efficiently mash the attack button. That’s not to say El Shaddai is simplistic in its game design philosophy. Scenes shift from barren icy tundras to shadowy pits of endless black to bubbly cartoon candy commercial to Blade Runner nouveau-futurepunk and flips rapidly between arena combat, 3D world exploring, 2D platforming and even an unexpected motorcycle chase. The free reign demonstrated by Ignition Tokyo, comprised of former members of Capcom’s Clover studio (besides the ones that formed Platinum Games), is the real star of the show, as each level offers a whole new aesthetic to keep things exciting and interesting.

One of the game's more adorable 2D sections, somewhere between a Studio Ghibli cartoon and a Dr. Seuss book.

Style is the key of El Shaddai’s appeal. Even beyond the variety of changing art styles, there are fascinating meta design elements like an early boss fight that appears to reset the game and a dancehall brawl where one major character decides to vogue in front of the camera, obstructing the player’s view of the action, all while an increasing army of male models attack. The game’s narrator, Lucifel, lounges about in designer jeans, a loosely buttoned shirt and leather shoes like he’s about to go club hopping, and constantly chats with God on his thoroughly modern cell phone.

The icy tundras are swathed in shimmering light and reflections.

The problem comes from the rest of the game, which all feels very samey and uninspired. It’s a 3D beat-’em-up in the vein of Devil May Cry, God of War, and fellow ex-Clover contemporary Bayonetta, and while those games won acclaim and fanbases for being aggressively stylish, aggressively ultraviolent, and aggressively over-the-top-batshit-insane-I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened, respectively, El Shaddai’s unique calling card is… lush visuals. Really impressively luscious, yes, but the game just seems shallow and unfinished in comparison to its competition. 3D platforming, in particular, is shoddy, with great difficulty in gauging distance, leading to repeated falls off the edge of existence.

We get it already, this game is pretty.

Somehow, still, with all this blandness, the game is compelling. Despite feeling like the same thing again and again, there’s always the tease of something radically different just up ahead. El Shaddai is worth playing if only because it feels extraordinary while playing off familiarity. Like a freeform brainstorming session, there are a lot of unique and clever ideas that are never really given the time to blossom into fully realized concepts. Sure is pretty, though.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.