Let me tell you a tale… it’s about an experience I had the other day – a religious one, a moment of clarity buried in amongst the chaos of reviewing a dozen or so games every month. I fired up El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron expecting a slightly weird action title with some visual hooks and little more. Perhaps a neat brawler / platformer that I’d derive some enjoyment from, write up around seven hundred words of a review and forget about. Eight hours later and I’m a convert, worshipping at the temple of Ignition Tokyo – El Shaddai has reaffirmed my faith in the visual creativity of video games.
Before I start telling you why this is going to be in the running for my Game Of The Year, let’s get some boring bits of expected review text out the way. ES:AOTM shares a lot of similarities with Heavenly Sword, Bayonetta and Devil May Cry in that its focus is combat and simple platforming from a third person perspective. Much like the first title in that list, the attraction is not necessarily the gameplay itself, rather the production quality, story and tone.
You can pretty much mash your way through the game but the hand-to-hand is decent with plenty of combos based on light and strong attacks and changing up your timing will tweak things further. It’s not mind blowing but it’s solid, which is good because you’ll be doing lots of it. When you’re not fighting, you’re jumping from platform to platform in rather typical action adventure platforming, which is to say that it isn’t terrible, though it’s hardly the spatial perfection of a Mario Bros. game either.
After finishing you open up access to concept art and the ability to re-watch cinematics, as well as being able to play through the title again on two additional difficulty levels. A score attack mode opens up too, as does the option to customise which attire you’ll wear on the duration of your journey. Controlling lead character Enoch is responsive and accurate to a tee but the camera’s position isn’t under your control, meaning that there are occasions where your view of the action won’t be perfect. The game’s load times are significant and you’ll want to install this to your hard drive, if you have one, to ensure transitions from area to area are smooth.
If you’re buying this just as a purchase in which you intend to derive enjoyment from the systems of play then there are much better games with which you can invest your money. Click away from this review, you don’t need to get El Shaddai as it’s a rather predictable though totally competent beat-em-up with some hit and miss platforming.
If you’re still here it’s because you no doubt value the medium of video games to do things that other forms can’t, or perhaps you believe that interactive entertainment can be more than “A jumps, B shoots”. YOU need to play Ascension Of The Metatron, as it does things visually and thematically that you haven’t yet seen in games – or too many other places for that matter – and we’ll likely not see a title like this again for a few years to come.
Enoch is a tool of God sent to Earth to cleanse the land of a “false evolution”, brought about by a number of Fallen Angels who have come to our world for a number of reasons. Love, power, procreation, motherhood, the unlimited potential of humanity: they have genuine motivations for disobeying God and this puts them above pantomime villains simply put there to act as end-of-level bosses.
Assisted by Lucifel – an effortlessly cool, completely relaxed agent of The Lord that would be perfectly at home in a Goichi Suda game – Enoch must climb a tower filled with false realities created by these Fallen Angels. These realities are exquisite, works of true artistic genius that will challenge your preconceived ideas of what an action game can look like. One of the first areas, on the way towards the Tower itself, is predominantly black; onyx walkways leading from section to section, so smooth and dense and perfect that you can imagine what it would feel like to reach out and touch them. You realise that the people that have lost themselves in this illusion are having a celebration, fireworks burst and glitter in the distance as a giant, burnt crimson eye lazily keeps watch, its eye lashes strokes of washed out red light. The eye looks weary as you rush towards it and as you do, you grasp just how very large the area in which you reside is. “Gigantic” doesn’t quite cut it when describing its scale, it is so vast that only one with God-like power might conceive it.
Sound familiar? You’re right, it doesn’t. Yet every minute you spend with the piece is like this. Have you ever seen clouds of mist froth up like surf in a surrealist, near cubist land that stretches as far as you can see? Have you wandered through a lilac, purple and deep ocean blue channel of webs with floors the consistency of bubbles? Have you sprinted through a spiraling tube of psychedelic colours as the harsh glare of white hot fire rushes towards you? Probably not.
It’s not all eye candy, there’s a meaning to what you’ll do here, though everyone will have a different interpretation of the events that steadily unfold. One of the enemies – The Nephalim – are half breeds of humans and angels, destined to consume one another until their bodies erupt in flames. They are vilified by every character in the game with the exception of Nanna – a small girl that eventually forms a major part of the story – yet to the objective player in the world outside of the game, all they seem to want to do is play. When you’re asked to destroy one after you’ve witnessed so many of them riding swings, sliding down hills and pushing around a primary coloured ball on a cartoon backdrop, it’s difficult not to question the fanaticism of the company you keep. Is devotion essential to religion? Is blindly following those who have heard “God’s Will” being a good Christian / Muslim / Buddhist?
Even if you’re not into videogames to be challenged, some of the action scenes are phenomenally well produced. In a completely bizarre break in the typical action you’re provided a motorcycle on which you scorch through the city of a highly advanced civilization. With moments of near misses and incredible feats of the human body set to neon and metal and plastic, El Shaddai hits Ninja Blade and Bayonetta levels of ridiculous.
Back to the high brow and one can’t help but think about how real world religious groups will approach the game. It borrows heavily from a multitude of religions and challenges them all while at the same time celebrating how truly epic and wonderful they can be. Interactive entertainment has seen religious titles or games with spiritual undertones before but none have truly gone so far with their exploration, a kaleidoscope of Jesus, Siddhartha, Zeus, Mohammed, Cernunnos, Ganesh and more informing the environment and character design. Tribal beats blend into electric guitar, followed by choral numbers across a net of symphonic strings: almost every possible form of audio that human beings have used to worship their respective prophets and Gods collide to score the scenes, all perfectly in harmony with the striking vistas before you.
You might be able to tell by now that I like El Shaddai, I like it a lot. It’s an important work of fiction that has made me incredibly excited about the medium and where it can go from here. The basics of play are all there, you’ll enjoy fighting enemies and you’ll be challenged by the platforming. The real attraction though is in the areas in which the form as a whole needs to improve: narrative, experimentation with the visual and the questioning of high level concepts. It takes the theme of religion and runs wild, using the raw power of current machines to create a work of art that is moving, thought provoking and beautiful.
MLG Rating: 10/10
Platform: Xbox 360/ PS3) Release Date: 09/09/11
Disclaimer: A physical version of El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron was supplied by the promoter and played over the course of two days on an Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.