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The videogame industry, along with Hollywood, is constantly under fire for running out of ideas. It’s something evident in this year’s big releases, many of which are sequels; Gears of War 3, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, Uncharted 3, The Elder Scrolls VI – and the list goes on and on. The unfortunate thing is that these are exactly the sort of games people want to play, and when something entirely different does come along, it tends to be relegated to the realm of the forgotten, showing up years later in a “best games you’ve never played” segment.

Such is the case, I fear, with El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.

Based –  loosely – on the apocryphal Jewish religious text The Book of Enoch, El Shaddai charts the progress of Enoch, Noah’s great-grandfather, a human who’s been allowed  in heaven. Now a warrior for god, he’s tasked with ridding Earth of The Watchers, fallen angels who now live in the world of human. Living in an invisible tower, they’re worshipped and loved by the humans – taking their devotion away from god, inciting his jealousy – or inciting false idolatory, depending on your theological stance. The fallen angels have also been reproducing with humans, creating a new race of angel human hybrids; the immortal – but comical looking sausage-shaped Nephilim. They may seem cute but their very existence, an affront to the divine, threatens to end civilisation. Like many of the ancient texts that weren’t considered good enough to be part of the bible as we know it, the story is largely incoherent and uncohesive – yet entirely interesting.

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Enoch is joined by Lucifiel – a pre-fall Lucifer who acts as Enoch’s aide. He’s capable of bending space and time – as his modern attire, umbrella, and cellphone attest. He uses the phone a a direct line to the man upstairs,  reporting on your progress and generally just jibber-jabbing with Jesus’ old man. He’ll often freeze time during a confrontation, filling you in on your enemy or situation. He’s also used to record your progress, acting as a save point. You know right from the beginning, apart from the fact that he’s destined to become the prince of darkness, that he’s unreliable, telling you that the story takes place 360,000 years ago, or 14,000 years ago.

The game sees you ascending this tower; each floor belonging to a different fallen angel, reflecting their tastes or characteristics and imbued with their distinct personalities. It’s in these different that we find one of the game’s biggest draws; its unique, inspired and wholly surreal visuals. Designed by Takeyasu Sawaki who worked on Devil May Cry and Okami, it has a visually arresting aesthetic that’s brought to life not through photorealism, but rather by genius art design. Each level is vastly different in its visual approach, shifting effortlessly from a 3D perspective in a neon world punctuated with explosive fireworks and tribal chanting, to a 2D level that wouldn’t seem out of place in Loco-Roco. Other levels look oil paintings, while others still have an anime-inspired aesthetic. It’s all rather beautiful, making it one of the most visually interesting games I’ve been fortunate enough to play.

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Its distinctive style would all be for naught if the game itself didn’t hold worth – but thankfully its main gameplay elements – combat and platforming – are as imaginative as its optical delights.  Each of the floors in the tower are filled with that particular fallen angel’s minions, all of which will need “purifying.” As you’ve likely guessed, that purification is carried out through swift kick’s to the arse. Combat is deceptively complex. Though it uses just three buttons – attack, block and jump – for your brand of divine destruction, careful and considered use of just these three buttons opens a world of different moves and combos based on timing of button presses.

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The combat is given further strategy through the weapons available to you; weapons of god like the Arch, a curved, serrated blade that allows for direct attacks and also gives Enoch the ability to float outside of battle; the Gale, which fires a hail of projectiles whilst also permitting a quick-dash ability; and the Veil, a pair of powerful gauntlets that doubles up as a shield. You can only carry one weapon at a time, claiming a new one from a vanquished, purified foe. Each weapon is most effective against another specific weapon,making combat play out like a sacrosanct game of rock-paper-scissors (or ching-chong-cha, if you’re lacist). The strategy comes in that when faced with a group of enemies, you’ll have to plot out a route through them, swopping weapons as and when it would be best for your continued survival. The boss battles, typically a fallen angel at the end of each level of the tower, are equally imaginative, and often bizarre.

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The game’s not without problems; the same visuals layers that make it such a marvel to behold often make it difficult to place jumps, making the sometimes very difficult platforming sections more difficult than they should be. The enemies on each level aren’t particularly varied, lacking the imagination that moulds the rest of the game. Of course, problems like that are all made up for when you’re combatting hellish creations atop a speeding bike in a post-ultra-modern, Tron-inspired world. Yes, really.

Its biggest problem is that it’s the very definition of a niche title. An artsy game based on a barely-recognised ancient Jewish work is going to struggle to find an audience.

And it’s a pity.

Scoring

Gameplay: 8.0/10

A combination of 2D and 3D platforming with brawler combat. Apparently simple, yet decidedly complex.

Design and Presentation: 9.5/10

It’s one of the most beautiful games available; and that’s all down to art design instead of pure graphical prowess.

Value: 7/10

Beyond its beauty, El Shaddai is an exceptional game; but it’s relatively short with little else to keep it going after the credits roll. It’s not a full-priced title though – so it’s worth giving a shot.

Overall: 8.0/10

El Shaddai is a remarkably beautiful game, with good game mechanics to keep it from just being artsy-farsty fare. Is it too niche for its own good though?

Last Updated: October 25, 2011

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
Summary
8.0

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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