Fisticuffs, anime and the Bible: A tasty game soup?
by Richard Plant
First thing to say, if you’re of the large-man-in-the-sky-fearing persuasion, is don’t worry your pretty little head. Unlike my opening sentence, El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is not going to encourage any religious types to ban, burn or otherwise object to its content. In fact, this bizarre Japanese adventure beat-em-up has about as much to do with the Old Testament, as Postman Pat has to do with realities of life for inner city postal workers.
The meaty parts of the game are pretty simple. You play as Enoch, a saintly human chosen by God to fight a group of fallen angels who have made their refuge on Earth. You’ll kick, punch, combo and block your way through various cannon fodder manifestations of evil, picking up various heavenly weapons on your way. Reach the fallen angels, beat the metaphysical tar out of them, and return their souls to eternal imprisonment.
Why they couldn’t have sent, I don’t know, an archangel to do the job is never really made clear. Still, a saint’s gotta do what a saint’s gotta do. At least you have some backup, occasionally running into Satan, who acts as a save point marker. Locked into a constant mobile phone conversation with God, he’s pretty much your only coherent companion, and provides the narration that links together the disparate strands of story.
All whales must die
The combat is without a surprisingly deep and involving mechanic, which is nice, since your primary method of interaction with the world is through the medium of the facepunch. While attacks are mapped to one key, blocks and dodges to other, the system generates more complexity and opportunity for expression than you might expect. Chaining together a series of attacks, expertly cutting into a crowd of enemies before flicking them into the air for a finisher elicits a thrill that Devil May Cry devotees will be more than familiar with.
There are a range of weapons on offer, either given as gifts from God or stripped from stunned enemies, which alter your fighting style a la Onimusha. The Arch is a light two-handed sword that promotes quick slashing attacks and crowd control, but is useless against heavily armoured enemies. The Veil is a pair of gauntlets that boost your defence and provide strong smashing blows. The Gale is a projectile weapon that surrounds Enoch with a cloud of crystal shards that can be machine-gunned at enemies. Using a weapon to banish condemned souls picks up some of their eviltude, reducing their effectiveness. You’ll be well advised to incorporate a purification (think reload) or two into each long combo.
While combat is initially satisfying, the difficulty spikes can become a pain. Ordinary enemies offer very little challenge, except in large numbers, while the boss characters demand a level of skill in learning attack patterns and dodging that the rest of the game fails to teach. There is a certain over-reliance on swarms of clones to bump up the length of levels, which can feel like a cop-out given the amount of artistic achievement elsewhere in the game.
That leads us to something worth stating outright. This is a beautiful, sumptuous gaming experience. The landscapes are awe-inspiring abstract paintings that betray the influence of designer Takeyasu Sawaki, who previously worked on other art-game classics such as Okami and the afore-mentioned Devil May Cry. Every part of the mise-en-scène, from the character and weapon designs, to the way the backdrops swoop majestically through the sky ahead and enemies ooze forth, is a treat to behold.
The sense of aesthetic satisfaction that comes from playing the game, soaking in the genius of its anime-inflected visual language and soaring soundtrack, is an experience that shouldn’t be overlooked. But it can’t be denied that there is a soggy underside souring the taste of this delicious sensual pudding.
Gerald didn't understand why Enoch rejected his offer of cake
For a medium that demands interaction, game designers often have an unfortunate tendency to marginalise the player as an actor in the narrative. El-Shaddai is perhaps one of the most egregious examples of this, drawing as it does on a Japanese tradition of storytelling, where emotion and aesthetic are just as important as plot and character.
It’s often quite impossible for the player to understand where he stands in relation to the story, or what his motivations currently are. While it’s pretty clear that Enoch spends centuries searching the world for the fallen angels, why are we only shown that through frankly bizarre cut scenes that do more to confuse than explain?
I hate to criticise a game experience for forcing the player onto a narrative that the writers have planned ahead of time, as a Final Fantasy fan that would be the height of hypocrisy. But in this case, frustration results from the feeling that the designers have excised great wads of the plot in order to put you in the situations they want, with no good idea how you got there.
In the end, El-Shaddai is a work of flawed genius. Play it, and be encouraged that our medium is capable of producing work of this level of artistic purity, but demand more from auteur game designers in future.