Many of us find Japanese games somewhat difficult to understand, some of us find them completely incomprehensible. Many of us find Hebrew difficult to understand, some of us find it completely incomprehensible. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a Japanese game with a plot inspired by the Hebrew ‘extra-biblical’ Dead Sea Scrolls texts… you can probably guess where I’m going with this.
But stop! Fire at the disco! El Shaddai, against all the odds, is not only comprehensible it’s downright wonderful – a triumph of storytelling, gameplay and, most of all, visual flair and courage. Anyone searching for that unique taste of quirky Japanese design and unwillingness to compromise will find delight in its approach. Anyone that only plays Call of Duty and dismisses everything else as ‘lame’, ‘weak’ or, as the kid’s say nowadays, ‘gay’, will find only frustration and probable boredom.
The story is centred on Enoch, a young man with blond-near-white hair who (according to the Book of Enoch section of the Dead Sea Scrolls) is a descendant of Adam from ‘Adam and Eve’. As Enoch it’s your job-from-God to sort out a group of fallen angels (Watchers) who are planning on starting a new kingdom of their own on Earth.
However, if you can follow the nuances of the story then you’re a better man than me because from the opening scenes to the final encounters I was mesmerized to the point of a coma by El Shaddai’s visual beauty and variety. Designed by Takeyasu Sawaki (Okami, Devil May Cry) the graphics are painted in with a mixture of Japanese-ink drawing, vibrant neon and free-flowing watercolours creating a starkly unique aesthetic that draws you in and refuses to let go.
Each of the game’s 12 acts throws a different style at you, each as impressive and individual as the last. It’s almost like walking through an artist’s exhibition in that each environment looks distinctive but manages to retain a signature linking them all to a single mind; that mind growing, maturing and finding different paths of expression as their work continues to unfold. In short, if you’re looking for a new desktop wallpaper then you could do a lot worse than Google image search ‘El Shaddai’.
The fact that the HUD has been removed to allow the visuals to flourish tells you all you need to know about where the emphasis lies.
Gameplay is a mix of Devil May Cry-esque combat and Mario platforming. Attacks are mapped to a single button, the timing of your inputs used to discern between different combos and hit strength. At first the system seems frustratingly basic, rewarding any old random presses just as equally as attempted feats of skill and control pad dexterity. However, things open up and improve after the enemies diversify and you’ve unlocked all three of the game’s weapons.
The Arch is essentially a sword that looks like a bow, the Veil is a pair of gauntlets made of stone that double as a shield and the Gale is a long-range weapon visualised as a set of spikes floating behind Enoch’s back. By holding the attack button for different lengths or pressing it with different timings you can alter the nature, speed and strength of your attack to suit the weapon and enemy type.
By incorporating blocks and jumps into your action patterns there are literally hundreds (possibly thousands) of combos to unleash, so many that I’m still finding new ones by accident or otherwise. As with any game of this type you’ll most probably settle on a few ‘go to attacks’ and stick to those for the bulk of the game, only intermittently incorporating others into your arsenal.
Weapons undergo a degrading of sorts as they absorb the evil of dispatched foes, forcing you to ‘purify’ them regularly to keep them at maximum attack strength. The act of purification offers little to the gameplay other than as a reloading mechanism, merely serving as a reminder that you’re the good guy and they’re the bad. Being attacked while purifying does get old rather quickly, however.
Your remaining health is signified by Enoch’s relative state of dress, less clothes means less health. Enoch looks rather fashionable in his denim jeans and angelic white armour, an outfit that (after a few direct hits from the enemy) quickly looks like something an Armani underwear model would wear for a photo shoot. I guess that with all the young girls in skimpy outfits that have graced the Japanese scene since time began it’s probably about time the opposite sex got similar treatment.
Admittedly, the combat is not as complex as the likes of Bayonetta, Devil May Cry or even God of War but, that’s not really the point. In essence the fighting provides enough variation, challenge and freedom to provide the metaphorical stick to the visual carrot. Just don’t go in expecting Street Fighter: Adventure Game Edition.
Interspersed amongst the 3D action-combat are 2D sections that play a bit like Mario but look like a surrealist dream. Unlike the bulk of the combat, these instances often represent a significant challenge and will force multiple attempts from anyone but the most-skilled platforming hounds. There’s little here that hasn’t been done before (moving platforms, jumps, timed leaps) but the imagery and, on occasion, plot-advancing voiceover make them worthwhile and generally enjoyable despite their difficultly.
3D platforming sections also make an appearance (albeit less frequently), requiring an even greater level of skill than their 2D counterparts. The fixed camera can make some jumps difficult to judge, an issue exacerbated by the fact that pixel-perfect precision is often required.
However, no matter the frustration that occasionally arises from such moments, all is forgotten by the time you’ve progressed to the next area and the next visuals it offers. Even more so than the likes of Child of Eden or Okami, El Shaddai is one of those rare games that’s worth playing simply for the quality of its art direction alone, crushing the idea that only games with standout gameplay are deserving of your time.