El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a breath of fresh air. At its base level it could be written off as just another third-person action game, but those tempted to do so are missing the point. Yes, the combat is ‘timing’ based. Yes, the enemies come in waves. Yes, there are obligatory platforming sections. However, where most games of this ilk falter and stutter onto shelves in a mess of generic mechanics and visuals, El Shaddai seems to be breaking convention by melding its individual elements into a cohesive, worthwhile whole.
Of course, what everyone’s talking about is the visuals. Experiencing them through images and videos is one thing, playing them is something else entirely. They’re lovely, lovely to the point that you’ll regularly take a break from the combat and platforming purely to take in the surroundings. There’s a very clear sense here that the visual approach is at least as important as any of the game’s other features, in most cases it’s probably more important.
I’m not going to get into the whole ‘are games art’ sinkhole here but there’s no arguing against El Shaddai’s visuals, at the very least, being the work of an artist.
Perhaps even more impressive than the visuals themselves is the way in which they blend and fit into the wider experience. Having played through three complete, and entirely distinctive, levels I think it’s safe to say that the game’s visuals are remarkably varied. An ice level of whites and blues gives way to ‘The Tower of Babel’ an area of vivid red and black punctuated by multi-coloured explosions of neon fireworks and other seemingly random strings of light. Another level sees you traversing through raised, isolated corridors of muted pastel greens, browns and greys.
However, despite the diversity in colour palettes and design styles, things manage to feel seamless. Perhaps it’s because El Shaddai doesn’t commit to a definitive style that allows it to perform visual summersaults the way it does. It almost feels as though you’re travelling through the life works of an artist, things change and evolve as you move forwards but there’s a distinct underbelly of continuity and tone.
I hate to say it but, despite the moans and groans about the Japanese game industry growing stale and repetitive, El Shaddai’s approach to visuals shows a courage and creativity that Western developers couldn’t hope to match in the current climate of photo-realism and comic book inspirations.
The visuals play a bigger role than ‘just’ that of pretty backdrop though. For starters, there’s no HUD. Your health is displayed through the state of protagonist Enoch’s armour; the more that has broken off the closer to death you are. If it breaks off completely you’re stripped down to your undies, a bleak, humiliating signal that you’ve performed poorly in combat.
Then there’s your weapon’s status. As you deal damage to foes your weapon becomes defiled by their blood, eventually going from shining blue/white to an imposing red/orange. This is a visual indicator that you need to ‘purify’ your weapon, an act that must be done regularly to keep your attacks at full strength and to prevent your arsenal from breaking.
In total there are three weapons; the Arch, the Veil and the Gale. Three weapons doesn’t sound like a lot but, at least during our couple of hours with the game, their abilities are varied enough to keep you in the business of learning more attacks.
Rather than long strings of multi-button combos (a la the wonderful Bayonetta), El Shaddai opts for the timed inputs approach. The Arch, for example, is curved sword of sorts that’s good for close combat against multiple enemies due to its above average attack speed. With correctly timed inputs enemies can be juggled in mid-air, smashed with powerful, deliberate vertical strikes and locked up in long combos from which they can’t escape. And that’s just a very small taster of what’s on offer, I was still finding new attack timings and patterns in almost every battle.
The other weapons operate very differently; The Gale takes the form of floating shards of rock that hover magically around Enoch and can be fired at enemies like darts while The Veil are a pair of gauntlets that excel in brute strength but lack speed. Each of the weapons has their pros and cons when it comes to their effectiveness against different enemy types but you’re not locked into using certain weapons against certain foes. Besides, you can only carry one weapon at a time so having enemy specific weapons wouldn’t work.
Accompanying the 3D levels are 2D platforming sections that alter the pace and gameplay completely. The 2D section we got our hands on involved jumping from platform to platform (in true Mario fashion) while riding the odd set of water waves between particularly wide gaps. Literally, these are platforming sections in their purest form; a form which embraces jumps, double jumps and glidejumps while shunning everything else. And, in the same way as the art style, despite presenting a sharp juxtaposition to the rest of the game they seem to fit nicely into the overall picture.
Of course, when you play a game for a mere two hours (it might have even been slightly less) it’s difficult to see where the faults may rest, especially in a game as startling and as visually impressive as this. El Shaddai’s true test will come a few hours in, once players have become numbed to the art style and combat system and can start reflecting on the meat and bones of the mechanics and their construction.
Still, you don’t come out of every preview session so buoyant, pleased and excited about what you’ve just seen. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, El Shaddai is the best thing I’ve seen from Japan in quite a while. It’s bold, uncompromising and damn proud of it. We need more of that in an industry that all too often play follow-the-leader. I await the finished product with baited breath.