Back in March 2013, there was a random sale on the Xbox Games on Demand marketplace section hub, and the cheapest deal among reduced prices was $2.50 for El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. I knew nothing about the game, but it had an intriguing–if long-winded–name, and a couple of screenshots told me that I was guaranteed to play something at least visually striking. So I pulled the trigger, promptly downloaded 6 GB of unknown stuff, and played the first two chapters, unsure of what to make of things. Several months later, I came back to the game and burned through the remaining chapters over a couple of nights, and I’m still unsure of what to think. I like a lot of El Shaddai, but some aspects are of the fun-ruining frustrating ilk.
The game’s plot is heavily inspired by the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which follows Enoch, a scribe searching for seven fallen angels in hopes of preventing a great flood from destroying mankind. He is helped in this epic quest by Lucifel, a guardian angel in charge of the protection of the world who exists outside of the flow of time, and four Archangels. However, there’s a modern spin here, as Lucifel, voiced by an unrecognizable Jason Isaacs, uses a cell phone to converse with God, and several levels are set in a futuristic, Tron-like cityscape. Basically, you are trying to climb a tower, defeating fallen angels on each level, until you get to the top, to defeat the fallenest of all angels and save the world from the wrath of…God? Satan? Y’know, to be honest, I don’t really know which is the opposing force in this game.
Gameplay is mostly hack-and-slash action in the same vein as Devil May Cry, with the ability to knock an enemy in the air and juggle them with sword swipes. Er, sorry–I mean arch swipes. Enoch gets three different weapon types as he progresses: an arch for quick slashes, a gale for ranged attacks, and a veil for slow, but devastatingly powerful punches capable of shattering weapons. You can pull off some combos, as well as steal an enemy’s weapon to replace your own and take them down a notch. I found fighting Gale-wielding enemies to be the most challenging, but you eventually learn all the patterns. For bosses, it’s all about patience and waiting for an opening to attack. If you do die, you can mash some of the buttons repeatedly to revive yourself, and on Normal difficulty, you could do this four or five times, which made getting through some unrelenting fights possible.
Visually, El Shaddai is a delight. Every chapter offers something completely different, and the best-looking stuff can be found in the interim platforming levels connecting two chapters. There’s one section early on that I found myself smiling through its entirety, despite the challenge being presented. There’s a lot of pinks and purples and watercolor-like washing for background skies, as well as strange geometry throughout. Enoch and Lucifel have a pretty stylized, hair-billowing anime look to them, though I found most of the fallen angels to be boring design-wise considering they all wear the same getup for most of their battles.
Two things really bothered me with El Shaddai, and they both have nothing to do with its religious slant. One: the platforming sucks. Like, no. It’s some of the worst. You can barely tell where Enoch is going to land when he jumps, and the controls are so twitchy that, oftentimes, you’d still fall off a platform after getting there in one piece. Considering that platforming is how you move from one event to another, it needed to be tighter. Two: there’s no indication on-screen of how much damage Enoch was able to take, and how hurt the bosses were. Most of the time, it was impossible to tell, and some weapons are ineffective against certain foes and armor, causing me to second guess my choices. Strangely, after you beat the game, you are given the ability to turn on health gauges for Enoch and bosses. Yeah, that’s a bit boggling.
I will not be going back to play El Shaddai on a higher difficulty, but there’s an Achievement or two left that seem feasible. Otherwise, a gorgeous game with a plot that’s hard to concentrate on, given that the screen is just one explosion of artistic beauty after another. Play it to see.