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Saturday, February 26, 2011

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron Review

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron combines gorgeous artistic design with enticing combat to create a memorable adventure.

The Good

  • Incredible, abstract visual design  
  • Streamlined combat is smooth and challenging  
  • Three unique and satisfying weapons  
  • Varied soundtrack deftly enhances the experience  
  • Playing on harder difficulties reveals impressive combat depth.

The Bad

  • Camera makes navigating 3D platforms unnecessarily tricky  
  • Combat on normal difficulty gets predictable.
Beauty can be a dangerous thing. The promise of exploring a world rich with the fruits of artistic expression can lure the unsuspecting into a visually impressive but fundamentally lacking wasteland. And on the surface, El Shaddai: The Ascension of the Metatron gives off a strong "look but don't touch" vibe. Evocative landscapes grab your attention, but the rudimentary combat system built around one measly attack button makes it seem as if this religious adventure is all style and no substance. Fortunately, this is no button masher. Slicing down foes with your array of celestial weapons takes skill and precision, though the depth doesn't fully reveal itself until you unlock the harder difficulty settings. But even when you're playing on normal difficulty, the smooth rhythm of combat serves as a wonderful complement to the expressive aesthetics. El Shaddai: The Ascension of the Metatron uses its beauty as just one part of the experience, not as a crutch propping up a shallow facade, resulting in an enticing adventure that satisfies on many fronts.

Demons have an obvious weakness: a punch to the head.
 
Enoch the scrivener doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. Originally chosen to document the deeds of the elders, this courageous human is cast down to Earth to round up fallen angels before God washes away their sins (and the lives of countless humans) in a devastating flood. That's no small task for a man who's far more comfortable with a quill in his hand. This intriguing setup is based on apocryphal tales from ancient Judeo-Christian texts, and those unfamiliar with the source material may find it difficult to follow along. Characters are introduced and then forgotten without much fleshing out, so absorbing details can be tricky. Although you might not understand everything being laid before you, the manner of storytelling is intriguing. Plot details are conveyed in a number of unique ways, which goes a long way toward keeping you invested. Animated cutscenes alongside still shots sprinkled with expository text make up the bulk of the narrative. But the more interesting story elements are woven into the gameplay. There are times when you run through simple 2D canvases with dialogue filling in important pieces, and the integration of story within the action gives added weight to the experience.

While it's true that you may not grasp the esoteric story, you'll be hard pressed to tear your eyes from the screen thanks to the extraordinary visual design. El Shaddai takes place in an incredible-looking world that is an absolute pleasure to stare at. The abstractly-rendered environments defy description, exhibiting a wealth of imagination. Landscapes use a blend of flat textured surfaces with sharp colors to create a realm that is easy to lose yourself in. In one area, crosshatched black plains close in, suffocating you with their bleakness, and this confining sequence clashes wonderfully with the icy brightness of a serene outdoor vista. In another level, obsidian-black platforms encircled by an orange ring hover above a fiery red backdrop that conjures images of burning hellstone. In the distance, pastel fireworks dot the sky. Tribal chants interposed between psychedelic trance beats create an atmosphere that's difficult to shake out of your mind. The music enhances every step of your journey. Religious hymns, pulsing rock anthems, and calming guitar riffs cue up in key moments to temper your mood and keep you invested.


Underneath this abstract and ambitious surface, you find that El Shaddai is a straightforward action adventure that blends combat and platforming in both 3D and 2D settings. Although gorgeous, the various stages you inhabit are mostly linear, allowing only slight steps off the beaten path for the rare hidden item. This confinement does limit your chance to shake free of the shackles and stretch your legs in this pristine world, but this design choice is not without benefits. What El Shaddai lacks in freedom it makes up for in razor-sharp focus. There is a strong push to move forward at all times, and you find yourself running into fights, leaping between platforms, and sprinting across magnificent lands without a moment's hesitation. The visual and audio design do a great job of keeping you excited to push on ahead. New landmarks spring into view every few steps, calling you onward, and the varied soundtrack shifts between songs to ensure your ears are just as happy as your eyes.

Once challenged to a duel, you need to shift your focus from the atmospheric wonders to the demonic monsters closing in. Because your repertoire of moves is limited, combat is based more on positioning and timing than on trying to figure out which attack you should use. Every attack makes use of just one button. You perform different moves based on how you hit it (tap versus hold), if you use a modifier (which launches enemies in the air), or whether you're jumping or standing firmly on the ground. Block and jump buttons make up your defensive maneuvers, and you can dodge as well. It sounds simple, and it is easy to pick up, but there's more complexity than you might initially realize. Like all sentient beings, your enemies don't like being attacked. If you rush at them with rage in your eyes, they can just turtle, before countering with a flourish once you tire yourself out. But if you tap your attack in a slowed-down rhythm, you initiate a special move that knocks away their shields. Mastering this attack is a key to success. Combat feels like a violent dance in which you must keep perfect time if you want to excel. Tap too aggressively, and you might as well be swinging at a rock; tap too slowly, and you leave yourself vulnerable.


With each successful strike, you visibly damage your maniacal foes. El Shaddai is played without a HUD (you do unlock an option to use one once you finish the game), though the expertly designed visuals ensure you're aware of all the information you need. Both you and your enemies wear armor that gets destroyed as you take damage. When you land a particularly powerful attack, you can see the effects of your anger displayed on their ravaged bodies. It's an empowering feeling to knock your well-armored opponents silly until they're just running around in their skivvies. That almighty feeling goes both ways. Enoch loses his precious protection as fights wear on, too, and there's no better feeling than when you win a fight after digging in your heels when you're at your end. If you do fall in battle, you can revive yourself if your fingers are quick. Slamming on the shoulder or face buttons brings you back to life, though each successive attempt is harder than the last. Waking up at the last possible second and then tearing your stunned opponent to shreds is absolutely exhilarating.

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