El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
Review by discoinferno84
"Calling all angels..."
Mankind is on the brink of annihilation. They're facing the divine wrath of heaven
and it's all the Grigori's fault. This group of fallen angels has taken too much of a liking to their mortal subjects; not only have they seized control over them, but they've started breeding as well. Those unholy unions have created the Nephilim, a race of monstrous abominations capable of wiping out civilization. By crossing that line, the Grigori have marked themselves as rebels and doomed the world to a flood of biblical proportions. Humanity has only one chance for salvation left: Enoch, a scholar who has earned heaven's favor. In order to save everything, he must descend to Earth, find the fallen angels, and send them back from whence they came.
If you're familiar with religious texts, you've probably heard of this all before. El Shaddai is a loose adaptation of the biblical apocrypha, specifically the Book of Enoch. Aside from the titular character, you'll find Lucifel, Azazel, Ezekiel, Armaros, and a handful of other biblical figures. Despite the rich source material, however, the story never evolves beyond the basic plot. None of the characters are compelling in the slightest; Enoch is mind-numbingly stoic and speaks only a single line of dialogue throughout the entire game. Aside from their simplistic vices, the villains have no motivation or depth. There are only a couple of characters with anything that vaguely resembles personality, and you only meet one of them in the last few hours of the adventure. There's little drama or emotional build-up; since it's practically impossible to form a connection to the characters, you'll probably only play through the remarkably half-assed ending for the sake of curiosity.
The game tries to distract you by focusing on the combat. Enoch has to wander through seven levels of a mystical tower, battling hordes of mutated humans and monstrosities along the way. The fights typically involve you pummeling your foes into a stunned submission, stealing their weapons, and finishing them off before engaging the next target. Enoch's move set changes depending on what weapon he swipes. He could slash and flip around with harp-shaped Arch laser sword, blast everything to pieces Zone of the Enders-style with the Gale's projectiles, or use the slower, close-range punches of the Veil's shield and gauntlets. They all have inherent strengths and weaknesses, and you'll constantly have to nab something new in order to stay alive. Such a concept is decent, but it's limited by its own design. The game should have allowed you to wield multiple weapons and toggle among them on the fly, like Devil May Cry or God of War. It would keep the combat flowing while allowing you to develop strategies and combos. El Shaddai's mechanics simply boil down to grabbing the strongest weapon at the given moment. There's a risk of your weapon being corrupted from overuse, but it's easily remedied by pressing a button to purify it. Aside from an early power-up, there's no opportunity to build upon or customize Enoch's arsenal; he uses the same combos over and over, with only the optional charged attacks to break the monotony. It is fine for what it offers, but it's relatively shallow and underdeveloped.
The same goes for the stages themselves. The tower is designed as a series of linear platforming levels with the occasional fight (you'll know they're coming when the floors suddenly widen into small-scale arenas) to break up the monotony. The majority of it is straightforward; you leap around ledges and cross massive chasms, sometimes hitting a switch to get past an obstacle. There are occasionally flashes of brilliance, like the area devoted entirely to side-scrolling collapsing platforms and strategically-placed spikes. Or the dimension crammed with floating blocks and whirling pendulums, for that matter. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The levels rarely demand anything in terms of timing or skill. It would have been interesting to see the tower fleshed out as a place that could actually be explored. You'll have enough trouble getting around as it is; thanks to an infuriatingly static camera and the inconsistent control responses, it's common to miss what should have been easy jumps. The game is forgiving enough to allow for such mistakes, but the problems are annoying regardless. Just when you think you've gotten the hang of things, the stages will abruptly end. Thanks to their brevity and simplicity, you'll never be able to shake the feeling that there should be something more.
At least your efforts won't go unrewarded. Upon beating the game, you'll unlock an extra difficulty setting (which is far more satisfyingly brutal than the default one), a few pieces of concept art, cut scenes, and a score ranking mode. Your bonus points will be uploaded onto an online leaderboard, which gives you an incentive to keep beating your records. It's not a particularly imaginative use of the PS3's connectivity; it would have been interesting to see a multiplayer version of the tower with opportunities for gamers to team up and tackle new areas. Or fight against each other as soldiers of the heavenly or fallen angels' forces. Or even have a way to spend your bonus points on new weapons or equipment, for that matter. Such ideas would have added some longevity to what is an otherwise brief and unsatisfying single-player campaign.
The game tries to make up for it by overwhelming you with incredibly artistic imagery. Very few areas follow any kind of logical structure. What's interesting is how each level has a distinct design and color scheme. One of the earliest areas has you traversing over paper-thin land bridges over a glowing pit of light and fireworks that stretches past the horizon. Another forces you to climb a collapsing cathedral made entirely of razor-sharp crystals. Then there's The Darkness, which looks like a bunch of drifting asteroids set against a background made of swirling watercolors. Others are a bit less creative, though; there's an entire seizure-inducing stage that is a blatant knockoff of TRON's motorcycle sequences and Michael Bay's Transformers movies. Paying homage is fine, but it sticks out in a game that's supposed to be about a quest through ethereal dimensions. So do Armaros and Sariel, who can impersonate Michael Jackson (you'll hear that whoooaan in your nightmares) and David Bowie a little too well. Lucifel is the only interesting one; he follows you around and reports your progress to God via cell phone conversations. It's not much, but it adds to the surreal charm of the overall presentation.
It won't be enough, though. El Shaddai has a lot of interesting ideas, but it fails to fully implement them. The biblical source material is wasted on utterly boring and one-dimensional characters. The combat mechanics are fine the three-weapon system keeps you constantly in motion and changing strategies but it's limited by the repetitive combos, the inability to wield more than one weapon at once, and no opportunities to modify or strengthen your move set. The platforming is occasionally well-crafted, but there's nothing particularly mind-blowing or challenging. The horrendous camera and inconsistent controls don't help, either. There were a lot of missed opportunities with regards to the online features; what could of have been a great multiplayer title is limited to brief and unsatisfying single-player experience. At least it looks awesome; few PS3 games can boast the kind of visual splendor and fascinating design that went into some of these stages. But as El Shaddai illustrates, style is nothing without substance.
Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 08/31/11, Updated 09/06/11
Game Release: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (US, 08/16/11)
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