Review by just_nonplussed
"Elegant and unique"
'El Shaddai' is ancient Hebrew for 'The word of God'. It is a game where you play the role of a human named Enoch who was so angelic on earth that he got called up to heaven to work as a scribe for God.
The dilemma that the player-character gets thrown into revolves around seven fallen angels. The story is complex/ambiguous to say the least, but the basic idea in El Shaddai is that God created the world and then 'called it a day'. The angels in heaven had other ideas though and began to get a bit creative with the paintbrush of life, descending to earth to re-create the world in their own image. Indeed, the sin appears to be that the angels formed their own identities separate from God and cut themselves off from heaven. The seven angels built a huge tower with seven floors for each angel's idea of a kind of personal heaven. During this time they mated with humans and created weird offspring that were neither divine or mortal, the Nephilim. Also, they attracted many followers on earth who worshipped the angels.
God considered the angels' new realities as false and a sin, and threatens to flood the world if the angels do not come back to heaven. This is where Enoch comes in. Enoch, the angelic human, is tasked with bringing back the souls of the seven fallen angels and returning them to God. Of course what this means is killing their material forms.
El Shaddai is a simple 3D brawler and also a full-on platformer. In fact, the game is very clearly divided equally between these types of gameplay. You journey through the various floors of the tower that the angels created, fighting smaller demons on the way to each angel which is the boss of each floor. The closest reference to the feel of the fighting is the original Devil May Cry, but more stripped down and minimal (Think No More Heroes, and the battle system from Okami). There's only really one button that you use to fight with (Square or Triangle on the PS3), one mid-air attack, and one special move that is either defensive or evasive in nature. The combat can be considered 'button-mashy', but is varied through 'God's weapons' and a strong emphasis on timing.
There are 3 weapons in the game; a heavy shield-like smashing weapon that is slow but strong on offense and defense, a light saber-type sword that is both quite fast and fairly strong, an a strange long-range shooting weapon that is hard to describe but is fast and allows Enoch to dash about. So even though most of the time you're just tapping Square (Or the equivalent), each weapon has variable stats, different animations for Enoch and they feel physically different. Also, there is more detail in the timing. Instead of always tapping Square frequently, you can adjust the rhythm of button presses to have Enoch perform some balletic jump attacks that feed back into the regular combat mode. The main function of this is to break the enemies' guard. There are times when the enemy blocks and you can't hit him, so by adjusting the timing, it can stun the enemy. Breaking an enemy's guard also initiates longer combo strings triggering different animations and attacks dependent on irregular timing.
There are a variety of enemy types that are loosely based around each of God's weapons, and each enemy has an appearance and feeling based on a specific weapon. So you have heavy big monsters (Resembling the shield weapon), light and floaty ones (The long-range weapon), and more regular-looking human types (The saber). Combat throughout the game consists of mixing and matching weapon types to enemies; each has a weakness.
The other side of the game is the platforming. The way the combat is connected to the jumping is neat and interesting. Usually after several battles, where you're travelling through the screen, the game transitions into a sidescrolling perspective where there are mostly no enemies. In these sections it is straight up platform game conventions and often feels very Mario-esque (There are even some tributes to various Mario conventions). There is nothing too taxing here, and it's just as straight-forward as the combat. What is interesting though is that the emphasis on timing and special abilities links both sections of the game, the combat and the jumping. So the skills you learn in combat are directly useful in traversal sections. Also, as each weapon's special ability has an influence on the way Enoch moves, some weapons make performing tricky jumps easier or more difficult throughout. There's an emphasis on choice throughout, and picking which ever weapon suits you.
The environments, the mood, and the art style are by far the most impressive things about the game. Each place that you visit is completely different, unique, and so elegant and crisp. They are not easy to describe and combine so many strange visual effects, but they all have a mystical godly aura and an ephemeral quality to them. It reminds me of Killer7, Okami, Ico, Rez, and No More Heroes. It feels like a wonderful combination of those graphical milestones, plus many other non-game elements that are very original. The dream-like mood and feeling of the game reminds me a lot of Killer7 mixed with Bayonetta; a feeling of moving through purgatory, and other heavenly spaces. El Shaddai is very creative about its interpretations of religious texts though and manages to create environments that evade simple descriptions. It's unlike anything you've seen in video games before.
The powerful orchestral scores for the game are stunning, and I have difficulty in describing it. I won't dwell on either the story or the environments though, as they are the core of the game and the surprise of playing El Shaddai. You really have to experience it for yourself, or see a video. Trust me; there are some true WTF' moments in store.
All things considered, I really enjoyed the game. At first it can feel monotonous because you don't get all the weapons straight away and it takes a little time to get a feel for the flow of the experience, but once you get the timing down and understand the weapons and how to use them creatively then it's good clean fun. The combat is simple, but well-built. It's not like in Bayonetta where everything is silky smooth and you can easily interrupt any move to begin a new one. A lot of the times the animations for the moves play out till the end, and it requires some forward thinking about whether you're going to dodge, defend or continue attacking once the animation finishes. Also, Enoch does not always auto-target the enemy so controlling him requires a bit more manual input than in the exquisite Bayonetta for example. Or you can just button mash. But it's much more rewarding if you time your button presses because you're working within the limitations of the character rather than blindly bashing buttons, and you're also creating longer combo strings.
I found the platforming sections to be very enjoyable also, and a lot easier if you work on the timing. Sometimes it can be frustrating though.
Don't think that El Shaddai isn't worth playing because it's minimalistic. The beauty of the game is how it fits together as a whole. You don't feel that its lacking anything because there's a strong harmony and balance between gameplay styles, it's well-paced, and the visuals, atmosphere, music and story carry it for the most part. It feels whole; it's all about feeling the aesthetic. However, El Shaddai knows it is a video game. It manages a great balance between being an old-school arcade game and being a beautiful moving painting that is constantly changing.
You can beat the game in about 5 hours but you'll surely want to play through it again as it's just amazing to see and feel and try to understand the story some more. On completion of the game you also unlock a HUD that displays your combo string, high score and health bar. The game also ranks you upon completion of each chapter and uploads the scores to online leader boards. It's understandable that the developers probably wanted players to concentrate on the immersive experience and story first time around, so those things were kept as extras.
El Shaddai is a rare flower that is delicate, doesn't bloom for long, but smells and looks gorgeous.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 09/21/11, Updated 10/07/11
Game Release: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (EU, 09/09/11)
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