In the UK, Ignition Games has kind of become the company that releases those compilation packs of SNK games like the King of Fighters franchise, and the Mercury puzzle series; whilst in the USA there output has been much more versatile, with games like Muramasa and The No More Heroes games. Distribution rights aside, the company has set up their own development companies to bring original content to gamers hands. The awkwardly titled El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron turned more than a few heads when it was first unveiled to the world, with it stylized, colourful art direction, but does the game have the substance to go along with the pretty imagery?
El Shaddai bases it story on the Book of Enoch, an ancient religious text depicting the journey of God’s Chosen One, Enoch. Enoch has asked the council to allow him to try and recover seven fallen angels known as the Watchers, who became obsessed with humanity and are trying to become part of the human world, and force them to Heaven before their actions bring about the destruction of Earth from the nephilim, strange creatures that are the offspring of the alliance of mortals and angels, that despise and consume each other and get bigger as they do.
The story is told in a few scattered cut scenes and on the fly narrative from the various characters you’ll meet along the course of the game seven to ten hour run. Lucifel, an archangel sent to advise Enoch on his mission and act as a save point. And Hanna, a young girl raised by the few humans who oppose the rule of the fallen angels. The story’s narrative spans several years, but is generally an excuse to send you from place to place and plays second fiddle to the game and its style.
El Shaddai is an entirely linear game, and while at first glance it feels like a fighting game that requires little more than mashing buttons before moving to the next area, there is more to the game than first meets the eye. There’s a fair amount of variety for a start, as while you’ll be engaged in combat a lot of the time, you’re also be asked to do a fair share of platforming in both 2D and 3D planes, and come across some one-off set pieces along the way; like driving a motorbike at high speed down a Tron like futuristic city whilst being chased by robot assassins.
The platforming portions are perfectly acceptable when in the 2D segments, but the floaty jumping and fixed camera angles makes judging distance in 3D needlessly difficult. While you are re-spawned immediately – with a slight energy loss – these platforms segments create a lot of tedium and frustration and it’s not long before the prospect of yet another 3D platforming section becomes a not entirely welcome one.
A lot of the time you’re be feeling as if the game is ushering you down corridors – or narrow walkways with invisible walls to stop you plummeting to your death – to the next encounter and this is pretty much the case, as combat plays the biggest role in the game. Thankfully, the controls here are fluid and intuitive, nearly flawless, which they need to be because the game can be fairly unforgiving. Offsetting this are the frequent checkpoints and save points, meaning you’re never far away from where you left off, should you fall in battle. You health is represented by your armour, which slowing crumbles away as you take damage. When you’re knocked down in combat with no armour, the game will give you a chance to get back on your feet if you can mash the face and trigger buttons fast enough, giving you another chance – and some armour back – getting harder to perform each subsequent time.
Many enemies you encounter also don armour as both protection and health indicator (a few bosses use the older green/yellow/red color arrangement). It’s a novel approach to the problem and allows the screen to be uncluttered with the gauges that generally appear in games. The irony is that after you complete the game for the first time, gauges become an option that can be toggled on or off
Outside of a few boss battles, your enemies are comprised of either humanoids in armour, or else geometric shapes or black spidery blobs, you’ll face the same enemies throughout the game, with better armour as you progress, making the game seem repetitious. Luckily combat is both accessible and rewarding in its own right. A quick press of the attack button yields the usual start of an attack, but holding the button down with charge up a stronger one; additionally, holding the block button acts as a modifier to the actions you perform, either by delivering a hard hitting strike, or – with jump – an quick evasive manoeuvre. Your actions will depend on what one of three weapons you’re carrying at the time.
The Arch is the game basic all round sword; the Gale is a projectile weapon with a weak defence but high mobility and the Veil is heavy on defence and can be used as gauntlets for a strong, but very slow offence. The arch is effective against the Veil, which in turn blocks the Gales projectiles, which gain more potency against Arch welders. It’s as basic a rock-paper-scissors mechanic as they come, but it works. Occasionally you’re come across the Eye of Truth a visor that allows you to see if your current weapon is more or less effective against the enemies you’re facing, but it’s too infrequent to be actually useful – although it best use is during boss fights.
It is worth noting that the game likes to play around with the person playing it, the first instance of which is what seems to be an early boss battle that results in the game pretending to reset after you lose. You find more scenes like this throughout the game as well as situations where the goal seems more about going the distance than actually winning. The game never uses this to frustrate the player, just keep on your toes and take nothing at face value and enjoy the ride.
Bosses are a somewhat different story from the regular enemies, requiring quick reflexes and a certain amount of patience to get through. Most fall into patterns that can be exploited, and like the regular enemies, they pull of attacks that leave them open to counters. While bosses at times some can feel insurmountable, the ball eventually drops and you start to spot the flaws in their attack strategies and are able to wear them down and go onto the next stage. El Shaddai strikes a fine balance with it bosses, and it rewarding them you finally strike them down.
The game’s art varied art style runs the gambit, from Chinese water colors, to etchings to anime. The nephilim, for instance, look like something that might come from a Studio Ghibli production (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). Whatever else the game might be it really is one of the more unique looking games in this day and age. The frame-rate is rock solid no matter how much is happening on screen, enemies are suitable animated and the whole presentation feels polished.
We had a few instances where the screen would go black after attacking enemies, with the sound continuing to play in the background. While not generally a problem – it’s extremely rare and the game starts back up from the moment it blacks out with no issues – we did come across one section where the dialogue played out but the game refused to continue on until it finished putting up the subtitles.
The music score is as excellent as the visuals. At times sober and contemplating, whilst energetic, majestic and soaring at others. The English voice work is on the whole rather good, although the Japanese language version is there for those who wish to hear the game in its creator’s native tongue.
At points soaring, at others jarring, El Shaddai is certainly not a game for everyone. Yet if you’re the type of gamer that wishes to experience a hard won battle set across some of the most surreal and colourful landscapes for a long while, dive straight in. I can’t promise that you’ll love being part of Enoch’s adventure, but you should remember it and at a time when there’s so many generic shooters out there, sometimes, that’s enough.