September 11, 2011
From the off, it's as if El Shaddai is telling you that what you're about to experience isn't like anything you've seen before. Because shortly after you start the game, you end up back at the title screen again - it's as if the game is testing you. Once you've passed this test, you take up the role of Enoch, a priest who is seeking to make seven fallen angels face judgement in order to prevent a great flood that would threaten the existence of mankind. You see, these fallen angels have made a new world for humanity and have twisted the laws of evolution - something that God isn't all that happy about.
Throughout your quest, you'll be helped by a guardian angel by the name of Lucifel. He's dressed in a rather sharp get-up and is always keeping God up to date on your progress throughout the game on his mobile phone. It's really rather odd to see him in a helpful role, as Lucifel is synonymous with evil. But again, almost everything about the character epitomises what El Shaddai is trying to do - it wants to be different.
It works on the whole, but it is possible to feel quite disconnected sometimes due to the pacing. At times it all feels a bit disjointed. There are plenty of lengthy action sequences, but the equivalent lengthy cutscenes are rather infrequent. It makes it hard to get too invested in what's going on, which is a shame, as there was a wonderful tale waiting to be told. And when the game wants to tell its story, it draws you in with no trouble at all.
What's unfortunate is that the gameplay doesn't display the same charm. While the story feels like a missed opportunity, it still succeeds at providing an engaging experience. The gameplay on the other hand, does get quite stale.
The main problem is that it lacks any real variety. Despite the game being pretty long, you can count the number of enemies you'll face on one hand. In a way, by trying to innovate, the developers did shoot themselves in the foot. You see, the game works around a three-weapon mechanic with there being two melee-based weapons and one ranged weapon. The problem is that one of the core mechanics is the ability to steal an enemy's weapon. It means that all the proper enemies you face can only use these weapons and as you go through the game, they just get a bit more proficient at using them.
It also means that you're constrained to only ever using three weapons, and the game is decidedly easier if you do indeed steal your enemies weapons (they will die a lot more quickly). So, despite you having a degree of choice about what you do combat-wise, it's all rather bland and feels a bit forced.
The same applies to the moves each weapon has too. There isn't much variety here either. There is a standard attack, which can be used as a combo attack, and there are also charge attacks when on the ground and in the air. If your opponent is blocking, it's also possible to use a guard-break move, which is pretty powerful. That's all you'll get though.
Even with the lack of variety, there are some nice touches to try and break the monotony up a little bit, like the necessity of purifying weapons. When you deal damage to enemies, your weapon (a gift from God), will become corrupted. When it becomes fully corrupted, its damage output will be severely reduced, so you need to purify it while the combat is still all taking place.
How the game deals with health is also a nice touch. Instead of giving everyone health meters, you can tell their status by looking at their armour/clothing. The more people are hurt, the less armour they will have and this applies to everyone in the game. Should you find yourself with no armour, you'll be donning a pair of jeans - they look quite fletching. But should someone then land a fatal blow, it's not game over. By mashing buttons, you can get a second, or third, or even fourth wind. It does get more difficult with every success though, so be warned, you can't just rely on this mechanic.
There are also platforming elements, which are a bit hit and miss. Sometimes they're side-scrolling affairs, sometimes they're fully three-dimensional. Sometimes they work well, sometimes they become frustrating due to the precise jumping distance required or a dodgy camera angle. It feels like it was a necessary part of the experience, as it would otherwise have compounded the problems with the combat even more, but it could definitely have been handled more effectively.
The same also applies to the game's art style. Often, it is absolutely gorgeous. The developers clearly wanted to step away from the expected and try something different. The result is a game which changes its look and feel with almost every chapter, but never loses its core identity. It's why there are so many different types of platforming, but also a driving segment which wouldn't look out of place in a Tron movie. But sometimes it does feel as though things are taken too far, which results in colour palettes that don't mix very well.
When it comes to length and replay value, El Shaddai does deliver, somewhat. The experience will take around 6-7 hours, but upon completion it is possible to go through again on harder difficulties while trying to compete with people's scores around the world.
In many ways, El Shaddai is a shining light for the industry. It tells a bold tale, while trying to innovate in multiple areas. However, what's ironic is that it also suffers from self-inflicted monotony and frustration. The combat system has some high points, but there's little to differentiate the numerous battles you'll experience and the platforming also suffers from highs and lows. If you want to try out something different, then El Shaddai is well worth it, but don't expect the experience to be thrilling all the way through.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron was reviewed on the PS3. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.