What happens when the man behind the art and design of visually bold titles like Devil May Cry and Okami gets his own game? El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is what happens. This action title from Takeyasu Sawaki and his team bleeds style like no other, but there's more to it than a fistful of artfully designed landscapes. El Shaddai is streamlined Japanese-style action presented in an unfamiliar way, and will (ideally) be remembered as one of the standout titles of 2011.
The story of El Shaddai draws from the Book of Enoch, but don't expect a rote spiritual journey through a dusty tome. The gist of it is intact—as Enoch you must seek out the seven fallen angels and prevent a flood from wiping out mankind—but the narrative shines through its own unique brand of stained glass. The guardian angel Lucifel helps Enoch out along the way when he isn't posing like an underwear model and talking on his cell phone, but for the most part it's you against the fallen angels and their minions via a paper, rock, scissors style of action.
That may make El Shaddai's combat sound shallow—and more than a few first impressions I read from folks who played the demo hastily wrote it off as such—but nothing could be further from the truth. This is where that "streamlined" term comes into play. El Shaddai does away with the kind of combo-heavy gameplay most expect from titles like Devil May Cry, or even God of War. In place of thorough button memorization is a more subtle system that focuses on timing and charging without need for extraneous buttons. Delaying the press of the X button to attack, for instance, allows Enoch to glide over or around his opponent in a swift move that renders them momentarily unconscious. This is your window for snatching and purifying the enemy weapons, paving the way for the hearty meat of combat.
Weapons consist of three types: Arch, Veil and Gale. The Arch is your basic sword-like melee weapon, the Veil fires a series of projectiles from a distance, and the Gale is slower, but stronger and more centered on defense. The trick (and fun) of combat is figuring out which weapons work best against which enemies, bosses included, and adjusting combat on the fly to come out on top. Like any action title worth its salt, things start out somewhat rocky while learning the ropes, but with perseverance and practice you'll have Enoch flipping over and disarming enemies of all types like the graceful space ballerina he appears to be. Yes, his armor is strange, and yes, you can actually purchase those fabulous jeans.
Despite instructions routinely popping up to guide players on their way, there's very little handholding. This could either be a good or bad thing depending on who you ask. The free-form fighting and lack of HUD make for an unintrusive experience, but players will have to take it upon themselves to really master the combat, because the safety net of fallen angels that merely toy with Enoch vanishes before long.
Pulling El Shaddai furthest from the pack is its overall aesthetic. In a world where dull tones rule all, Sawaki's title is a painting come to life. Each level of the tower sports wholly unique assets, so the design of any given "floor" never has time to wear out its welcome. One moment has you in a crumbling, volcanic realm while the next throws you headfirst into a futuristic highway chase scene that will remind many of Final Fantasy VII. Then there are the frequent 2D platforming stages, which also run the full visual gamut, from cartoony to cataclysmic.
Speaking of platforming, that's one aspect of El Shaddai that's sure to frustrate some players. For the most part they evaded the many design pitfalls that plague action titles when they try to execute platforming sections; weapon selection even factors in to the way in which Enoch can float or dash mid-air, and Enoch's double jump is absolutely necessary. But there are still a few moments that find a shifting camera or awkwardly angled platform marring the process. For a game that almost completely nails the platforming, it's not a big deal, but it's definitely at its best in the side-scrolling stages.
El Shaddai is a title likely to be replayed by its fans—of which it will hopefully attract many—shortly after completion. Solid voice acting complements an oddly constructed but interesting narrative, boss battles are a blast, the art design and production has no real competition to speak of, and there are plenty of surprises in store. When you think you've finally perfected the combat, switch to a higher difficulty and get ready for a different kind of experience. In a time that even finds Japanese developers questioning their own place on the global stage of gaming, El Shaddai is a reverberating response; a shout from the mountaintops.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is out today on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.