After a few minutes into chapter one of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, my controller was sitting idle. Not unlike the first time I got my hands on BioShock, I had failed to notice the line where a cut scene had ended and a playable game had started. BioShock's aquatic plane crash executed this moment by seeming too real to actually be something playable. El Shaddai arrested my attention as well, but rather because it was so fantastic and surreal I didn't think it was actually playable. Pastel, muted blues mixed with touches of lavender had teamed with impressive water and reflection effects to create one hell of a dream-like setting. At the time I hadn't played enough of El Shaddai to speak of its most basic mechanics, but I was head over heels for its art direction.
Nearly six years into the current console cycle, it's sort of insane to kick off a review gushing over visuals, but the strength and consistency of El Shaddai's presentation begs immediate consideration. What's most impressive is El Shaddai's resolve to burn off something beautiful and immediately replace it with something completely different yet equally impressive. Picturesque stained glass could have been a background for an entire level, but it's spent on a few mesmerizing minutes before being discarded in favor of faux hand-drawn animation, exploding fireworks, water-paper filters, silhouettes, or, to keep with the theme, god knows what else. Every time you think El Shaddai has finally blown its load it seems delighted to show you something new (chapter seven, in particular, was a hysterical punch in the face).
It should come as no surprise that Takeyasu Sawaki, Okami's art director, directed El Shaddai. Fierce imagination was a given, but the gameplay end was a relative unknown. A character-action label might summon comparisons of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but the minds behind El Shaddai, seemingly aware their talent (or budget) wasn't enough to compete in that stratosphere, deliberately scaled back their combat mechanics. A single button is assigned to attack and can be augmented with a guard and a jump. They also didn't bother with the usual contrivances of collecting experience or shiny things to level up the character. What seems like lazy design felt more akin to what Jonathon Blow singled out as leveling up the player, rather than the avatar; with the exception of a mid-game super attack, the moves you have at the beginning of El Shaddai are the exact same ones you'll have at the end. In terms of challenge, the game changes, but it requires the player to actively participate in the journey.
That's not to say there isn't depth to El Shaddai's combat. Rather than focus on absurd button combinations and stringing infinite combos, El Shaddai dolls out three distinct weapons and challenges the player with managing the correct one. An Arch is a medium sword-like weapon, the Gale represents the weak ranged base "gun," and the Veil is your slow, but defense-high bruiser. Strategy is injected through enemy classes that are weak to each weapon; Arch beats Veil beats Gale beats Arch et cetera. It gets really tricky when certain bosses require a constant shift in weaponry, albeit weaponry that is rarely in short supply. From there combat becomes a game of pattern memorization, patience, and precise timing.
Character action games are always constructed around their particular set of rules. I wished with all of my heart that God of War III's Kratos could break out of animation with the finesse of Bayonetta, but such an endeavor would have probably broken the game. El Shaddai has that usual Eastern penchant for locking the character into his selected animation, but it sometimes felt that was more of a flaw than a feature. The Gale seemed better suited toward a lightweight, on-the-run style, and maybe I was just terrible at it, but I often suspected my repeated defeat was not always my fault. I adjusted, of course, but I sometimes couldn't play El Shaddai without wishing it felt more like something else.
Your character's health is also a bit different. His armor (and weapons) can break away with repeated abuse, and if he's stripped down to his skivvies he can die completely. Mashing on the buttons like madman will revive him up to four or five times, which sort of acts as lives, but they're certainly finite. The challenge on normal was appropriate, though I did find myself falling in the habit of getting to boss fights and letting myself die immediately so I could start anew with a new set of "lives."
El Shaddai also repeatedly flirts with both 2D and 3D platforming segments. Both seduce the player with the fantastic art direction, but only the 2D segments manage to do anything interesting with it. Riding waves or messing around with playful Nephilim make for whimsical and carefree breaks in combat, but sections that rely entire on 3D platforming, such as the entirety of chapter eight, usually err toward infuriation. Your character's jump, kind of like his fighting style, is too locked in his animation. Even with the Arch's ability to enable a slight hover-land and, it's near impossible to correct a mistake in mid-air. The penalty for jumping into a bottomless pit is relatively minor, but the frequency at which it occurs renders it simply annoying. It only gets worse with the increasingly difficulty of spinning plates, rolling platforms, blind jumps, and evaporating floors. It's not a game breaker, but it feels like the development team lived within their means for combat but bit off more than they could chew with platforming.
I haven't yet mentioned the narrative because I mostly have no idea what the hell happened in it. In concept, and occasionally in practice, it seems pretty cool. El Shaddai uses the Book of Enoch as a foundation but spins it Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet-style by outfitting its characters in trendy clothes and rather outlandish armor. Basically, seven fallen angels descended to earth and started fornicating with humans. Enoch, a mortal turned angel via God's will, is charged with descending to a tower and reigning in said angels, for if he were to fail God would solve the problem all (literally) Old Testament-like with another global flood.
The fiction is legitimately interesting, and El Shaddai shines with a decent writing and a competent voice cast (Jason Isaacs’ Americanized Lucifel is particularly impressive). The problem is El Shaddai tosses out dozens of intriguing threads and doesn't bother with tying up many of them. I thought the Nephilim were interesting, and Armaros’ wild personality (and ultimate fate) would have been worth developing, but they're either reduced to a passive explanation or dropped entirely. El Shaddai got the hard part right in selling me on its fiction, but it either wasn't interested in fully explaining it or didn't make it easily accessible (Ishtar's Bones, for example, were elements I only noticed in the instruction book - after I had beaten the game).
El Shaddai features the usual tropes of post-game content; harder difficulty and a ranking mode among them, but what I felt most rewarding was the simplest of all - a level select. The bad taste left in my mouth by chapter eight would have normally ensured I wouldn't play the game completely through again anytime soon. A level select allowed me to relive my favorite bits, and show friends the strength of the art direction. After all, that's the best part.