Games: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron Review

Ten short years ago, a game like El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron probably wouldn’t have been released outside of Japan. It would’ve been imported incessantly, spoken of in the highest possible terms by frequenters of the internet’s more highbrow gaming forums, and those people would probably still be discussing it today. It’s entirely dedicated to adhering to its own harebrained vision and its gameplay is never anything less than thoroughly unusual, so it’s invigorating to be living in a day and age in which such an odd proposition is readily available to anyone who wants to sample it.

The plot is largely nonsensical but only up to a point, as this is a very literal westernised version of something that was completely off-the-wall even in its native tongue. Apparently based on the Jewish Book of Enoch – Enoch being Noah’s grandfather – it’s a proudly bewildering story about a priest (or “scribe for the elders”) who’s tasked with finding seven angels who’ve fallen from heaven, in order to prevent a flood from decimating the human race. So far, so bananas, but plot isn’t El Shaddai’s concern. This is a game that’s primarily about design and atmosphere.

And it looks utterly, utterly remarkable; easily the most visually arresting game of the year, and perhaps even the decade. These bewitching visuals are accentuated by some permanently outlandish sound design, and the combination renders some of the game’s environments downright haunting. The sparse, vaguely Greek retro-futurist world calls to mind the old French/Japanese animation Ulysses 31, and it’s so proud of its own pomposity that it sometimes feels like an adaptation of a failed West End rock opera from the 1980s. Distinctive doesn’t even begin to cover it, but all of this would be for nothing if it wasn’t engaging as a videogame.

Refreshingly for a title that initially looks as if it might play by the same rules as every other third-person brawler, combat in El Shaddai is all about timing; with your attacks mapped to a single button. This attack is sometimes used in conjunction with a second button, but rhythm is always key. Simply hammering away will trigger one of the game’s (brief) combos but dropping in a brief pause will activate a more powerful attack that can be used, in most cases, to break your opponent’s guard; and subsequently chain more attacks together. It’s surprisingly nuanced for something so simple, and incredibly rewarding once you’ve grasped it.

You only ever wield one of three instruments – the Arch, the Gale or the Veil – and each one has its own specific set of intricacies. Because you can’t carry more than one at a time, deciding when to steal a different one from a dazed opponent (which is the only way that you’ll ever get your hands on a new weapon) becomes a strategic pursuit in itself. Though these third-person sections (which make up for around 70% of the whole game) are undoubtedly the most gratifying, El Shaddai is frequently spiced up by some superb side-on 2D platforming sections that are every bit as challenging and visually rich as the 3D portion of the package.

There’s at least one maddeningly frustrating boss battle and the 3D combat is a great deal more confident than the (occasionally problematic) 3D platforming, but those miniature quibbles aside, El Shaddai is essentially perfect. You’ve never experienced anything like it (honestly) and the beautiful, crackpot aesthetics are as essential to its success as the gameplay; which means that describing it as an “experience” rather than a videogame is the only proper way of accurately communicating the far-out pleasures of it. In a word… marvellous.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is due for release of Friday September 9th, 2011 on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

Watch the El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron trailer here: