Game Review: El Shaddai, Ascension of the Metatron
In today’s Study of Spirit I’m going to be taking a step back from the world of spiritual science to bring you work from my original field of study: Video games! I hope that you enjoy this break from my usual articles, and pray that you bear with me; I am not at home for the next week, so updates will be sporadic at best.
The reason I chose this game to review is its subject matter’s implicit links to spirituality, the Judeo-Christian mythos, spiritual science and indeed the vast majority of the subjects we at the Study of Spirit love discussing and investigating. The game itself appears at first glance to be a pedestrian hack ‘n’ slash game akin to a grotesquely simplified Devil May Cry, made unique only by unquestionably stellar art direction and a bizarre story.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron isfar more than it seems at first glance.
The plot of this game is more than complicated. It is hard to understand at the best of times, encompasses huge time-skips and has huge amounts of cryptic and ultimately unanswered points which are left intentionally open, so as to inspire theory and conjecture as to their true nature. The events which unfold as you play are, because of this, intriguing in a way that I have never experienced in a title before- which is an impressive feat to say the least. This is not to say that anything is vague- it’s all there to be discovered through log entries, collectables and cut-scenes, but these only go to inspire the feeling that the tapestry of fate that you perceive is only a thread in a far larger narrative.
You play as Enoch, an agent of God who (with the help of the black-clad angel Lucifel) is sent to earth to bring an end to a rebellious clan of fallen angels, lest God floods the Earth to rid himself of this nuisance once and for all. These beings have created a tower, hidden from the eyes of the almighty, and are abusing mortal souls by turning their heads from the light and into free thought. There’s talk of the Nephalim and Seraphim, and a colossal war between the agents of God and the rebellious humans who use the gift of free will he gave to oppose him. Needless to say this subject matter is powerful enough before your intervention in events even begins; the issues discussed so casually by El Shaddai are the subject of mass debate by theologians all over the world, and the game takes you through them with an incredible ease and clarity.
The game takes place almost entirely within the tower created by the fallen ,although by the time you enter Enoch has already been on Earth for 200 years and undergone many trials and adventures which we experience only as a single opening cutscene. These events are far from inconsequential, but at first glance appear only to be trivial matters which don’t concern Enoch’s larger objectives- underlining the importance of subtext within the game’s narrative.
I love that shit.
The tower itself is a mess of surreal dreamscapes which take us from a cubic realm of order, to a colourful cel-shaded 2D platformer, to a massive tron-like metropolis traversed by infinitely cool motorbikes and mechanical angelic constructs. It’s a brilliant location, and lends loads of visual variety to the game, as well as altering the very way in which the game itself is played. This is fundamentally vital in a hack and slash game, as repetition is almost a hallmark of the genre- you go from place to place despatching minions and fighting huge and cinematic bosses, and it’s really nice to find a game with such a juxtaposition of serene simplicity and quintessentially Japanese mayhem.
The way El Shaddai is played is refreshingly simple, and could be played on a SNES pad it’s controls are so concise. You have four basic functions: Attack, Block, Jump and ‘purify’, and that’s it. Four buttons. Combining these buttons or altering the timings of your inputs can cause a near infinite string of actions to take place, but short of special moves and ‘overload’ (a function similar to DMC’s ‘Devil Trigger’) the entirety of what you do with these condensed controls comes down to one thing: Finesse. The game doesn’t give you a counter button- countering is done by pressing the block button at the right moment, or by reversing the enemy’s weapons via purification. The combat system is very open, and is simple and easy to learn, but will take more time than any of us have to truly master.
Purification is one of the game’s most interesting concepts, and on the face of it is the rather rudimentary ability to steal an enemy’s weapon and turn it against them. As you progress through the game you eventually realise that these weapons are a far deeper mechanic than those in even the most prestigious hack and slash games, in spite of the limited number of weapons available in the game, at a meagre three. This system allows for a basic ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ affair, by which blades are great for disposing of long range enemies, but awful at more heavily-armed, shielded foes.
You have to constantly switch between the game’s three weapons by stealing them from enemies, as Enoch has no inventory space to place them in, keeping the combat exciting and frenetic. Even the most basic moves in your repertoire are altered in subtle ways which make each weapon invaluable so long as you know how to utilise them; there’s a lot to remember, but ultimately once you figure out how each weapon works you feel like an unstoppable force of righteous fury.
As I said, the Artstyle in El Shaddai is beautiful, and it changes with every layer of the tower. The sound, music and voice acting are all up to a similar par, and very rarely disappoint- you may hear a lot of repetitive dialogue from bosses, or tire of the sound of your shots hitting home, but for the mostpart the game is fun for all the senses. The largely cel-shaded aesthetic lends itself well to the story being told, and as the situations we face as an audience intensify and degrade so too does the look and feel of the game. Not many games can pull this off with the clarity and success that this title accomplishes, and the end result is something which looks and sounds unforgettable.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron a romp through the world of spirituality with a surprisingly efficient and brutal method of storytelling. It’s unsurprising that the game is found in bargain bins due to its occasionally baffling plot and archaic control scheme, but as I said before, it’s far more than what it appears to be and if you’re willing to stick with it past the first few hours you find yourself rewarded with an experience with outstrips any modern Hack and Slash games. When you have a toss up between this, a beautifully written, artfully directed and intensely thought-provoking game which has conversations between Lucifer and God at every save point; and Devil May Cry 4, a game in which you play as a whiny little bitch for the first half and a non-character the second which deals with similar subject matter in a far less graceful way you really have no choice at all.
Overall, I loved my time with El Shaddai, and if you have any love of theology, debate, spirituality or even just an interest in great games you really, really have to play it. It’s cheap, gorgeous and very, very intense from start to finish, with some very interesting metaphorical gameplay thrown in.
It’s a £5 Asura’s Wrath beater without any of the awful QTE sections. Buy it now!