El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is unlike any game I’ve ever played. Except when it isn’t. Varying back and forth between wildly inventive and incredibly formulaic, this is a hard game to wrap your head around. Moments of true beauty make it well worth playing, but doing so on PC has some challenges.
Adapting The Book of Enoch, an ancient Hebrew religious manuscript most religious sects don’t consider canonical to the bible, El Shaddai puts you in the role of Enoch himself. Noah’s great-grandfather, Enoch, is tasked by God to seek seven fallen angels living on Earth among humans. He needs to purify them to stop the world from being flooded.
Perhaps It Was Yesterday, Or Maybe Tomorrow
Have I mentioned that El Shaddai is crazy? Because El Shaddai is a crazy game. It takes place either 360,000 years ago, 14,000 years ago, perhaps yesterday, or maybe tomorrow. Your main form of assistance comes in the form of Lucifel, the pre-fall Lucifer, who acts as your main communication with God. He also talks on a cell phone, offers up a motorcycle, and wears a leather jacket. Because he can apparently travel through time.
The story of El Shaddai is mostly nonsense, but it’s entertaining nonsense. The tone is incredibly over the top, and the whole thing is more than a bit hot and bothered. There’s no HUD over the game, at least on your first playthrough, so you only know how much health you and your opponents have based on armor that wears down over time. I actually loved it, but it isn’t lost on me that these chiseled characters end up pretty much naked a fair amount of the time.
Like Nothing I’ve Seen Before
The biggest strength of El Shaddai is its presentation. Each of its eleven levels has a completely different vibe, and they are nearly all astonishing to look at. Not from a technical perspective. El Shaddai never impresses on a pushing polygons level. It wasn’t when it was first released on PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2011, let alone in 2021. Yet despite its dated visuals, it’s still a sight to behold because of the constantly changing style.
One early level looks like you’re inside some sort of living firework. Another puts you in 2D platforming sections that look like something out of Loco Roco. An underwater level somehow isn’t a pain. Even within levels, things often shift. A trip for a biblical character to a futuristic city somehow is one of its less interesting levels to look at. The soundtrack is also glorious, further elevating the game’s incredible sights.
Combat Plays Things Safe
However, for all the risks the development team took with El Shaddai’s style and story, they played it shockingly safe from a gameplay perspective. Actually, playing El Shaddai is mostly a shockingly generic action game of its era. Combat is built around three weapons. First, you have your arch, a bladed weapon shaped like a bow which also can help you float through the air. There’s also veil, a couple of short-range gauntlets which combine into a mighty shield. Then you have the gale, a long-ranged weapon that shoots regenerating shards. The three operate on a sort of rock-paper-scissors system, with each having a weakness to another.
My favorite of the three was the veil. But don’t get too attached to any of them. The flow of combat has you constantly shifting between these weapons. Enemies use the same set of weapons, and when you knock them down, you can steal their weapons. This gives you invincibility for a moment and disarms them, making them far easier to kill. You’ll want to regularly jump between them in most battles, though some fights may be easier if you stick with one. Sticking with one weapon for too long leads to its corruption as well. You can purify them, but unlike stealing a new weapon, you’re vulnerable while doing so.
Keeping Things Fresh
Combat feels fine, but it’s a bit repetitive. Each of the weapons has its own rhythm, but none of them feel truly great. There are some crazy 3D platforming sections with truly inventive layouts, but your character feels a bit floaty, and fixed camera angles can make it hard to gauge your jumps. Thankfully the game is pretty generous with reviving you, even providing an in lore explanation for it. 2D platforming sections are better designed and exciting, though they rarely provide much challenge.
The biggest reason El Shaddai is fun to play comes down to variety outside of combat. Nearly every level throws something new at you, and while a lot of it is pretty basic, it helps break up the rather simple design and stops it from getting too repetitive.
A Port That’s Rough Around The Edges
Transitioning to PC isn’t always a smooth process, but I have some concerns about this version of El Shaddai. The gameplay is mostly fine, with combat feeling relatively smooth. While rare, frame drops often seemed to hit me at truly inopportune moments, leading to several deaths. I also had the game completely crash to the desktop on multiple occasions. With that happening so close to launch, I definitely hope extra work goes into stability in the coming weeks.
On top of that, the entire interface feels very 2011. To the point where I almost wonder if a PC port was started back then and it was just finally completed in 2021. It isn’t a huge deal, but it makes certain options awkward to access and doesn’t play well with Steam Link. The whole thing feels somewhat lazy as well. Something as simple as a warning screen telling you not to turn your console off. It doesn’t really impact the game, but it’s the sort of thing that feels like it should be an easy fix.
While I wouldn’t want to play it time and again, El Shaddai is an experience well worth having. Some of the sights and sounds in this game are so different from anything I’ve ever seen in a game that I can only marvel at them. The gameplay may be simple, but its ever-changing stages keep things fresh long enough for you to reach the end. It isn’t quite a holy experience, but it’s one I won’t soon forget.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), PS3, Xbox 360; Publisher: crim Co., Ltd.; Developer: Ignition Tokyo, crim Co., Ltd.; Players: 1; Released: September 1st, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron provided by the publisher.