Beauty can be a dangerous thing. The promise of exploring a world rich with the fruits of artistic expression can lure the unsuspecting into a visually impressive but fundamentally lacking wasteland. And on the surface, El Shaddai: The Ascension of the Metatron gives off a strong "look but don't touch" vibe. Evocative landscapes grab your attention, but the rudimentary combat system built around one measly attack button makes it seem as if this religious adventure is all style and no substance. Fortunately, this is no button masher. Slicing down foes with your array of celestial weapons takes skill and precision, though the depth doesn't fully reveal itself until you unlock the harder difficulty settings. But even when you're playing on normal difficulty, the smooth rhythm of combat serves as a wonderful complement to the expressive aesthetics. El Shaddai: The Ascension of the Metatron uses its beauty as just one part of the experience, not as a crutch propping up a shallow facade, resulting in an enticing adventure that satisfies on many fronts.
Enoch the scrivener doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. Originally chosen to document the deeds of the elders, this courageous human is cast down to Earth to round up fallen angels before God washes away their sins (and the lives of countless humans) in a devastating flood. That's no small task for a man who's far more comfortable with a quill in his hand. This intriguing setup is based on apocryphal tales from ancient Judeo-Christian texts, and those unfamiliar with the source material may find it difficult to follow along. Characters are introduced and then forgotten without much fleshing out, so absorbing details can be tricky. Although you might not understand everything being laid before you, the manner of storytelling is intriguing. Plot details are conveyed in a number of unique ways, which goes a long way toward keeping you invested. Animated cutscenes alongside still shots sprinkled with expository text make up the bulk of the narrative. But the more interesting story elements are woven into the gameplay. There are times when you run through simple 2D canvases with dialogue filling in important pieces, and the integration of story within the action gives added weight to the experience.
While it's true that you may not grasp the esoteric story, you'll be hard pressed to tear your eyes from the screen thanks to the extraordinary visual design. El Shaddai takes place in an incredible-looking world that is an absolute pleasure to stare at. The abstractly-rendered environments defy description, exhibiting a wealth of imagination. Landscapes use a blend of flat textured surfaces with sharp colors to create a realm that is easy to lose yourself in. In one area, crosshatched black plains close in, suffocating you with their bleakness, and this confining sequence clashes wonderfully with the icy brightness of a serene outdoor vista. In another level, obsidian-black platforms encircled by an orange ring hover above a fiery red backdrop that conjures images of burning hellstone. In the distance, pastel fireworks dot the sky. Tribal chants interposed between psychedelic trance beats create an atmosphere that's difficult to shake out of your mind. The music enhances every step of your journey. Religious hymns, pulsing rock anthems, and calming guitar riffs cue up in key moments to temper your mood and keep you invested.
Underneath this abstract and ambitious surface, you find that El Shaddai is a straightforward action adventure that blends combat and platforming in both 3D and 2D settings. Although gorgeous, the various stages you inhabit are mostly linear, allowing only slight steps off the beaten path for the rare hidden item. This confinement does limit your chance to shake free of the shackles and stretch your legs in this pristine world, but this design choice is not without benefits. What El Shaddai lacks in freedom it makes up for in razor-sharp focus. There is a strong push to move forward at all times, and you find yourself running into fights, leaping between platforms, and sprinting across magnificent lands without a moment's hesitation. The visual and audio design do a great job of keeping you excited to push on ahead. New landmarks spring into view every few steps, calling you onward, and the varied soundtrack shifts between songs to ensure your ears are just as happy as your eyes.
Once challenged to a duel, you need to shift your focus from the atmospheric wonders to the demonic monsters closing in. Because your repertoire of moves is limited, combat is based more on positioning and timing than on trying to figure out which attack you should use. Every attack makes use of just one button. You perform different moves based on how you hit it (tap versus hold), if you use a modifier (which launches enemies in the air), or whether you're jumping or standing firmly on the ground. Block and jump buttons make up your defensive maneuvers, and you can dodge as well. It sounds simple, and it is easy to pick up, but there's more complexity than you might initially realize. Like all sentient beings, your enemies don't like being attacked. If you rush at them with rage in your eyes, they can just turtle, before countering with a flourish once you tire yourself out. But if you tap your attack in a slowed-down rhythm, you initiate a special move that knocks away their shields. Mastering this attack is a key to success. Combat feels like a violent dance in which you must keep perfect time if you want to excel. Tap too aggressively, and you might as well be swinging at a rock; tap too slowly, and you leave yourself vulnerable.
With each successful strike, you visibly damage your maniacal foes. El Shaddai is played without a HUD (you do unlock an option to use one once you finish the game), though the expertly designed visuals ensure you're aware of all the information you need. Both you and your enemies wear armor that gets destroyed as you take damage. When you land a particularly powerful attack, you can see the effects of your anger displayed on their ravaged bodies. It's an empowering feeling to knock your well-armored opponents silly until they're just running around in their skivvies. That almighty feeling goes both ways. Enoch loses his precious protection as fights wear on, too, and there's no better feeling than when you win a fight after digging in your heels when you're at your end. If you do fall in battle, you can revive yourself if your fingers are quick. Slamming on the shoulder or face buttons brings you back to life, though each successive attempt is harder than the last. Waking up at the last possible second and then tearing your stunned opponent to shreds is absolutely exhilarating.
Aside from your fists (which you do need to rely on during certain portions), there are three different weapons to play around with: arch, veil, and gale. The arch is the first weapon you're introduced to and the most versatile in your arsenal. It's a lightning-fast melee weapon that can deal a ton of damage in a hurry. The veil offers another way to let loose melee attacks. It is a combination of a shield and gauntlets, and though it's incredibly strong, it's also quite slow. Landing a few powerful hits shakes the screen (and your foe) in impressive fashion, though coming to grips with the timing can be tricky. The final piece of the punishment puzzle is the gale. This is much different from the other choices. Instead of rushing in close, you wing arrowlike objects at your enemies from afar. But when they get too close, you can use your dash to run them over like a steamroller.
Every weapon has strengths and weaknesses; just make sure you keep them clean. During the course of battle, your weapons slowly degrade from pure to corrupt. Once they turn to the dark side, they lose almost all of their impact, so you're just wasting your time flailing away. By tapping a button, you cleanse your tool, but be careful with your timing. You're vulnerable during those precious seconds, and this little twist adds another layer of depth to the combat. Although you're usually restricted to fighting two enemies at once (new ones jump in when their allies fall), it can be tough to keep your enemies at bay when it comes time to purify. At least you have another option. Once you sap away your opponents' health, they become stunned. That's your chance to steal their weapons. This is the only way you can switch weapons (you don't carry spares), so choose wisely. Taking enemies' weapons makes them significantly weaker, but you may be stuck with one you're not proficient with if you're not careful.
Combat rises above its simple appearance to deliver the depth and rhythm to keep you fully immersed in your actions. But once you reach the halfway point of this roughly eight-hour adventure, you've seen just about every permutation of enemies and weapons possible. Although your enemies come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, almost all of them use the same basic fight styles. Depending on which of the three weapons they carry, they attack in a different way, and it doesn't take too long to figure out how to deal with each. Because the mechanics are responsive and fun, this isn't a huge drawback, but it's still a noticeable issue. This is remedied somewhat on a second playthrough. When you fire up the game for the first time, you can choose only normal or easy difficulty. But once you defeat the end boss, two harder difficulties open up. It's only when you ratchet up the intensity that the beauty of this combat system is revealed. No longer can you take for granted victory in any fight. Even the lowest of the low can finish you off if you're slacking, and mastering counterattacks and dodging is an incredible rush.
Although ordinary enemy encounters become predictable after a few hours, the boss battles continue to challenge and surprise until the very end. Major encounters are not always handled in a typical way. When you enter a new area (in search of one of the fallen angels), you often face your opponent rather quickly. These one-on-one affairs can be over in mere seconds because of the superior strength of your sparring partner. But even when you do fall, you continue playing, fleshing out the story through gameplay rather than noninteractive story sequences. Most boss fights don't let you continue on if you're not up to the task, however. Your opponents take a variety of shapes, and you have to do some strategizing to figure out how to exploit their weaknesses. In one battle, the boss morphs into different forms throughout the fight, and you have to use the correct weapon to deal damage. In another, you face two boarlike creatures at once, and your best chance at victory is tricking them into charging headfirst into each other. Each boss brings with it a new challenge to overcome, which paves the way for the most exciting action sequences in the game.
El Shaddai strips away camera control so you can concentrate on fighting rather than on trying to coax your enemies into view. However, the camera still pans around the arenas automatically, and there are times when your enemies are offscreen that you really wish you could see them. This is thankfully rare, though, and the in-fight camera does a great job of framing the action. Dynamic angles give you an up-close look at your impressive strength. This is especially true when you snatch an enemy's weapon for your own use. The camera focuses in on this tussle, and it's hard to contain a smile when you rip an arch from your foe's hands and see in his eyes that he knows you're going to kill him with his own sword. The camera is not nearly as pleasant during platforming portions. Judging distance in 3D can be a serious problem, and it's way too easy to miss a platform that you were sure was right under your feet. Forgiving checkpoints mean you won't have to trek over the same ground, but it's still not fun jumping into a gaping abyss.
There's a decent amount of platforming in El Shaddai. Despite the camera issues, jumping can be fun even in 3D because the platforms are usually placed in an intelligent manner so you can enjoy the smooth movement controls instead of worrying about your approaching death. The 2D portions are much better. This is a very basic platformer, with the occasional moving elevator or falling block providing the only twists, but that's a strength in this adventure. Simply running across the ground and leaping high in the air feels so good that it's easy to get lost in the rhythm and just let the experience wash over you. This feeling is magnified by the incredible visual design. In one sequence, while you run through a flat world, a dramatic scene takes place behind you. Presented entirely in silhouettes, two seemingly giant individuals are fighting tooth and nail. After every blow, a taunt or plea is made, and you watch the whole thing play out while you leap through the picturesque scene.
El Shaddai is such a gorgeous game that it would have been worth playing even if the combat was merely average. But developer Ignition Entertainment gave reasons to play beyond its outstanding visual design. The combat system makes excellent use of its narrow moveset to create an enticing experience that demands focus and determination to prevail. And when you finish the game the first time, you unlock score attack missions that give you leaderboard challenges to strive for. There are some rough patches--camera troubles, repetitive enemies, and occasional framerate hitches among them--but nothing glaring enough to distract you from this wonderful journey. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a delight to play, engaging your thumbs and your senses in one tidy package.