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Thursday, May 31, 2012

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (7.1/10)

Occasionally a game comes along that raises some eyebrows simply by being... well, bizarre. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is such a game. Touted for it's unique art style, El Shaddai is an experience that will prove difficult to describe. At first glance it looks like something you'd force a person on acid to play just to see the results. Explosions of color, movement, and impressive layering makes the game a visual tour de force. Part third person action game, part 2-D/3-D platformer, El Shaddai is an eclectic experience to say the least... it's just a pity the gameplay doesn't do the pleasing aesthetic justice.

The story is apparently taken from the Book of Enoch which is an old Jewish text. The adaptation is liberal to say the least. Apparently there is a giant tower that has sprung up some where it shouldn't have and Enoch, a priest, is tapped to dispel the fallen angels who dwell therein. While it's clever, it's not well presented and is clumsily told. Let me put it this way: your save points are the Devil (a smartly dressed Asian gentlemen) talking to God on a cell phone, updating the Almighty as to your progress up the tower. To say this game is quintessentially Japanese might be an understatement.... 

The gameplay is part arena combat, with a mixture of different platforming styles. The controls are pretty simplistic. This is fine, but it can go from way too easy to frustratingly hard with a quickness due mostly to the poorly placed fixed camera. I found myself sadly button-mashing away in a lot of instances. Still, it is important to become proficient with all the different weapon styles. You have one that is essentially a sword, which deals average damage, called the Arch. Another choice  one that doubles as a shield and, upon splitting, gauntlets that deal massive damage. Lastly there is the Gale: a smaller ranged weapon that surrounds Enoch. This is the fastest but weakest of the three.

Enoch will face enemies in arena style areas, unable to progress until he has defeated them all. Those enemies will also wield the same arsenal as he will. The goal is actually to disarm your foe, then use said weapon on him and his companions. It's important to disarm as early as possible because a weapon-less foe will be less of a nuisance, even if you end up with a weapon you'd rather not use. One weapon doesn't seem to be more effective against a different one, so it's really more about what type of play style you enjoy.

Enoch kinda looks like he is wearing a brassiere. Sorry, that's supposed to be his angelic armor? My fault. The problem is that when he gets hurt, his armor chips and cracks until it falls off. Since there is no HUD (until you finish the game... then you can have a HUD in the second playthrough. Wait, what? How does that make sense?), damage is indicated on both yourself and your foes by the amount of angelic armor that has fallen off. When they're down to just their loin clothes (or your dashing jeans), then you know you've got em where you want em'. Then you battle on, Enoch bravely wearing overly tight blue jeans... and that's it. It's not a particularly pretty picture, especially considering his anime caricature is so vivid. I found it jarring when compared to the beautiful backgrounds and stunning vistas.

The art design and direction are just fantastic. But all the pretty colors and shiny lights wouldn't have nearly as much of an impact if not for the amazing level design. It's a mix between 2-D and 3-D platorming levels, some are even combinations. These sections are reasonably challenging, but I never got the sense that there were any repercussions to failure. In a way it reminded me of Prince of Persia, the cel-shaded remake. The platforming would be a lot more alarming and challenging if there weren't invisible walls everywhere preventing you from falling off all the narrow platforms. Plus, one of your weapons, the arch, allows you to glide a bit at the end of your jumps which almost makes the platforming too easy. Another bizarre design decision is whenever you miss while platforming you restart right back to where you just were. There is what distinctly sounds like the clicking of fingers as if to say "Aw shucks, you died... whelp, here you go!"

A lack of camera control can make platforming even more trippy... although in a bad mushroom trip sort of way. Part of the problem with the lack of camera controls mixed with the artistic style is that it can be difficult to tell where you actually are in relation to the enemy on the battlefield. On more than one occasion I tried to strike my foe only to miss because I wasn't properly lined up. These frustrations bleed into all facets of gameplay. Upon reflection, I might have had more fun playing El Shaddai if I had done my first playthrough on easy.

I know this will sound like hyperbole but I'm gonna say it anyway: El Shaddai is a visual masterpiece. It's like modern art. I honestly can't think of a way to describe it beyond telling you to look it up online. Colors layer and bleed over one another in such a way that it's difficult to know where to focus your attention. Considering this is as much a platformer than anything, this sort of trick-of-the-eye provides an extra challenge. Each new level of the tower provides a new visual treat. I wouldn't say much for the minimalistic script and average-at-best voice acting, but the soundtrack is appropriate to the inherent weirdness of the art design.

But there was so much to the game that was never explained, and I'm not just talking about the paper thin plot. For example, you can earn red orbs by defeating foes and smashing containers. But for the life of me I don't know what they were for. Do you collect orbs to power your sword? Or is it to revitalize it? Or just make it clean again? I'm honestly not sure what they are for or how it worked. The menus, while not strictly overtaxing, are bizarrely designed. There is a weird pause when bringing up another screen. It's not overly surprising considering this is essentially an import, but it's still mildly annoying.

But far and away my biggest complaint with El Shaddai is simply that it's too bloody repetitive. You see pretty much all the enemy types early on, and then they are just recycled at different strengths and combinations. The boss battles are just frustrating slogs, waiting for your opponent to try one of three or four different attacks before dashing in, chipping away at their health, and then dodging until the opportunity presents itself again. As the enemies get more difficult, battles become longer, and deaths more infuriating. The second half of the experience becomes more about the frustrations of combat and platforming than the beauty of the visuals and design.

Overall, El Shaddai boasts some very clever design and a smorgasbord of different yet beautiful art styles, but ultimately falls somewhat short in execution. The combat and controls aren't particularly sharp, and the boss battles are more of a trial than anything. Here's the thing: El Shaddai is worth checking out simply for its visual flair. But beyond that, I can't find myself recommending it. The controls in battle are imprecise at best, frustrating at worst. The story is too confusing to be ludicrous. And the overly repetitive combat leaves a lot to be desired. But despite all it's flaws, El Shaddai is just unique enough to warrant a rental if you're looking to try something different.


Score = 7.1 / 10

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