Review: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

2011 was a year of absolutely massive games that have gone on to be considered classics. Portal 2. Skyrim. Dark Souls. The Witcher 2. Hell, one of my favorite games of all time (Deus Ex: Human Revolution) dropped during this absolutely stacked period of gaming.

With hit after hit dropping, though, a number of smaller (and weirder) releases were bound to get overlooked. Take for instance, a game based on biblical apocrypha that features a dude in armor and jeans beating up fallen angels in worlds apparently designed by someone on the highest quality acid available. The insanity of that sentence is was drew my eyes to El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron back during its initial release ten years ago.

I remember finding it intriguing, but ultimately it didn’t hold my interest. My roommates at the time loved it, though. Overall, it was a fun but fleeting footnote amongst the various games I played that year.

Enter current year, a year where oddball one-offs and cult classics such as Deadly Premonition and Psychonauts are seeing ports and sequels releasing to modern systems. It’s during this strange game renaissance that studio Crim, headed by the original director of El Shaddai, decided it was finally time to bring its game back into the spotlight. And with a full PC port, no less.

Developed and published by Crim, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron was released to PC via Steam on September 1st, 2021.

Psalms

El Shaddai follows Enoch, a human and a scribe whom Heaven has decided is the perfect person to hunt down fallen angels. Seven angels, to be precise: the Watchers, who were tasked to watch over humanity but instead fell in love with it and abandoned Heaven.

Assisted by four Archangels, as well as the guardian angel Lucifel, Enoch seeks out and invades a tower that the Watchers have created. It’s here he must find them, defeat them, and imprison them for all eternity.

As mentioned earlier, El Shaddai is loosely based on biblical apocrypha: the Book of Enoch. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anything about esoteric biblical texts, but from a cursory glance (thank you Wikipedia), it mostly seems to provide the characters and basic theming of the game – Enoch himself, the idea of the Watchers, the names of the angels, the existence of Nephilim (offspring of humans and angels).

In practice, it seems that the developers took these ideas and slapped them with as much anime as they possibly could, creating a story that is both incredibly intriguing but also difficult to follow. The opening of the game, where one would expect some story groundwork to be laid, instead takes the player through a few random vignettes, starting off with a sudden battle against a Watcher only for time to be rewound…I think? Then we see Enoch getting his task, a quick rundown of the Watchers…and an 800-year time skip.

From here, most of the story is told via narration by Lucifel, leading Enoch through a series of bombastic setpieces that do very little to clear up what the hell is going on. Why do Watchers just randomly pop up to fight me? Why tell me that I will be meeting a group of anti-Watcher humans in a specific area and then they never actually show up? Why does Lucifel use a flip phone to call who is apparently God? Why does Enoch suddenly know how to ride a motorcycle??? I have no idea.

But, you know what? I was still highly entertained by this vague story seemingly held together by a few staples and some string. I already entered El Shaddai expecting insanity, being that the initial premise is “anime bible stories on drugs,” and I honestly would have been disappointed if I had received a well-thought-out and easy to follow plot.

Deuteronomy

Despite all the insanity happening everywhere at all times, El Shaddai is a simple beat-em-up at its core. And by “simple” I mean “you’ll be hitting one button 90% of the time.”

All of Enoch’s combos are mapped to a single button, but the rhythm at which you press that button is the key to the game. Sure, you can just smash it like crazy, but as the game progresses, you’re not likely to last long. But, if you decide to pause for a second before pressing the button some more, Enoch will perform a guard break attack. Hold down the button at various points during the combo, and Enoch will bust out some stronger moves depending on which weapon he’s holding.

The weapon system here also helps to add more options to El Shaddai‘s single-button combat. Enoch can equip three throughout the game: the Arch, a melee sawblade thing; the Gale, a set of floating guns; and the Veil, a shield that also acts as gauntlets. Each weapon has some special properties (the Veil boosting your blocks and defense, for example) and they have a rock/paper/scissors relationship with each other when fighting enemies.

The thing is, Enoch can only hold one at a time. To get the other weapons, you have to weaken enemies and steal them to make them your own. In battle, this often leads to some quick strategic thinking. Do you disarm the Gale-wielding enemy first so they can’t take potshots at you from across the arena? But if you do, the other enemies on the field are wielding Veils, and you’ll be weak against them.

Unfortunately, once you figure out how the weapons work and the ideal ways to disarm enemies and put them to use, El Shaddai quickly begins to get repetitive. Basic enemies rarely change their tactics. You’ll be seeing the same enemies at the end of the game as you do at the beginning. Sure, once you’re adept with each weapon, arena fights can be done in a flash, but they begin to feel more like time sinks than rewarding gameplay.

Boss battles, though (of which there are numerous), are a different story. Compared to the repetitive tactics of arena fights, bosses often offer up unique mechanics to keep the player engaged. From the various Watcher fights to taking down a giant fire-spewing Nephilim, these were the setpieces I usually looked forward to.

Shame that the bosses are so damage-spongey, though. Many of these fights end up lasting so long that they overstay their welcome. Sure, the various mechanics are fun to figure out at the start of the fight, but then they start repeating themselves again…and again…and again. If every boss fight had maybe five minutes cut from the runtime, then things would be perfect.

When you’re not striking down angels and demons, you’ll be doing plenty of platforming. Most of it is super simple – jump across platforms, avoid hazards, maybe a few platforms move. There isn’t much mechanically interesting here, it’s mostly moving from point A to point B while staring at the stunning art on screen (more on that shortly).

The perspective often switches between 3D and 2D during these moments. The 2D platforming is the best of the two – quick, snappy, and speedy. 3D platforming here feels slow and a bit slippery. I didn’t miss jumps constantly, but enough to become frustrated at some points.

Revelation

If there’s one thing El Shaddai was known for upon its initial release, it was its visuals. I am glad to say that, with this new PC port, they have held up shockingly well.

The sheer amount of creativity from the development team practically bleeds from the screen with each new area Enoch explores. From watercolor mountains to pastel playgrounds, neon-lit raves to crushing mechanical cities, the game never stops offering up new forms of eye candy. No single style sticks around for too long either; it’s the one thing in El Shaddai that truly never gets repetitive.

Unfortunately, the character models don’t hold up quite as well. Enoch and the angels all do have interesting designs, often clashing interestingly against the various backdrops. The fidelity of them, though, is rough. They’re the one thing that screams that this is a port of a small PS3/360 generation game.

Also, despite most of the game running at a solid 60FPS, random cutscenes appear to be locked at 30. I didn’t see any rhyme or reason to this, either – some of these scenes were in engine, some were not. It kind of feels like Crim just forgot to optimize a few cutscenes here and there.

Aurally, soundtrack is surprisingly good…and shockingly extensive, with nearly 70 tracks. The music here is more subdued that everything else in El Shaddai would lead you to expect, often leaning toward the ambient and ethereal. If anything, it’s the music here that feels the most “biblical” and connected to the themes of the game’s inspiration.

Judges

Overall, I step away from this new port of El Shaddai with much the same opinion I had as when I played the original ten years ago. It’s an intriguing premise with absolutely stunning audiovisual presentation, but the repetitive gameplay struggled to hold my interest. The story I’m mostly neutral on – it’s just plain odd and told in a weird way, which somehow works in the full package.

However, I do appreciate the opportunity to reexperience this oddball release on a modern platform. El Shaddai was one of those strange experimental games that I had thought lost to time. I would like to give props to Crim for bringing it to PC, where it may potentially find a larger audience.

If anything, El Shaddai is worth looking into just for the experience. Is it a good game? Honestly, I wouldn’t say so. But the opportunity to get lost in beautiful worlds inspired by obscure bible references may be worth the price of admission to some.


~ Final Score: 6/10 ~


Review copy provided by Crim for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.