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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron Review

   El Shaddai is easily the best platformer I have played since the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Master System, which is a game I honestly never thought would be equalled in the genre, let alone surpassed. I have of course enjoyed many platform games over the years since, but while many are and were brilliant, none of them have come close to matching Sonics first Master System outing. Until that is when I finally played El Shaddai, a platformer that didn’t equal it, but surpassed and smashed it. Yet I have found myself staring at the box for the best part of ten minutes before starting work on this review, just contemplating on how best to go about reviewing this game. I have never felt daunted at the thought of reviewing any game, or felt so lost on how to approach one, but I find myself in just such a position with this amazing title. Not because its bad, or because I don’t understand it, but because it has overwhelmed my expectations of it by breaking free from shackles of decades old tradition, undermining my tired notion of what a platformer should adhere to be, while leaving me unable to wrap my head around various parts of it and quantify the game into a neat tidy label at its spectacular conclusion.



   El Shaddai is a game inspired by religion, taking much of its inspiration and story from the Old Testament and The Book of Enoch in particular. It is inspired by all the great stories, myths, places and people found within, and you will see and hear this religious Judo Christian influence throughout the game as it is the makeup and binding force that makes the game what it is. Apart from its Jewish and Christian influence, you will also come across others in the mix as well, Buddhism and Hinduism for example, though not nearly as strong they are clearly there, in some chapters they are apparent in the visuals, in others the music, but they are woven in there and are rather more subtle. Don’t think of this game as one that wears its religious influence on its collar and tries to force some belief upon you as that’s not what this game is about. Think more of ancient history and some of the old myths and stories, as the developers take that Old Testament good story telling aesthetic and feel and make a game influenced from it, and an amazing job they have done to, as El Shaddai feels like an ancient story about God, Angels and Man, one that doesn’t feel at all out of place.


   The way in which the story is told and presented also does it in such a subtle way that follows the ancient astronauts theory that God and Angels are, or were, extra-terrestrials, aliens if you will, who came to Earth, created mankind, had a plan for their creations and influenced their development throughout history. Furthermore heaven and hell are different areas where they preside and Enoch’s (Enoch is the main protagonist in the game) weapons from God as well as other things are nothing more than alien technology that ancient man interprets as god-like instruments. This isn’t something that is openly suggested or put to the player in any way, its just a subtle thing that’s there that is open to interpretation by the player. Whether this was intentional by the developer or whether I’m just projecting my beliefs upon the game and its story I'm not entirely sure. But what’s cleaver is that the game in itself can be left to this kind of interpretation by the player, (perhaps because of the religious theme and story, and religion itself being open to many ways of interpretation itself,) and what one may see within it may be different to what someone else will interpret from it. Again whether this aspect of the game and its story was an intentional element or not is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly a unique and interesting side to the game I haven’t come across before.


   The story goes that God has a purpose for Man, one that was put into place when he created mankind and placed them upon the Earth. God appointed his loyal angels, the Grigori to watch over mankind from Heaven, who over time had become besotted and captivated by the lives of man. They eventually descended from the Heavens and lived amongst man, influencing them and procreating with those they once watched over. The Fallen Angels corrupted man with sin, causing them to deviating from the plan God had laid out for them, creating a false path for man to follow. Angered by the Fallen Angels betrayal of God, the Council of Elders in Heaven decided that the only way forward was to wipe the Earth clean of man corrupted by evil and sin by creating a great flood upon the Earth. One man, a scribe named Enoch brought to Heaven by God, pleaded before the Council of Elders against flooding the Earth. They agreed to spare mankind on the condition that Enoch returned to Earth, find the Fallen Angels and bring them back to Heaven to face Gods judgment. So Enoch returned to Earth on his quest, guided by the Archangel Lucifel, he must find the Fallen Angels and cleanse man of their sin.


   El Shaddai is a 2D/3D hack-n-slash platformer, it seamlessly blends both 2D and 3D platforming elements together to such a degree the game has nailed the formula with its first go. In this game the transition between the two different perspectives has quite literally been worked to a fine art. One minute you will be in the 3D perspective, often with the viewpoint from an interesting angle, running, jumping and fighting enemies, then before you even realise it’s happened the perspective has stealthily transitioned into its 2D side on form. Its not always as subtle as this, there are of course parts that are all in one perspective or the other, but when the game transitions so seamlessly, it makes you wonder why it hasn’t become the norm in the genre already as it feels so naturally done.


   Each level is a varied mix of elements always changing as the game progresses, keeping things fresh and making sure the player can always expect the unexpected as far as level design goes. Some of the 2D parts are designed in such a way that they are superbly geared for speed runs, where a player is supposed to become so finely tuned into the level that they smoothly glide Enoch through it with ease. Other 2D parts are slower and perhaps a little more traditional in their makeup, these platforming parts are about being more careful and are certainly slower paced, having you fight enemies, avoid many of the pitfalls, lurking dangers and timing those all important jumps. The 3D parts can follow the same route, with levels designed for speed flow, with others about meticulous precision platforming and danger avoidance.


   The 3D parts however are where most of the games hack-n-slash fighting will occur, but rather than force the player to fight for every step en route, down narrow corridors and from one large area to the next, the fighting will take place in rounded type sections effortlessly blended into parts of the levels. You will quickly learn to identify these little areas dotted about each level, and upon entering them they become like small arenas, fenced off until you have defeated all of the spawning enemies or the end of level boss. Some players might not take to the way in which the developers have choose to implement the fighting in such a way like this, and I must admit it sounds more detached than it actually is, more so down to my inability to quite put this game into words than anything else. But believe me when I say that this really does work more in its practical implementation than it sounds, as El Shaddai is a game where all its sum parts seem to blend and flow together, fitting perfectly, and this particular area is no exception. You do of course face some enemies en route through the levels, but these are nothing more than fodder, they are there specifically to pose as an obstacle, to knock Enoch off his footing and into danger, nothing more nothing less, the real enemies lie in wait in the arena type areas.

   Combat is pretty simple, just as you would want it to be, with two buttons for two different types of attacks which when held down will make Enoch dispense more powerful variant attacks. Special attacks can be implemented by pressing RB and X, and later in the story a special overboost attack bestowed upon Enoch by the Archangel Uriel can be used when your boost level is full and by tapping LB and RB. Enemies can also be whipped up and attacked in the air and dealt multiple hits to wear them down, as well as being attacked on the ground by a hovering Enoch, allowing him to go on the offensive yet avoid any ground based attacks. There are no special powers as such in this game bar the overboost, and there are no over flirtatious and exuberant combo’s to endlessly string together that you find in other such games like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, nor can you collect, assign, build or equip different powers and power-ups. As far as the hack-n-slash fighting element is concerned, El Shaddai takes things back to its core roots, keeping things simple, uncomplicated and minimalistic. But this does not suck the fun from the games veins, far from it in fact; the game is just as fun and challenging as any combo power-up driven game in this genre. Stripping the excess from this area has made the fighting in the game feel fresh as much as it is in keeping with the style and flow of the game, while also ensuring the fun and challenge remain intact.


   There is a blocking system in El Shaddai, but it’s tricky to implement and will take some time to master and pull off. Blocking is split into a two tear system, holding RB will block some attacks but not all depending on the enemy and how they attack you, and you will still take damage here, but not as much. Tapping RB just before an enemy strikes Enoch will repel their attack and leave your foe off guard and open to attack so timing is everything. The blocking system in this game is partly like the one implemented in the melee survival horror game Condemned released by Sega back in 2005. Condemned, (while in the first person perspective,) also relied on perfect timing to block enemy attacks that when successful would repel enemies and leave them off-guard. The only difference between the two games being that Condemned didn’t have a two tear blocking system like El Shaddai.


   As well as being able to throw punches and kicks when finding himself without a weapon on rare occasions, Enoch has access to three different weapons through most of the game, though he will start off with one and the other two will become available when the game progresses. The Arch, Gale and Veil are the only weapons in the game and the only ones Enoch can use, each one very different to the other, with each better suited to different situations and enemies than the other, and each assigned its own unique special attacks. The Arch is like a Klingon Bat’leth, yet sounds exactly like a Lightsaber and is swung about like its essentially a sword, it’s the go-to weapon of the game that I found myself using the most as it also has an air glide ability when Enoch jumps, which come in pretty handy for all the platforming elements of the game. The Gale is a long range weapon akin to the bow and arrow, circular in nature like Xena: Warrior Princesses Chakram weapon, but with tiny metallic bolts that circle Enoch which he is able to control and fire in any direction. Finally the Veil, a weapon that is made up of two shields, one on either hand that are both used to pound enemies into submission. This weapon is the most powerful of all three, allowing Enoch to deal the most damage, but its trade-off is that it’s slow and cumbersome, leaving Enoch more open and susceptible to being attacked.

   There are a variety of different enemies in the game, and as you progress further you will start to encounter more powerful and challenging enemy variants, but the three core types are ones that use Gods three weapons. You won’t encounter them all from the beginning of the game; they will appear in battles once you have reached a point where another of Gods weapons becomes available to Enoch as the Arch is the only one available to him at the start of the game. They also become more powerful and challenging throughout the course of the game, so an Arch wielding enemy of Sin might pose a challenge and become easily conquered at the start of the game when you are getting to grips with things, but a faster, more powerful and nimble Arch wielding enemy will take its place in another chapter, and the same can be said of the other enemies.


   The highlights of the fighting are the many different boss encounters you will face in the game, all of which are varied, different and always surprising. At first you will never know whether you are in a boss fight for real or not, or at times whether you’re facing a mid-chapter boss or end of chapter boss as they can pop up and challenge Enoch at random. These seemingly random challenges will make short work of Enoch before transporting him back into a level, and serve as an element to keep you always second guessing which encounter will be the actual proper fight. As always in these kind of games, you can expect variety in the boss designs, the weird and wonderful, with multiple stages of attacks and attack patterns to learn and overcome, with each harder and more difficult than the last. My favourite boss encounter has to be Armaros, as it was not like any boss fight I have encountered before, with the seamless transition between cut-scene and gameplay, Armaros dancing in the foreground up against the TV screen as though he was dancing for a camera, and having Enoch fight dancing enemies in the background. To say this boss encounter was different and surreal is an understatement, and although Armaros might not have been the most spectacular and all conquering boss fight in El Shaddai, or in gaming history for that matter, it was surly the most memorable and stylish to ever be conceived.


   With all that said and done there are but only a few things about El Shaddai that I found to be amiss, nothing major or significantly game changing, just a few very small things, as the game is pretty much as polished as you could hope for in a game on todays current systems. You can either play the game with Japanese voice acting with English subtitles (much better and preferable to dub in my opinion,) or English voice acting and turn subtitles off, or set them to Japanese. The problem with the English voice acting doesn’t rest with the acting itself, as the voice work in the game is superbly done, but lies with the lip-sync, as is common with dub, it can be out of sync and noticeable. This shouldn’t be a problem in games really as the lips for in game characters and cut-scenes can easily be synced to the voice, but in El Shaddai it hasn’t been done, at least not in a way it should be done with a game, but more like English dub you will find in movies. It’s not all that bad, but it is noticeable in the cut-scenes, you wont notice it in the game though as the camera is to far away from the characters.


   The only other complaint is that when you get caught in an enemy attack, or stringed attack, it’s almost if nigh on impossible to break free. Once enemies get hold of Enoch and whip him up into their attack patterns, then he is essentially locked in for the duration until it’s over, so no matter how you try and break free, you just have to accept the punishment and wait until it’s over. More than anything else this is just frustrating; it’s not a bad mechanic, its just punishment for not successfully blocking in the first place or dodging an enemy move.


   The game didn’t leave me furrow browed, more like slack jawed, I appreciated every minute of it, yet was left with my head wrapped within its meandering story and gameplay. You don’t play El Shaddai, as it’s not a game to be played; you experience it, as it’s a rare gaming experience that doesn’t come around too often. El Shaddai is a game to be seized upon if given the chance to play it, as it’s not often a game ebbs and flows so serenely, yet will always keep you second guessing every twist and turn of your journey through it. El Shaddai extends its hand to you, offering a journey and an experience, where story and gameplay are inseparable and intertwined, one indistinguishable from one another. If you have reached that point where you truly crave a unique gaming experience set within this familiar of all genres, which is not constrained by its formulaic tradition and rules, then you may want to extend your hand to.

   I’m hoping that if anything I have at least peaked your interest in El Shaddai, enough to make you want to give it a go, as I could have wrote at length about the graphics, but I think the screenshots will speak for themselves, so let’s just say the visuals are quite breathtakingly beautiful. I have tried my best to put into words as much as I could and give you, the reader, a simple understanding of what to expect from the basic makeup of this great game, but El Shaddai can’t be fully explained. Its like that one thing that’s always on the tip of your brain, but you can never fully grasp and pin down into words; it’s always just out of reach, which is why it can only be fully understood by experiencing it for yourself.

2 comments:

Hola, buenas tardes, ¿cómo se presenta la semana? Espero que genial al igual que tu genial blog, por cierto, feliz año nuevo (con un poco de retraso jajaja).
Tienes una página muy especial e interesante, te felicito por tu gran entrega. Me ha encantado; buen diseño, lenguaje legible, bien organizado y ameno. ¡En fin, qué más puedo decirte! Espero que sigas creciendo y que nunca abandones este espacio tan personal, recuerda que un blog es como un hijo recién nacido, crece y evoluciona con el paso del tiempo hasta convertirse en una persona de éxito y respetable, pero para ello hay que saber cuidarlo todos los días.
Te sigo, así que seguiré visitándote siempre que tenga un tiempo libre para ver las restantes entradas y las nuevas que subas. Te deseo mucha suerte y espero que pronto subas un nuevo post para disfrutar de él.

Si me lo permites, ahora me gustaría invitarte a mis dos blogs:
a) !DIARIO DE UNA CHICA POSITIVA!: página de literatura personal desde un punto de vista optimista y siempre guardando alguna moraleja en mis relatos:
http://insolitadimension.blogspot.com.es/
b) TOMB RAIDER MANÍA: espacio dedicado a la franquicia de Lara Croft, todas las noticias actualizadas, las últimas horas:
http://tombraidermania.blogspot.com.es/

Un gran abrazo desde Málaga y gracias por compartir un trocito de ti.

Thanks for your kind words : )

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