Review | El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (PC)
Back in 2011, the third-person action-adventure ruled the roost. Franchises like God of War, Darksiders, and Devil May Cry brought dark, edgy, rock-inspired energies to combat. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron was different. Half art piece half brawler, El Shaddai brought bright colors and abstractions to its forefront. Focusing on themes interwoven from Christian and Islamic faiths, it instead upholds holy order over “dethroning” it. Instead of complicated button combos and move lists, it streamlined combat to nearly a single button. Even with flaws, it was remarkable a decade ago. Now, with a release on Steam, there’s a new chance to appreciate it on PC.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron tells a story from the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal part of the Bible. In the game, seven Fallen Angels descend to Earth and lead humanity astray with a “false evolution.” The Council in Heaven decides to purge the world with a second great flood…unless someone stops the angels.
You play as Enoch, a human scooped up off the Earth by God for his purity. Enoch’s love for humanity convinces him to try to find another way to fix the problem. Armed with weapons representing the “Wisdom of Heaven,” Enoch ventures back to Earth and battles his way up a corrupt tower, meeting friends and foes along the way.
Staying simple, yet deep
El Shaddai’s core combat loop revolves around a weapon triangle. There are three weapons: the lance-like Arch, heavy gauntlets called the Veil, and the ranged shooting Gale. Like rock-paper-scissors, each weapon is strong against one and weak against another. Enoch carries one weapon at a time, so you’ll have to find weapons in the world or steal them from stunned opponents. There’s only one attack button, but you can vary the assault by changing input timing. Pausing or holding the button down unleashes shield breakers, counter-attacks, and heavy blows. You’ll also have to find pauses to purify your weapon, as it dulls over time from fighting.
All these mechanics put together means that combat feels complex and gripping on normal difficulty. I found myself analyzing enemy groups, making strategies of which opponents to disarm and when. This worked well for standard enemies but fell apart with bosses; they didn’t use traditional weapons and I sometimes couldn’t determine which weapon would do the most damage. Occasionally an “Eyes of Heaven” pickup let me see if my weapon was strong, neutral, or weak to an opponent, but I wish I hadn’t needed to rely on those random drops with bosses. Regardless, the boss encounters stay engaging and varied, with each boss requiring different tactics. But even if combat is El Shaddai’s bread and butter, its real charm comes from everything surrounding combat.
A visual and auditory masterpiece
Even a decade after the original release, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron stands out as one of the most visually striking games I’ve played. Each floor of the tower channels a completely different visual aesthetic. Some are like dark, high-tech futures like Final Fantasy VII. Others channel vivid, fluid Japanese watercolors. Stages play with art and perspective, switching from 3D to 2D and back again, or creating Escher-like platforms to navigate (which some will find frustrating). The designers’ willingness to experiment creates some genuinely stunning visual moments that reinforce the game’s plot.
Unlike most other games, this one immerses players more in the visuals by having nearly zero HUD. Damage, health and other info is shown with reactions and armor in-game. This makes some parts feel mystifying (does collecting red orbs increase my level/damage? I don’t know.), but leaves me much freer to appreciate the aesthetic world. I’d love to see more games take this approach. This also adds a point in favor of the PC re-release: the game was beautiful on Xbox 360 and PS3, but playing now in up to 4K resolution is fantastic.
Complementing the visuals is a stellar soundtrack that doesn’t miss at ANY point. The music shifts to keep you in the right mood, whether deep and pensive or action-packed. Sound design in general is great, with crisp effects to match brilliant musical composition. Fans of Final Fantasy XIII (of which there should be plenty more) will enjoy the ways rock licks smooth into choral odes, and with 63 tracks, there’s plenty of variety to love.
The light, the darkness, the consequences
These pieces all come together to prop up the narrative in El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. I didn’t remember much about the plot from my time a decade ago, but it’s sitting with me now. Contrary to many game themes of “attack and dethrone God,” you play as a holy warrior fighting for God’s will. And yes, this is a battle between Light and the Darkness, but it doesn’t feel clear-cut. The Fallen Angels create a world that humans love and worship, and they want to unleash humanity’s potential. “The Council” in Heaven is willing to wipe out humanity for the corruption they understand; they seem concerned, but unattached.
Then there’s Ishtar, who fights the Fallen Angels for humanity’s “freedom” (a term I feel like the game uses loosely). And there’s also Armaros, a Fallen Angel who learns about humans from Enoch while in Heaven. Without spoilers, his plot handling is so frustrating (particularly as the game’s only assumedly Black character) it deserves an article all its own. Even though the game gives a “clean” ending, it’s hard for me to feel it’s anything but.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron at its core shows complexity in simplicity. A story about religious forces of “good and evil” ends up nuanced, enigmatic. The combat system, the visuals, and the soundtrack all take simple pieces and show the ways they can be deeper… there are so many places to find depth in what first seems shallow. El Shaddai is not a perfect game: some pieces of story miss the mark, certainly. Combat and platforming can be mystifying even for the experienced in some places. Even with those misgivings, I’m incredibly thankful that this game is back for a new audience.
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