The beautiful and divisive El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron… that’s the game I’ll be convincing you to play in this entry of For the Love of the Games, the bi-weekly column (or monthly… I’m still figuring it out, so bear with me and enjoy your free content) in which I give you X number of reasons why you should play an overlooked, under-appreciated or (sometimes) just straight-up bad game. Why would you do such a thing? Because if you love games as much as I do, you want your gaming horizon to be as panoramic as possible.
El Shaddai is a character action game from Takeyasu Sawaki, one of the creators of Devil May Cry and Okami, two of the classic-est classic games ever made, the latter of which is a torch carried by games-are-art snobs the world over (and if that bothers you, then boy are you going to hate the rest of this article).
The game itself is loosely based an an apocryphal text from the Old Testament. (“Apocryphal” is Bible-talk for “redacted,” which is government-talk for “Popes will decide what’s important for you to know”). It tells the story of Enoch, a human tasked by Heaven to track down seven fallen Angels who are corrupting humanity before He (that’s right, the capital H “He”… you know who I’m talking about) floods the world, which is apparently His solution for f***ing everything.
Now when I say that El Shaddai is “loosely” based on a Biblical text, I want to make it clear what “loosely” means. Yes, there are Angels and a guy named Enoch… but there’s also lots of Karate-fightin’, motorcycles, robots, designer jeans, and cute, cannibalistic monsters that look like they emerged fully-formed from Hayao Miyazaki’s butt… so… yeah, I guess it’s pretty much what you’d expect the Bible to look like in a Japanese video game. There’s even a Voltron in there.
Behold the Divine Bulge of Enoch
El Shaddai’s critical reception was pretty split at its release. Some praised its beautiful visuals and bold design; others derided its repetitive combat and simplistic platforming. Regardless of its faults, here are three reasons why you should play El Shaddai, if only for the love of the games.
Note: This article is full of minor gameplay spoilers, which kind of subverts the argument I’m making — that you should play El Shaddai because of its consistently unexpected scenarios. Oh well, but if you want to go in totally cold, then you probably shouldn’t read this. Boy, I’d make a great pitch-man.
Look At It
See that? That’s from an area of El Shaddai’s world called “the Darkness.” That is El Shaddai’s obligatory bleak stage — an orgasm of colors. If a unicorn could have sex with a Jackson Pollock painting, that’s what their babies would look like. It’s gorgeous, is the obvious point I’m trying to make.
And that’s just a glimpse at one of El Shaddai’s many environments. Take this:
El Shaddai can go from watercolor to Bladerunner to Disney to Salvador Dali and never feel disjointed or random, largely because this is exactly what “otherworldly” should look like but never does.
Usually “otherworldly” just means “Iceland”
A Tiny, Epic Narrative
El Shaddai is a game based on one of the richest, most convoluted mythologies ever created and made by the same country that gave us Metal Gear Solid and Xenosaga. So if you’ve never played El Shaddai, I forgive you for thinking what I know you must be thinking.
No, no — don’t run! There’s no dense exposition to sit through, no 40-minute cutscenes to glaze over, no encyclopedic vocabulary to be memorized…. Okay, there are some weird names and stuff, but I promise it’s all very manageable.
That’s because El Shaddai isn’t interested in doing the things modern games — of any nationality — are concerned with. That is to say, El Shaddai isn’t a soap opera — it’s an epic poem.
Consequently, the game isn’t interested with dense plot or intricate characters. El Shaddai is simply telling you a tale. What makes El Shaddai remarkable is how it tells its epic tale in the most minimal methods possible.
Pictured: Armaros the Angel fights with the power of dance.
There are a few cutscenes, but they’re all very short. Most of the plot is told through environments and narration, with your Guardian Angel Lucifel filling the blanks between levels and the Archangel Michael doling out bits and pieces of exposition during the game’s quiet bits where you’re simply running from Point A to Point B.
This method of storytelling also has the added effect of contextualizing the generation-spanning plot through the eyes of the immortal Enoch. For a man who’s lived an eternity, a few decades battling Fallen Angels would only feel like 10 hours.
El Shaddai is Abstract Art
Uh-oh. If you’re one of those types who just wants games to be fun and never ever anything more, then you’d best turn tail right now, ‘cause shit’s about to get arty, yo.
So I’ve talked about the things that make El Shaddai cool — the beautiful, constantly changing landscapes and the economical story, but those aren’t what make the game art. For the sake of argument, I’m defining games-as-art as games that use mechanics specific to games to do something more. In El Shaddai’s case, the game discards template and reference in order to subvert the player’s expectations.
So you’re tasked with tracking down seven Angels. Oh, you think you’re going to play a level and fight a boss, then repeat six more times as you systematically take out each Angel one-by-one? Yeah… not so much. Despite being, fundamentally, a character action game, El Shaddai never rests on that familiar template.
For starters, the game scoffs at your need for information by providing you with almost none. How much health do you have left? Well, when Enoch is almost naked and the screen is turning red, it’s probably time to find some health. How much special-move energy do you have? Are you glowing? If you’re glowing, then you have some. What are those things you’re collecting? Don’t worry about it.
Wait, but you want direction? You want to know every detail of what’s happening at every possible moment? Why? Like most games of its genre, El Shaddai is completely linear. Don’t know where to go or what to do? Here’s a ProTip: go forward and hit things.
A strange thing happened to me later on in El Shaddai. Throughout the game I had been seeking out a certain kind of hard-to-find item. They kind of looked like flaming, feathery question marks. What were they for? Hell if I know. Why was I so set on sniffing them out? Uh… they were shiny. I realized that I was only looking for them out of sheer compulsion, that El Shaddai hid these shiny things for me to find and I had to find them without even knowing what they were, simply because that’s what I’m used to doing after years of playing games.
I still have no idea what they did. I’m not saying they were useless; like other pick-ups in the game, I’m sure they had some purpose that just wasn’t immediately clear, but does that matter? El Shaddai basically conducted a psychological experiment on me and it worked. What the fuck, is this how Skynet is going to get me?
There is a balancing act at play here to keep El Shaddai’s eccentricities from corrupting your fun times. It’s the exact opposite of Catherine in that way… but that’s another article. Don’t worry that you’re suddenly about to die because you weren’t watching Enoch’s armor to see where his health was at; some simple button-mashing can bring him back from the edge of oblivion at least four or five times before you’re out. And even then, the checkpoints are many and frequent. Not sure if you’re leveling up your special powers enough? Don’t even think about it; just play the game normally and you’ll be fine. I never had to worry or rage in El Shaddai, which just means that I was able to sit back and enjoy the trip.
El Shaddai isn’t abstract just because of its ever-changing color palettes and art design, but because of what you’re actually doing while you play the game. One second Enoch is martial arts-fighting in a circular arena, the next he’s hopping over candy-coated platforms, the next he’s driving a motorcycle through a futuristic cyber-punk city-scape, the next he’s not even there and you’re playing as a completely different character!
You can be walking down a path, the game going on as you expect and the next boss just appears out of nowhere. And… shit, this Angel is really strong! How do I dodge that laser-beam-shoulder-charge combo thing? Am I supposed to lose this fight? Bah, but it seems like I can win it if I’m careful and… wait, what? It’s over? What happened?
You just have to roll with the punches and see what happens. This is never more clear than in the moments leading up to the final boss when… well, I won’t spoil the final encounter for you, but be prepared for a strangely fitting anti-climax.
And that’s what playing El Shaddai is like: either you’re along for the ride, ready to be told a story or you’re fighting for control of the wheel. But if you just sit back, play along and treat it like the gallery piece that it is, then you’re going to find one of the most engaging, interesting, unique, bold games you’ve ever played. This is what a game can be when a creator frees himself of audience expectations and familiarity — El Shaddai is a vision, not of gamers, but of a game-maker. And that’s why you should play it.
*Snake-as-Jesus image by MechaMonkey via this Destructoid article
Originally posted at Digital Hippos