If there is one game I remember blowing me away with its art style from the minute I booted it up, it was Okami on the PS2. The gorgeous watercolor aesthetic, coupled with bringing beauty back to a dying world, left me speechless. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron reignited these feelings and managed to keep on doing it throughout the entire game. You see, El Shaddai isn't just a typical third-person action game, but rather an experience that manages to blend art with some truly simplistic yet rewarding gameplay.
The story revolves around Enoch and his quest to find and take down seven fallen angels as mandated by heaven. The fallen angels have their minds set on enslaving humanity, and it's up to Enoch, with the help from his guardian angel Lucifel, to ensure the world doesn't end up a corrupted mess. It's a simple premise that will unfortunately leave you dumbfounded the first time through, partly due to how the story is presented–constantly switching to oddly placed cutscenes, and puzzling dialogue.
Switch your focus from the story and you'll find that simplicity is the overarching theme of El Shaddai. The game strays from overly complicated button combinations in favor of one attack button, a block button, and a modifier button. While you can certainly try to play the game as a button masher (and boy is it tempting), you'll find that you're easily bested by most of the enemies that way. You'll have to both time your attacks to ensure your enemies don't constantly block every move and block/counter incoming attacks as some of the enemies are absolutely ruthless. The attack modifier acts differently based on the weapon you're currently wielding, be it a quick dash or a devastating uppercut. What will ensure that you're constantly on your toes is the game's system of stealing your enemies' weapons and using it against them. There are three distinct weapons in the game–a bow-type melee weapon called the Arch, a ranged floating weapon called the Gale, and a shield that breaks apart into two powerful gauntlets called the Veil. Each of these weapons handle differently and have various degrees of effectiveness on enemies, which will constantly keep you switching things up during battle.
Simplicity also plays into the game's presentation. There is no HUD to be seen (at least the first time through the game). Your only indication of how much health you have is how much armor is attached to Enoch's body. It's an interesting concept and one that makes sense given the game's overall artistic flair, but there are some issues that make it an odd design choice overall. During the game you pick up red orbs that are the game's point system, though you'll never really get a grasp of how many points you have since there is no way of checking. Dying in the game is mostly inconsequential as you're able to mash buttons to get back up and into the action. However, there are points where it doesn't work, and it's not made clear why.
The showstopper of this game is the constantly shifting art styles. You'll be traversing a watercolored world that shifts from positive to negative colors, a level made up of stained glass characters, a colorful cel-shaded world, a world made up of towering walkways in the sky while grand fireworks go off, and even a world that's very reminiscent of Tron, with neon lights adorning every facet of the level. All of these varying art styles really make you appreciate the amount of detail that went into crafting them, and perhaps, even stop and take them in before venturing ahead. The game also throws in some different gameplay elements, such as switching it up with 2D sidescrolling levels, which are just as inventive both in their art styles and layout as the rest of the game.
A few cheap deaths thanks to the game's static camera don't bring down the overall experience, and it's a journey that you'll enjoy from start to finish. Confusion might set in early on, but given that the game isn't very long, you'll find yourself jumping back in and learning the ins and outs of Enoch's epic journey.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]