The tripped-out Testament
“Catch ya later.”
Three simple words, but they set the stage perfectly for El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron when Lucifel—the game’s metrosexual, designer-jeans-clad incarnation of that most famous of would-be fallen angels—uses that casual signoff to end a cellphone conversation with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords Himself. It’s the perfect shorthand to let you know the deal right off the bat: These ain’t your Sunday School Bible stories.
Outside of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, in fact, these aren’t anyone’s Bible stories, for that matter—though it’s doubtful services in Addis Ababa regularly reference Biblical-era roaming charges. Ignition asked Okami character designer Takeyasu Sawaki to craft a tripped-out Japanese interpretation of the Book of Enoch, an obscure bit of ancient Dead Sea Scrolls Biblical Apocrypha that details portions of the Book of Genesis from the perspective of Enoch, a human so pious that Yahweh personally selects him to serve as His heavenly scribe.
Sawaki obliged—with flair and aplomb, naturally—but outside of a few out-there elements, El Shaddai surprisingly follows the original scripture reasonably closely. Seven seraphim sent to watch over the plebeians down below have instead gone rogue, indulged themselves in carnal delights, and helped humankind construct a tower to the stars—you likely know it as Babel, though it goes unnamed here—and, as expected, God is most unpleased with these developments. As Enoch, it’s your job to ascend this blasphemous edifice and bring justice to these wayward winged servants. Otherwise, the Lord promises to unleash a flood of, well, Biblical proportions. And if you’ve read your Torah, you know God ain’t bluffin’—He’s been known to hold a bit of a grudge.
Given its novel trappings, you might expect El Shaddai to feature esoteric, inscrutable gameplay, but it actually plays like a reasonably straightforward action-platformer. Enoch explores each level of the tower, each with its own theme and fantastical art style, jumping and slashing his way through a host of unholy foes. With only three weapons and several palette-swapped baddies, though, combat can get a bit repetitive—but thankfully, the environments never do.
El Shaddai also does a good job of breaking up the gameplay between combat, platforming, and spectacular 2D side-scrolling segments, which means you’re never stuck doing one thing for too long. After a while, though, it becomes very clear that Sawaki desperately wants you to look at the art. He pleads that you look at the art. The game lacks any onscreen menus or lifebars—the only clue you’re running low on health is when your armor shatters and the screen begins pulsing crimson. Strangely, though, El Shaddai does unlock a heads-up display option after you’ve completed the game.
These stylistic choices also affect certain platforming segments; Sawaki wants you to view the action from a certain camera angle just so, and you’ll mistime several simple leaps of faith that end up needlessly obtuse. And despite its surreal, imaginative style, El Shaddai too often seems to settle for standard combat and pedestrian platforming sequences. That’s a shame, because a handful of times, Sawaki really cranks up the craziness—and it works absolutely brilliantly.
Ignition’s previous localization efforts have badly disappointed—with some amateur-hour voiceovers neglecting elements as rudimentary as native English speakers—but they seem to have turned a pivotal corner with El Shaddai. Harry Potter veteran Jason Isaacs perfectly portrays Lucifel’s cool-and-collected narration, while the rest of the cast performs admirably as well. It’s definitely the company’s best translation to date, on par with what niche Japanese gamers have come to expect from reliable localizers like Atlus and XSEED.
The game’s tantalizingly at-the-tip-of-greatness vibe and frustrating design choices may disappoint at times, but I’d rather play a hundred El Shaddais than the latest paint-by-numbers action game formed in a committee. This one’s born of pure creativity, and I’ll go ahead and say it—it’s a work of art, warts and all.
SUMMARY: The art sometimes gets in the way of the gameplay, but this weird, wild Japanese take on Biblical Apocrypha is well worth exploring.
- THE GOOD: Breathtaking visuals and creative take on Biblical themes
- THE BAD: Art sometimes gets in the way of the gameplay
- THE UGLY: The phallic, blobby offspring of unholy human-angel sexual unions (shudder)