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Monday, 17 February 2014

El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.

El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is an odd duck of a game.

Not in terms of gameplay – disappointingly, that treads all too familiar ground, being an uninspiringly basic hack and slash with equally uninspiring (and often quite awkward) platforming elements. There are a few little things that mix it up: As your enemies almost exclusively use the same weapons as you do, you can disarm them for an easy win, and every so often you have to purify your weapons, with purified and unpurified weapons acting differently.

For the most part, though, the gameplay is nothing to write home about. It's functional but unremarkable – there's nothing poorly tuned or awkward about it, and it handles just fine, but it lacks any spice, verve or variety to make it engaging.

What makes El-Shaddai strange – and I mean that in the best way – is the plot. Based on Biblical apocrypha, the story is that of Enoch, great-grandfather of Noah (of Ark fame) and, according to various mythologies, a scholar who was taken by God and transformed into the angel Metatron.

The game expands on that basic skeleton a lot, and in strange ways – in it, Enoch, a heavenly academic, is called upon to hunt and kill seven of the Watchers, fallen angels who have conceived children with mortal women, or else God intends to destroy the world with a flood. It's worth noting that in the Genesis flood narrative, this is actually one of the reasons for the flood that Noah escapes from: You can't say Ignition Entertainment hasn't done their homework.

(Well, you probably could, but let's not dwell.)

So with this task in mind, Enoch sets out, guided by four archangels in the form of swans and a pre-fall Lucifer who, for some reason, is always encountered chatting on a smartphone with God. That bizarre mix of modernity and antiquity continues throughout the game, as Enoch, clad in white armour over a pair of stylish denim jeans, passes from crystalline caves beneath a glowing sky, to a blurry, greyed out river, to a technologically advanced city composed entirely of floating platforms amidst a kind of hellish disco, complete with strobe lighting and lasers.

It's a very attractive looking game, but the settings are somewhat disconcerting: There are very few visual clues to place them anywhere in relation to each other – as you pass from crystal cave to grey river to disco city to dark tower and beyond, you can never see any evidence of where you came from or are going – and the levels themselves are often bizarrely non-euclidean, curving around on themselves or forcing you to go around in circles, even when you're sure you're moving in a straight line. It, along with the generally surreal design anyway, gives the entire game a dreamlike quality, one that is only helped along by the snippets of cryptic dialogue from the archangels, both encouraging and somehow sinisterly derisive but never clearly phrased, as they soar overhead.

The plot is never really explained, either. You're dropped into the game, and expected to sort through the cryptic remarks bit by bit – and in a way that makes sense, since when the game starts, Enoch is meant to already know his mission. But it does make things very confusing early on.

The plot feels ambitious, even if the gameplay isn't, but it's impossible to tell whether the disconcerting dreamlike quality is intentional or not, and it makes the entire game distractingly unsettling. But I can respect ambition – and if Ignition Entertainment had been more ambitious with the gameplay, this might have been the kind of arthouse-y game I really enjoy.

As it is, I didn't really, and that's a shame. 

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