Hands-On: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

At PAX East this year, the first game we were able to get our hands on was the beautifully artistic El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. If you hadn’t already known, El Shaddai, developed and published by Ignition Entertainment, centers around altered version of Genesis, which describes the events of the world’s beginning. It’s an action game with similarities to Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, and is headed up by lead designer Takeyasu Sawaki, who was a character designer for both Devil May Cry and Okami.

Grasping the controller, I was prompted to push the start button at the demo’s title screen, which in itself was a very simple and elegant display of the game’s masterful artistic focus to come. At first glance, you can see El Shaddai and note it for it’s breathtaking art style. Each small texture in the environment, objects, and characters look as if it was beautifully drawn with the stroke of a paint brush, and will serve as the title’s delicious eye candy. To see the game in screenshots and videos, and then to see it running in front of you on an high-definition display, can really change how one would perceive El Shaddai.

The Japanese art style of the game really brings this game to an entire new level when it comes to art in a video game, and is a real visual delight. The game does not have a heads-up-display (or HUD) — during your first play through, at least. The developers wanted player to focus in on the art, and be involved in the game’s visuals, so they decided to remove the HUD from the game until you complete it once. Instead of bars and gauges, you will have to pay close attention to the armor and clothing of Enoch and enemies, in order to determine how close they are to death. Pieces of your armor will shatter and break as you take damage, and the same goes for your enemies. Sometimes, enemies will lose entire garments, and your character will be stripped down to just his jeans (given to him by God’s number one angel) — if you have taken enough damage that is. This is just one way the game forces the player to not only get involved in the gameplay, but also with the visuals.

Enoch in battle

The story casts you the role of Enoch, our hero. Enoch is a priest, and is seeking out the seven fallen angels in an attempt to prevent the impending destruction of the world. The story is based on the Book of Enoch, but definitely mixes it up quite a bit. Enoch wears jeans, obtained the jeans from God’s number-one angel Lucifel, who. Lucifel’s task is to maintain the protection of the world; he has the ability to travel back and forth between time. We were told that there will be quite a few things in the game that are out of place, all in accordance with time. Lucifel, for example, uses a cell phone, despite the game taking place at the beginning of the world. He’s also dressed in modern day clothing, which is interested as, again, the game takes place at the beginning of the world. Rather than be ridiculous, the game pulls off its goal quite well — however, we were told there are instances where the game doesn’t take itself too seriously. But this is in no way over the top like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta.

Gameplay is fluid and solid. Incorporating both standard 3D elements, and 2D side-scrolling elements, the game strives to be different. While most of the game will mix together platforming and combat in these 3D instances, the 2D instances (from what we have seen) delivers some minor platforming, and is used for direct storytelling. It was explained to us that the 2D segments were a key decision in the game’s development process, and much thought was put into the addition of these sections. During these instances, the game’s art is heavily fleshed out, and is used alongside dialogue to elaborate on the story, explain what Enoch is currently doing, or deliver new information about the whos, whens, and whys. The 2D segments are in no way uneventful or boring, and do indeed serve as a very integral part of El Shaddai. These segments will make up about 1/3 of the actual game in whole.

When it comes to combat, the game makes no exception in delivering a fresh, different experience unseen in past games in the genre. Enoch begins with no weapons, and will have to fight old-fashioned for a short while. In order to acquire a weapon, Enoch must steal them from his enemies. Once a foe is weakened, you may steal their weapon by approaching them and hitting a single button to initiate a short display of fancy combat skills by Enoch, resulting in him wielding/stealing the enemy’s weapon. Weapons do not last forever, though, and eventually begin to wear down and break. A weapon close to it’s breaking point is indicated by it’s color changing. To “fix” the weapon, you must purify it. You may purify it on your own with that same button you used to steal the weapon, but this leaves you open to oncoming attacks. The best way to purify a weapon is to perform a finishing move on a weakened enemy. You’ll both gain the essence of your enemies and purify the current weapon you have equipped. You may only hold one weapon at a time, and we were confirmed that weapons are upgradeable. Weapons appear extremely unique, and are also great accompaniments to the game’s visual style.

2D side-scrolling

Combat itself is extremely fun. The game is not complicated at all, and there are only four major buttons: jump, attack, block, and execute/steal. Combos are performed not by how many times you’ve pressed the attack button, but by the rhythm in which you pressed it. Enoch will flow with your button presses, and I really do mean flow. The speed of not only his attack, but his entire body movement will be determined by how you decide to press the attack button; Enoch will flow elegantly with his weapon, following your input. Holding the attack button at certain intervals results in different attacks. Combat will require you to get in your own personal groove, and admittedly, it’s awkward and difficult at first, but it becomes so extremely easy to learn. However, don’t be fooled. The game is definitely one that is hard to master. Enemies are challenging, and will force you to pick your rhythm of attack very strategically. You’re given an option to parry, by clicking block at the same moment you are attacked. Enemies can be tough, and we did die a few times. Fortunately, death isn’t the end (it’s a game, yo’). You’re given the option to revive yourself; all that is needed on your part is the repeated button mashing of your face buttons before you run out of time. However, your window of opportunity shortens each time you fall, so eventually, if you die enough times through the same level, you’ll face a real (in-game) death, and will need to restart from the last available checkpoint.

As for locations, the game has you traversing the utopias created by the aforementioned fallen angels. The fallen angels will serve as the bosses for the most part; the enemies you fight throughout the stages are sort-of minions sent by the fallen angels to stop you. You don’t have to fight every battle, but there are some instances where El Shaddai will pit you in arena-style combat where you’ll have to win in order to progress. From the demo we played, there didn’t seem to be any sort of puzzle solving in the game, and there was no mention of whether or not this would be true for the entire game.

When asked about multiplayer, we were told that it was something the game team had considered, but decided against it. They believed that the game should solely be a single-player experience. The game is said to be about 12 hours in length, and will feature extras such as unlockable costumes. When asked about any other game modes that are unlocked when the game is completed, Ignition was unable to speak on the matter. Unfortunately, it is also confirmed that the game will not have zombies.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, in terms of visuals and gameplay, has the potential to be one of this year’s finest titles. We only hope that the Western audience receives it as well as the Japanese have. It’s out Summer 2011 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

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