El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron review: Just like heaven

When I started playing El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron for review, I told myself I wasn't going to be fooled by the visuals. I would evaluate this game based on its mechanics more than anything, and I wouldn't let form distract me from function.

I abandoned that idea quickly.

For one thing, visuals are a part of the experience, and must be considered. For another thing, this game is beautiful, to the point that they justify the game on their own as a form of digital tourism. You must see this game -- and, since those graphics support one of the more mechanically interesting action games in recent memory, you should probably play it too.

Director Sawaki Takeyasu had practice creating surreal, painterly visuals in Okami, which can be seen in the picturesque world of El Shaddai. He and his team have carved out an aggressively unique style that nobody's going to dare imitate, and made one of the most beautiful games ever in the process.

It's almost all done through artistry rather than self-shadowing or bump-mapping or what have you. Simple geometry is paired with bright, abstract patterns to create otherworldly spaces. One level features transparent ground that shows a tiled impressionist-style painting through it. One side-scrolling level is made of cel-shaded, primary-colored squares. Another takes place in silhouette in front of an enormous stained glass window. It's difficult to describe the look of El Shaddai, because there's basically no frame of reference. Just ... just watch this.

That graphical prowess is put to use creating the interior of the Tower of Babel, with each floor designed to the taste of one of the fallen angels you're tasked with defeating. It's a good frame for making every level look totally different. I don't know how accurate it -- or any part of the game -- is to the apocryphal Book of Enoch on which the game is based, but it's all cool to look at. I suspect trying to learn theology from this game is like trying to get a serious art history education by watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon.

The same imagination is found everywhere. It's not fair to categorize the weirdness as part and parcel of a Japanese game; this is more like something that arrived fully formed from another planet. Enoch's "save points" are represented by Lucifel, a pre-fall version of the devil, who travels through time to get Edwin jeans and other modern niceties, and saves your data as he chats on the phone with God.

One of the problems you must solve is the existence of the Nephilim, who are human/angel children with a predilection for devouring one another until they become giants who uncontrollably burn everything in sight. Naturally, they are shown in the game as utterly precious, jiggly, Gloop and Gleep-style creatures ready for sale as plush dolls. If you want a game in which you battle nautilus-headed henchmen in an underwater disco while a mute, dreadlocked fallen angel obscures your view with his earnest dancing ... your dream has been fulfilled.

El Shaddai's battle system is actually one of its more imaginative elements, and feels like a totally fresh take on the genre. Instead of light/heavy attack buttons, you have just one button, and your combos are determined by the timing between button presses. To simplify, the longer the delay between attacks, the heavier the next attack will be. Unlike many action games, then, it's possible to learn a combo by feel.

Three different weapons, captured from enemies, offer vastly different experiences in both combat and basic movement, with the ranged Gale weapon allowing you to dash, and the shield-like Veil weapon slowing you down, but hitting harder at close range. I continually felt like I was learning more about each weapon. It wasn't even until my second playthrough that I discovered how much I liked fighting without a weapon.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the game is that it gives you the chance to learn. The enemies are merciless, requiring you to control usually three at a time while breaking blocks and stealing weapons, and the bosses are liable to grab you and take off half of your life in a single combo. So how does the game let you learn? By letting you revive yourself a few times mid-battle. You can get through painful boss battles without having to start over, and as you get better you can forgo the crutch -- if you want to.

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El Shaddai may be heavenly in both inspiration and execution, but it has a few problems. There are only a few normal enemy types, though they may look different from level to level, and most battles take place between you and three enemies, one with each type of weapon. There's not too much variety in that department, though everything else in the game is constantly novel.

There's also a surprising amount of platforming, which is usually fine-to-enjoyable (and often quite challenging!), but sometimes interacts negatively with the super-abstract visuals. Not being able to tell where the ground is occasionally gets in the way of trying to land on it.

The occasional irritation from getting knocked off a giant clock face by an intentionally low-poly arm, or of not being able to see my shadow in a shifting miasma that's supposed to be a rock, fades away. The experience of a game so elegantly, artfully designed in both mechanics and visuals is something that will stay with me, even if the plot wasn't totally coherent.

This review is based on a pre-release PlayStation 3 version of El Shaddai provided by Ignition Entertainment. El Shaddai will be out today on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for $59.99.