Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Let's talk about disappointment!
No, no, not Duke Nukem Forever. I didn't even play that game! I'm talking about El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.

I saw El Shaddai at Otakon last summer, but I was too distracted to pay attention. It looked pretty. I finally got around to playing our copy of it a bit ago, and OH MY GOD IS IT GORGEOUS. This is honestly the prettiest game I have played since Shadow of the Colossus.
It has the dubious honor, however, of being one of the most disappointing games I've played in a long time. I guess I should back up.

In which the points in favor of El Shaddai are extolled

What did I really like about El Shaddai? There's several things. First and foremost on my list is the visual style. It's rare that I'll recommend a game purely for one facet of the experience - and here, I'm pretty much going to do just that. El Shaddai is probably the most visually exquisite game I have ever played. Each level has a totally different visual style - whether you're running around on cartoonish blocks, leaping from one platform to another among a floating world of blood-red spikes and glowing eyes, or battling amongst a grove of cloud-like trees, boiling and warping off into space... It's perfect.

Were it not for Blogger's clunky interface, I'd keep pasting pictures for hours. This game has beautiful artwork, styling, and animation. Enoch (the main character) really moves and fights like the angel he is - he doesn't just beat people up, he dances. He moves with incredible grace and fluidity in everything he does.
Okay. Sorry. The game's pretty, and I need to say that - but I also want to say this: It's not just that they made a pretty game. This game is about angels fighting for the human race, about choosing whether to flood the Earth. The world does not work how we expect - and that's where this game excels so very, very much. It expertly produces the atmosphere of a world that functions by entirely different rules, giving the sense of peeking at something much grander than what you can see on the screen. That's what makes this game so beautiful. The feeling that you are seeing the world as a higher being might see it.
Finally, the lack of a HUD was, I think, a good choice. I'm always in favor of less HUD on screen, and I was really confused by a review that thought this was a huge point against the game. I, in fact, really liked the decision not to give a health bar for the player or enemies. You can still read your health right off the character - as you get damaged, your heavenly armor breaks off piece by piece until you are left wearing only your jeans. I thought it was a perfectly seamless way to show the player's health. The same trick is duplicated for enemies, although some take a lot of hits before you see the cracks.

General theming! I liked (at first) the names and motifs and general themes - I don't really go for western religions all that much, but the names are pretty and I like a lot of the elements from Old Testament works (and those that I [probably unfairly] group with them). They just make for... Well, a very mystical feel, to make light of something sacred to a huge number of people. You can also find this in Evangelion - a bunch of nonsense references to Cabbalistic myths that don't really make sense. That whole feel really resonated with me. Of course, I also don't really like the messages those cultural elements originally tended to send - which I'll revisit later in the "gross disappointment" section of this review.

The gameplay... I liked it a lot. It felt smooth, and simple, and easy to pick up. It was a bit difficult to consistently do well, but I blame that more on myself than the game. The combos are nicely sticky - you continue doing attacks fairly quickly, but if you stop pressing and try to move, it takes a bit. This makes it much more attractive to use the long (and pretty!) combos rather than simply doing hit-and-runs, and it feels just sluggish enough to be powerful while being fast enough to retain the game's characteristic grace.

The story itself... Well, this is a tale of woe. I liked how it was told - in the beginning. It uses a very ascetic storytelling style, where it doesn't really tell you much, and what it does tell you barely makes sense. I like games that maintain mystery. This game did that perfectly - from Lucifel's bizarre cell phone conversations with God, to the complete lack of explanation for the landscapes... It just lets everything exist. A game that tells you the history and meaning of everything makes you feel like an outsider - someone who is visiting. I want to be someone who has always been there.

On Disappointment

Oh dear. Spoilers ahead, so, you know, page up and stop reading.

So I liked this game, I really did. I liked the story, too - Lucifel's vaguely nefarious voice and minimal instructions/explanations combined with your extremely destructive "angelic" mission was really building up. I thought that we were going to see the redemption of the Fallen Angels you were sent to destroy, and I thought that maybe the game would end with God as the enemy and the Fallen Angels as the ultimate protectors of humanity.
I would have sworn that all of this was building up to a great revelation that you were fighting on the wrong side, and it would be fantastic and cathartic and you would have a mission and the mystery would pay off... But it didn't. I swear to anything you want, the ending cutscene pretty much said "And so Enoch destroyed the tower and humanity was saved." SO GOD DAMNED BORING.
Bah. It was just such an incredibly simplistic plot in the end, but such a beautiful and complicated and mysterious world! It was a total waste. The thing that really bothers me, though, is that this echoes a message that I don't think the world needs to hear at this point - "Do not stray from authority." Bah. Bah. Bah.

And a final side note: I was actually really happy with Lucifel. Kind of. He was a genuinely good character in league with the "good" guys, who sounded kind of sketchy. I like that. Sometimes sketchy people should be the good guys.

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