El Shaddai: Mad as a Bag of Frogs

El Shaddai Ascension of the Metatron box artI listed El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron at number two in the ‘games I would have played in 2011 if I’d had the time‘, and I’ve finally, FINALLY got round to finishing it. And it was… pretty good actually. Not quite as good as it could have been, but good nonetheless.

If you’ve never heard of it, El Shaddai is a fighting and platforming game based on an ancient Jewish text. Yes, you heard that right. It also has one of the most obtuse and bizarre titles I’ve ever heard. Next time one of your friends asks you what you’re playing at the moment, just reply “El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, it’s a game based on an ancient mystical text in which you play a holy scribe tasked with capturing fallen angels to prevent a great flood.” Then watch them back away from you slowly while shaking their head.

Blue blue jeeaaaaaans / I wear them every day / there's no par-tic-u-lar reason to change...
Blue blue jeeaaaaaans / I wear them every day / There’s no par-tic-u-lar reason to change…

Anyway, the Metatron of the title is Enoch, who you control for most of the game, and El Shaddai is one of the Judaic names of God. The story is based on the Book of Enoch, which is an ancient Jewish religious work detailing Enoch’s attempts to round up those naughty fallen angels and stop God from flooding the world to destroy them. You’re accompanied by Lucifel (Lucifer?), who bizarrely is always to be found chatting to God on his mobile phone – it appears Lucifel exists outside of time, so he has access to things like phones when he’s in the distant past. Presumably he also gave Enoch his blue jeans, which didn’t strike me as very 9th century BC.

The game itself doesn’t start particularly well: in fact, the first three chapters are pretty boring. Often you’ll find yourself running for long periods through an abstract landscape with nothing to fight and only the occasional platforms to hop across – not exactly gripping. The game’s religious iconography and fighting mechanic openly invites comparisons to Bayonetta, and all through the first hour I just found myself thinking “This isn’t as good as Bayonetta, this isn’t as good as Bayonetta…”

Ooooh, it is pretty though, isn't it?
Ooooh, it is pretty though, isn’t it?

Thankfully, things pick up at about the time you reach the war pigs. Good old war pigs. You see, it’s at this point that you get the final weapon of your triumvirate, and suddenly the game makes a bit more sense – there are three weapons with a scissors, paper, stone relationship, and from that point your success in battle is really determined by choosing the right weapon to use against the right enemy. It’s a clever mechanic that works really well, but it’s a shame it doesn’t get introduced until you’re over an hour in and bored stiff.

Still, from that point onwards the game gets a lot more interesting, and the levels get a whole lot fancier too. Then initial, fairly bland levels segway into fanciful depictions of hell, bizarre futuristic cities populated with fighting motorbikes, and even child-like, crayon-drawn levels filled with bouncing dildoes. Sorry, not dildoes, Nephalim – the offspring of angels and humans. Who just happen to look a bit penis-shaped for some reason.

These are the Nephalim. I'll let you make up your own mind.
These are the Nephalim. I’ll let you make up your own mind.

I loved all of the escalating craziness – it’s quite refreshing to find a game where you genuinely don’t know what’s coming next. However, I found the platform levels got a bit dull after a while, saved only by the fact that they were so visually arresting. Similarly, the fighting levels never really lived up to their promise – I was expecting to face more and more foes that would need more complex strategies to deal with them, but it never really happened. You never gain any more abilities after you retrieve your three weapons, so by the end it can feel a bit repetitive.

The game also feels a little rough around the edges, despite its wildly imaginative visuals. The front end is bland compared to the game itself, and some parts of the game just feel a bit empty, like there should have been more things to do but they just didn’t have the time or money to put them in. El Shaddai is just crying out for a few more gameplay features – extra abilities, more varied enemies, better structured levels – but it just falls short.

Despite its wonderful visuals and bonkers storyline, El Shaddai just can’t hold a candle to Bayonetta I’m afraid.

[As penned in praise by Lucius Merriweather.]