There’s nothing quite like El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. Sure, a stylish action game that goes heavy on the religious imagery makes the likes of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta an obvious point of reference—indeed, director Sawaki Takeyasu worked on the original Devil May Cry as a character designer—but those comparisons are superficial at most. El Shaddai is something more introspective and surreal, that turns kinetic action into a mind-bending delve into questions of theology and humanity. It’s no surprise that its original release on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 became a cult favourite, and now, at long last, it makes its way to PC.
El Shaddai is based loosely on the Book of Enoch, an ancient religious text that explores, among other things, the fallen angels who rebelled against God and the background for the Great Flood. In Ascension of the Metatron, Enoch takes centre stage as a scribe sent from Heaven to try and capture seven fallen Watchers who, in trying to lay claim to some of that “free will” that sets humans apart from angels, have turned Earth into a wasteland infested with demons and half-human, half-angel Nephilim. For the council of archangels in Heaven, what’s left is a lost cause, and the only solution is to cleanse the world with a flood and start over. But if Enoch can stop the Watchers, he might be able to convince the council to rescind on that plan, and save what’s left of humanity.
Religious imagery isn’t exactly uncommon in videogames, but this is a refreshing, original take on such themes—as much today as it was back in 2011. With its stories of angels and demons, the Book of Enoch is a fascinating body of work to draw from, whatever your religious beliefs. But despite that, and despite the premise of a Heavenly quest to hunt down fallen angels, El Shaddai isn’t all that interested in exploring the feud between Heaven and Hell. Rather, that’s a backdrop for a much more reflective, theological exploration of the nature of humanity, and what the gift of free will truly means—for both Enoch himself, and the world he’s desperately trying to save.
To that end, it’s an abstract journey through a series of dreamlike worlds. Though it mostly takes place on an apocalyptic vision of Earth, angels aren’t bound by the same laws of time and space as humans—and nor is Enoch, despite being human himself, by virtue of his role in Heaven’s plans. That means each new Watcher’s realm, each new level of the game, is some surreal, alien landscape, reflective of the whims of each fallen angel and the the complex nature of humanity. El Shaddai is a game where you can go from a colourful 2D platformer with the playful energy of a children’s cartoon to a gritty motorcycle chase in a futuristic metropolis, without the slightest sense of disconnect. Free will is the thing that brings about the best and the worst of humanity (not to mention the envy of the fallen angels) and El Shaddai is a game about navigating those multitudes.
For all its spiritual introspection, it’s also a character action game, with all the fluid, stylish combat that comes with that. With just four buttons—attack, jump, guard, and a button to purify your weapon—combat is mechanically simple, by design. But simple doesn’t mean shallow, and El Shaddai finds plenty of room for depth, with rhythm and timing playing an important role when it comes to breaking through enemies’ defences and keeping yourself alive. Three different weapons allow for some strategic variety, but you can’t just freely switch between them—instead, you have to steal them from stunned enemies, which adds an interesting dynamic to choosing which enemies to attack first. That’s also a good way to freely purify you chosen weapon for maximum damage, instead of doing it manually and leaving yourself vulnerable for a few seconds.
Platform sections add a degree of puzzle solving and careful traversal to the mix that, while not necessarily groundbreaking, builds off those dreamlike settings to create some memorable pieces of level design. You’ll go from riding colourful balloons in a 2D platformer to navigating a maze of one-way bridges; from trying to discern the real platforms in a sea of imaginary ones to fleeing the creeping darkness as you climb the walls of a bottomless cavern. The fixed camera angles can make platforming a bit fiddly at times, but a generous retry system means that’s rarely more than a minor inconvenience.
But the thing that really makes El Shaddai stand out—more than its intriguing, abstract storytelling, more than its enchanting combat and clever level design—is it art style. Or, rather, art styles: a surreal journey across heaven and earth that transcends space and time means no two levels look the same. This is a game that sometimes looks like a watercolour painting, and other times looks like a scene from The Matrix. Sometimes it’s shadow puppets through a rice-paper screen, and other times it’s a psychedelic alien cityscape. And through all these changes of style, it always looks absolutely sublime: one enchanting scene after another, from start to finish.
Unfortunately, the PC port, while functional, is very bare-bones. There’s little in the way of graphics settings to tweak other than resolution and a v-sync toggle (which resets every time you load up the game…), and a lack of native mouse and keyboard support means that if you don’t have a controller, or a way to emulate controller inputs, you’re out of luck. Sure, it’s a game made for controllers initially, but to not support at least some form of keyboard input on a platform where that’s the default input mechanism is disappointing.
Still, limited though the PC options are, it gets the job done. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a beautiful enough game that it doesn’t need fine-tuned settings to look amazing, and the stylised nature of it means it looks as good today as it did a decade ago. With this new release, a mesmerising theological adventure with a well-deserved cult classic status is readily available in a way that it hasn’t ever been before, and that’s a good thing indeed.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
Release date: 2 September 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.