Retro Review: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
There’s a concept in literature studies called intertextuality. It describes how stories don’t stay independent of one another, but weave in and out of a common history, interacting with and changing each other. The big historical example is the Quran, and how it fits within and around the Bible, telling more of the same story and reusing other bits to tell a new one. They are intertextual.
Video games usually aren’t. It is a medium of single projects, sometimes adding up to a franchise, but almost always standing alone. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron constructs itself as a text by being closer to the literary continuum than to the video game one. Sawaki Takeyasu unveiled his next project last week, titled The Lost Child, so I think it’s fitting to illuminate his old one, which I don’t think many people took notice of in the last generation. They should have.
The Books of Enoch are scripture apart from and intertextual with the Bible. El Shaddai takes the scripture up into its arms and tells its story, insofar as it can be made into character-driven action. Enoch is a sort of angelic clerk, a man who was welcomed into heaven back when that was a privilege. The game is about his return to earth to quell a rebellion against heaven perpetrated by fallen angels.
I should be clear though: El Shaddai is not a video game that practices intertextuality. A truer example would be how The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker fits in and around the quest in Ocarina of Time. What Takeyasu made was simpler – a video game based on a book that is intertextual. This gives it the feeling of a larger work without necessarily being one.
But straight away it should top any chart of Bible-related games. Why is a multi-volume series of monster and adventure stories so difficult to adapt? Maybe it’s hard to just pick one play style. Dante’s Inferno isn’t based on a Biblical text exactly, but as a God of War clone it shares little resemblance to its source material that is not purely aesthetic. The levels are called “circles of hell” but that does not a brilliant adaptation make.
Or maybe Americans have trouble approaching religion that way. I’ve read that the Japanese have a broader sense of faith, like it’s more dispersed than regimented or required. Maybe only they could make El Shaddai.
Its story plays with time and with the fourth wall, simulating the feel of reading a moral directed at you, the reader. Your guide/ narrator will chime in, send you back to the main menu, ask you to quest harder, send you to a different place altogether. This won’t be welcoming to everyone but experiments rarely are. Suda51 knows it every time he secretes another under-loved masterpiece onto the trash pile of his niche career. I get the sense that’s the greatness Takeyasu aspires to, turning his work as an artist on Okami and Devil May Cry into a full game. An interactive visual text.
What could the gameplay be like? Part of it is tedious block and lever puzzling, for which the environment and the camera are not prepared. I don’t know why these interludes exist and I think they redirect love for El Shaddai to deserved criticism. But the other part is the combat and this is where you start to feel inside El Shaddai’s niche, and learn whether you’re its traitor or its acolyte.
At first the combat appears to be a hack n’ slash affair like Devil May Cry or God of War, but your attack abilities span only one button. Light attack, heavy attack, combo hits, guard breaks, counters, are all presses of the one button timed subtly differently in response to an enemy’s actions. When you enter a combat arena in El Shaddai, it briefly becomes a kind of rhythm game, a dance of awareness and timing.
As an example, each weapon has a secondary function. One of them may let you glide after jumping, or shield yourself, or dodge. But you can only have one weapon at a time: you acquire them through a carefully-timed guard break against an enemy that has that weapon. Each of the three weapons is weak to one of the others. A combat scenario won’t usually amount to mashing the one button to kill three enemies. Instead, El Shaddai encourages you to engage in its weapon-swap ballet, landing careful counters, stealing the right weapons, using their abilities, and refocusing on the weapon you’re strong against until you steal the succeeding one.
The graphics are the game’s main draw, but I emphasize the enjoyable simplicity of the combat scheme because it alone held El Shaddai back from critical acclaim and from the fame it earned. One review site for instance gave the game a 5.9/10, a score that skirts beneath mediocre and verges into unplayable. I admit that the combat is something you have to learn and can be exploited (sometimes you CAN just mash the same button, if you’re feeling really cynical). But as much as other reviewers search for the most even experiences, I’m always on the lookout for interesting ones.
This allows me to move in on the visuals of El Shaddai, its rightly undisputed highlight and one of the last generation’s most exciting graphical experiences.
“Cel-shading” is not an apt description of El Shaddai. Its pastel scheme and expressive shapes, its fog and shadow, its angles and harsh light make it appear like living stain-glass, an effect even more intriguing when compounded against the changing camera angles in the game. The backstory of Enoch’s search on Earth for instance rolls the centuries in narration and in painted images over a silhouetted simulation of time: Enoch fighting an endless horde of shadows in two dimensions, of which you’re in control. The music, which would have been lauded on every list had it been a new Halo or Elder Scrolls theme, combines orchestral action with opera, filling its dream spaces at all times with a company of heavenly voices. In a playlist on my computer titled “study music,” Mozart and Beethoven sit between music from this game.
My praise of the game is proportional to the lack of love we’ve had for it, not directly to its quality. It’s a flawed game, one that often suffers an identity crisis when a “video gamey” section will demand of the player, not their wits or attention, but their basic ability to push “X” at a lever. But the game is an undervalued titan of style, worth reliving before The Lost Child comes out. True narrative experiments can hardly be perfect. If we were philistines in 2011, maybe now we can restore a little faith.