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El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

Review: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

Aug 16 // Jonathan Holmes
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Xbox 360)Developer: UTV Ignition GamesPublisher: UTV Ignition GamesReleased: August 16, 2011MSRP: $59.99 El Shaddai is about a human named Enoch, one of the few who was permitted to enter heaven while he was still alive. After spending some time among the angels working as a scribe, Enoch is tasked by God to head to Earth and round up some fallen angels with the aid of Lucifel (later known as Lucifer). These angels have been living on Earth in an invisible tower, where they are worshipped by the locals, effectively replacing God. That's just the start of why God is unhappy with these angels. They've also been reproducing with humans, creating a new race: Nephilim. These immortal little hot-dog-looking guys may appear cute, but they are suicidal. They know they are unholy affronts to God, and they want to die. Even though it seems hopeless, the Nephilim make an effort to end their lives, and the results produce something so dangerous that... well, I don't want to spoil it. Let's just say that if Enoch can't bring these angels back to heaven and solve the Nephilim problem, God's going to destroy all life on Earth with an all-consuming flood. The story takes place either 360,000 years ago, or 14,000 years ago, depending on which of Lucifel's recollections you choose to believe. Normally, trusting Lucifer isn't such a great idea, but remember, this is Lucifel before his fall from grace. He's just another archangel, who is presumably just as good as the next angel (although his designer jeans and constant chats with God on his cell phone are a little suspicious). In fact, pretty much all of the principal characters in the game are angels, both literally and figuratively. There isn't really a true "bad guy" guy in El Shaddai, at least, not on the surface. Though the fallen angels have turned against God, they're not really evil. Each fallen one represents some form of love. The problem is, their love is working to supersede man's love of God, be it love of technology, maternal love, romantic love, platonic (or not-so-platonic) love between men, and so on. For the most part, the only crime these angels have committed is that they love humans too much, which leads to some pretty interesting plot twists along the way. Again, I don't want to give too much away, but I will tell you that Enoch may only think that he's on a mission from God. It's also quite possible that he is being tested by God, and how he fares in this test will determine the fate of the human race. I'm normally not all that crazy for theology, but El Shaddai really captured my imagination and made these ancient themes feel relatable. Part of that is due to the game's amazing art and sound direction. This is the most beautiful game I've played all year. For example, stage two of the game takes place in a huge, Tron-like network of floating platforms, positioned above a endless field of orange and red. In the background lies the tower of the fallen angels, a twisted mass of glistening black testicles and seething red eyeballs of different shapes and sizes. That ominous structure is offset by the serene, sharp-looking turf beneath your feet, and the heartwarming, joyous chanting in your years. Down below, thousands of children are heard worshipping their Gods, the fallen angels, singing in unison as fireworks gently flare and crackle in the distance. I could look at the second stage of El Shaddai all day, and it may not even the best-looking level in the game. Your favorite stage in El Shaddai will undoubtedly depend on your tastes, and there is something here for just about everyone, from a Loco Roco-esque pastel beach-ball realm to a hellish, scratched-and-etched, black-and-white underworld. Sometimes El Shaddai looks like a videogame. Sometimes it looks like a painting, or a pen-and-ink sketch, or cel animation. Regardless, it almost always looks beautiful. There were many times when I didn't want to play the game, because playing it would inevitably lead to it ending. That inevitablity is closely tied to El Shaddai's primary gameplay theme: the illusion of choice. There are many points at which the game leads you to believe that you have free will, but these moments are almost always offset by an underlying linearity and other techniques used to instill a sense of powerlessness in the player. For instance, the game's combat allows for a lot of options. Though it seems simple on the surface, there are actually loads of different combat choices laid out among the four types of available weapons (your bare hands, a mid-range lightsaber chainsaw called the Arch, a shield/war hammer called the Veil, and a long range multi-missile called the Gale). Each weapon (other than your bare hands) has a rock/paper/scissors-style relationship with the others. The Gale is strong against the Arch, the Arch is strong against the Veil, and so forth. It's for that reason you'll have to wield them strategically against the game's many enemies and bosses. Thing is, you can only switch weapons by stealing them off of other enemies. In short, what seems like a fairly simple combo-heavy combat system can turn into a rather complex, strategy-heavy game of crowd control. Toss in the option to charge up special movies, the need to retreat and recharge your weapons after prolonged use, and the required mastery of guard breakers, parries, and counter-attacks on higher difficulties, and you get a game that allows for a lot of creative decisions in terms of combat. As empowering as the game's combat system may seem, El Shaddai is quick to make you feel weak when it wants to. Every once and a while, a fallen angel will suddenly cross your path and kick your ass. It's possible to beat these guys (I managed to do it once), but it's highly unlikely. They can usually kill you in one or two hits, and they have a huge amount of hit points. Facing them works as a reminder that as powerful as you may feel, you're still just a human. You'll get a similar smack in the face when exploring the game's many environments (through both 2D and 3D platforming sections). Though there are secrets hidden throughout the game (and a cool reward at the end for finding them all), all paths still lead to the same destination. Everyone who plays El Shaddai will make some small decisions on their own, but in the end, we all end up in the same place. Sadly, the place where El Shaddai ends is probably the game's low point. Without spoiling too much, I'll tell you that the whole thing closes on a tragic, almost comedic, anti-climactic note. I'm really hoping that there is some kind of "real" last level that the game still has in store for me, something that I just haven't figured out how to unlock yet. If it does, I'll adjust my score accordingly. For now, El Shaddai feels like the developers ran out of time, money or inspiration before the game was really finished, which is a shame, given how many great moments there are in the build-up to its finale. Speaking of money, though the game has incredible art direction, it doesn't seem like it had a huge budget. Though the visual concepts here are top-notch, the execution is sometimes technically lacking; low polygon counts (at least compared to other high-profile PS3/360 titles) and some slowdown rear their heads. There are also a few technical issues with the game that may not have had to do with its budget. There are times when combat will seem like a chore because the difficulty has flattened and the enemies are too similar to each other. There are also times when you'll miss a jump because it's tough to judge the distance between two platforms. Dying on the same platforming section multiple times because you can't tell how far you're jumping just isn't fun, and could have easily been fixed if you had some control over the camera. El Shaddai is a game that will please any fan of creative visual storytelling, at least on the first play-through. The big question is, will you find the game compelling enough to play again and again? At first, I thought my answer would be a resounding "yes," but after completing the game, I'm not so sure. The lackluster final battle, along with a few repetitive fights and occasionally frustrating and/or uninspired platforming sections, may deter some of you from jumping back into the game. As for me, I'm definitely looking forward to playing the game it again. Some of that is because the second play-through allows for level select, new difficulty levels, and a score ranking mode. Mostly, though, I'm just looking forward to hearing those little Japanese kids chant as I run through a laser landscape set among a fantastic fireworks display. Moments like that are what videogames are all about. El Shaddai isn't perfect, but it has more than enough breathtaking moments to make the journey worthwhile.
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El Shaddai is not Spanish for "the Shaddai." In fact, Latin America may be one of the only regions not represented by El Shaddai in some way. The game features British and American voice actors (including at least one Harry P...

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El Shaddai has been delayed to August 16


Jul 18
// Jim Sterling
Ignition has had to delay El Shaddai to August 16, pushed back from its original date of July 26. "Unforeseen logistical issues" have been named as the reason for this surprisingly late postponement notice.  European gamers will be pleased to know that the date for PAL territories is unchanged. It will be available September 9, 2011, as originally planned.
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Possible El Shaddai spinoffs could come to Vita, Wii U


Jul 15
// Patricia Hernandez
Now that El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is two weeks away from release in North America, Ignition Entertainment is looking towards the horizon. I spoke to Shane Bettenhausen, the director of business development at Ign...

El Shaddai Preview: Heretical Art

Jul 15 // Patricia Hernandez
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)Developer: Ignition Entertainment Publisher: Ignition EntertainmentTo be released: July 26, 2011 This Enoch, whose flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and whom God placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron. As the title might suggest, El Shaddai, a game that's a modern reinterpretation of biblical apocrypha, follows Enoch on his journey to become worthy of transforming into the Metatron. Our previous coverage touched on the game's premise, but here's a small recap: God sent angels down to Earth to watch over it. These appropriately named "Watchers" let their lust get the better of them, and they fell in love with humans and with our world. The Watchers fathered the Nephilim with the humans in an unholy union, but the Watchers didn't stop at making these cutesy monstrosities. Hubris led them to create the Tower of Babel, where the game takes place, with each "level" being a utopia that one of the angels has created. The premise is edgy and controversial, yes. Shane Bettenhausen, Ignition Entertainment's director of business development, states that the development team needed "to be careful, because there are people in the world who do consider the book of Enoch to be canon, like Ethiopia for example." He expressed uncertainty when it came to how these people would take the game. Thus far, little to no controversy has been made after the Japanese launch. The first time I entered the Tower of Babel, I couldn't help but empathize with the Watchers who defied God. I looked in awe and wonder at my surroundings -- am I really out to punish the souls who created such splendor? These angels, they're not antagonists in the typical way videogames pose flimsy, simple depictions of "evil." The angels aren't evil, but they're definitely misguided. Even Lucifel himself is a curious antagonist. We all know or assume the evil of the devilish Lucifer, the fallen angel, but things are especially tricky when you consider that Lucifel can see the future. According to the book of Enoch (spoilers?), Enoch is destined to take Lucifel's place at God's side. Knowing all of this -- we assume he knows all of this, anyway -- Lucifel guides Enoch through the game. Why is that? Can we truly trust him? I pondered all of this as I made my way through a utopia created by Sariel, an angel obsessed with love. The first part of the stage was colorful and adorned primarily by giant geometrical shapes that Enoch had to traverse through. The level made it clear that Sariel had been quite busy in his time on Earth, as there were tiny Nephilim swarms accosting Enoch wherever he went. After a couple of successful jabs at possessing me, I decided to ignore the Nephilim and started focusing on the platforming. Boy, was the platforming difficult -- I must have died a few dozen times. El Shaddai features intense platforming, a breath of fresh air amongst titles like Enslaved or Uncharted. "Most of us grew up playing Mario, and we know how to jump, and I think that a lot of modern games do the jumping for you," remarked Shane. Mind, this is all on normal difficulty. Once you beat the game, you unlock higher difficulty levels and can even choose to turn on the HUD. The HUD toggle is meant for more hardcore players, who want to keep track of combos and scoring. After making my way through this part of the level, I came across a large black abyss where a boss battle against Sariel was to take place. Typically, boss battles in El Shaddai will either be against angels testing your strength or against their pets and playthings. The dark void made me pause and wonder if I would fall straight down into it. Yes, in the middle of a battle, I was heavily concerned with my environment. That's the type of game El Shaddai is -- contemplative, like a sip of fine wine. This place was heretical but oh so magical, so beautiful. Each step produced a splash of pastel colors, and I found myself moving just to recreate these small moments of wonder. It was like the first time Drake's shirt gets wet in Uncharted, and I would roll through the puddles just so that I could be in awe of the effects. The environment in El Shaddai is straight out of a pipe dream, and rightly so. According to Shane, "We hired an artist to direct the game ... he had such a distinct point of view of how he wanted to do the game, and we let him do what he wanted." That artist happens to be Takeyasu Sawaki of Okami and Devil May Cry fame. El Shaddai will most likely surprise players, as the scenery changes aplenty and sometimes hundreds of years can pass between levels. I could be more specific about what may appear in later stages -- Shane figured that at this stage, there's not much point to trying to save people from spoilers -- but I still don't want to spoil it for folks. That's how striking I found one of the later levels. Amazingly, it's this artistic approach that has made the game successful in courting otherwise elusive markets. The game has already been released in Japan, and the demographics have been surprising. "More than half of the people who bought it there were women ... because of the characters, because of the art, because of the story." Who would have thought that you simply needed a good narrative, art direction, and characters to court that market? Of course, there are some design choices that lend themselves well to a casual market, too. The game may be challenging, but it's still very forgiving. There are a generous number of checkpoints, and Enoch has the ability to bring himself back to life after being defeated, at the cost of one segment of armor per death, however. The design paradigm is essentially "teaching without punishment." What you must understand about this game is that it's different, eccentric even. That's not my coy way of injecting marketing-speak at you, either. Unlike the plethora of games this generation borne from a focus group or designed in accordance to metrics or data, El Shaddai is a game that dares to approach an artistic vision without compromise. What I saw in the demo last Tuesday was all the more striking and fresh for it.
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Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away. [Genesis 5:24]Every hero has something unique or extraordinary about him, and as Enoch, grandson of Adam, grandfather of Noah, titular character in El Sha...

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Art and games: Okami and El Shaddai developer interview


Jun 13
// Jonathan Holmes
Calling all Okami fans, and fans of beautiful games in general: I hope you're keeping an eye out for El Shaddai. The game is almost here, and the demo has been out for a while, so if you haven't checked the game out yet, now...
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E3: Go download the El Shaddai E3 demo!


Jun 07
// Maurice Tan
Not at E3? Don't fret, because the playable demo of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron that is on the E3 show floor can be downloaded on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network right now. The thing is 743MB on Xbox Live in case ...
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El Shaddai: Solid date, new trailer and screens


Jun 03
// Dale North
UTV Ignition announced today that El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron will be released in North America on July 26th for PS3 and Xbox 360. Europe gets it a bit later: September 9th. This title was just released in Japan ...

Preview: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

May 18 // Samit Sarkar
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed]) Developer: Ignition Entertainment Publisher: Ignition EntertainmentReleased: April 28, 2011 (JP)To be released: July 26, 2011 (NA) / September 9, 2011 (EU) The director of development on El Shaddai, Takeyasu Sawaki, served as a character designer on Devil May Cry and Okami, and Ignition tapped him for El Shaddai because of his experience on both of those games. One of the goals was to design a title that, like Okami, would have immediately arresting non-photorealistic graphics. Bettenhausen said that "Capcom gave [Sawaki] a lot of freedom, but they told him he couldn't go as far as he wanted" with the abstraction and surrealism in Okami's design. Ignition allowed him to unleash his full artistic creativity on El Shaddai, letting him build a team in Tokyo of about 65 people, many of whom had previously worked for companies such as Clover Studio, Konami, and Square Enix.The result is a striking visual style that draws from a diverse array of inspirations, including ancient Japanese art, African tribal art, and Native American art; each of the game's twelve acts features a unique art direction that sets it apart from the others. Of course, with a game based on mythology, the artists were free to interpret the text as they pleased -- Bettenhausen pointed out that no one can definitively say what the Tower of Babel, for example, would have looked like. (The narrative from the Book of Enoch was left essentially intact, though.)Key to El Shaddai's art direction is its utter lack of HUD elements. Visual cues convey vital information to you, whether they're letting you know that you're approaching death (Enoch's armor breaks away during combat) or that your weapon's effectiveness has been reduced (its color changes). Like God of War, the game manages the camera for you, providing some jaw-dropping angles of the action. Ignition also wanted El Shaddai to be a more accessible Devil May Cry-like title. "We felt like a lot of [third-person character action] games had become too complicated, [with] too many buttons [and] too much memorization. Whereas fans of the genre were playing them, nobody else was starting to play these games," Bettenhausen explained. Along with the analog sticks, you will only ever use four buttons in El Shaddai: jump/double-jump (A on Xbox 360/X on PlayStation 3), attack (X/square), block (RB/R1), and disarm/purify (LB/L1). Integrating jumping, blocking, and parrying still allows for a significant variety in combat -- the game's first weapon, the Arch, offers 26 different combos."More accessible" doesn't necessarily mean "easier," though. On the Normal difficulty, said Bettenhausen, the game is "actually pretty hard. [...] By level 5, it was almost Ninja Gaiden, that a regular enemy was killing me." (Good luck with Hard and Extra Hard, which are unlocked upon completion -- only one of the developers has managed to complete the game on the latter difficulty level.)El Shaddai is designed with strategic elements to its combat setup that keep you on your toes. You can carry only one weapon at a time, and after you have sufficiently weakened an enemy, you can disarm it and take its weapon. But the weapons have different levels of effectiveness against particular enemies, so you have to continuously manage your battles in a way that allows you to defeat your opponents with minimal effort. I watched Bettenhausen take on a group of attackers, and after inadvertently disarming someone, he explained that the weapon he stole was going to make the next phase of the battle more difficult because it wasn't ideal for the remaining enemies. But you'll have to either disarm enemies or leave yourself momentarily vulnerable if you want to make short work of them. Weapon become "defiled" over time -- that is, their strength drops -- and in order to restore their vitality, Enoch must periodically "purify" them. The animation takes a few seconds, depending on the weapon equipped, and you're defenseless during it. However, Enoch will automatically purify a stolen weapon during the disarm animation, so it's a very useful combat tactic.Weapons in El Shaddai also affect the way Enoch controls altogether -- his running, jumping, dodging, and inertia. One weapon, the Gale, gives Enoch a dash move that serves him very well in the game's numerous platforming sections. El Shaddai includes jumping puzzles that can get rather complicated, but many of its platforming segments are actually in 2D. According to Bettenhausen, about 40% of the game -- including entire acts, at points -- consists of 2D side-scrolling sequences (they're more plentiful toward the end). Some of these segments offer multiple paths to explore; all the game's secrets must be found in order to achieve the "good" ending.Bettenhausen loved the first 2D level that Sawaki showed him, but the designer expressed trepidations about its viability. "Will Americans and Europeans like this?" he asked Bettenhausen, who had to assure Sawaki that the idea was worth exploring. "Yes! We also love Mario!" The 2D sections vary the pace, and they have a greater focus on platforming. "We felt like the character-action games that came out over the last ten years were more about brawling [and] less about jumping," said Bettenhausen, and Ignition wanted to change that with El Shaddai. As the story goes, in the beginning, God created the Earth. He sent down seven angels to watch over it, known (appropriately enough) as the Watchers, and he entrusted them with an immense amount of power. This power, as it often does, corrupted the Watchers; they and humanity fell in love with each other, and their offspring were known as the Nephilim. (In the Book of Enoch, they're grotesque semi-human monsters, but Sawaki rendered them as "Studio Ghibli, slimy, cute Totoro thing[s].") The Watchers instructed humans to build the Tower of Babel, and each floor was its own utopia. Understandably, this angered God, who decided to unleash an apocalyptic flood on the Earth to wipe everything out for a do-over. As Enoch, you are tasked with finding seven fallen angels in order to prevent that flood of Biblical proportions.The art isn't the only surreal facet of El Shaddai -- its tale is told in the typically over-the-top anime style. Lucifer (known as "Lucifel" here, since the game takes place before his fall from Heaven) serves as a narrator and guide of sorts; because he has traveled through time and taken a shine to modern fashion, he wears a suit, and he talks to God on his cell phone in order to save your game. Yep. Lucifel's time travel plays an important role in the story, since, well, he knows what's going to happen.It takes Enoch 300 years to find the Tower of Babel, and one of the sections I saw and played took place in the City of the Martys, just outside the Tower. Picture the city of Zion from The Matrix Reloaded meeting Mario Kart's Rainbow Road track, and give it a Tron-like look, and you'll have some idea of the art direction of the level. El Shaddai definitely doesn't hold your hand; much of the level consisted of narrow bridges and platforms that you can fall off of, or be knocked by an enemy off of, to your death. A later section of the same level threw airborne enemies with projectile weapons at Enoch; you could either run past them, fight them, or try to time your jumps so that their attacks broke open item containers sprinkled along the path. With its stunning and fantastical art direction, classic "simplicity belies depth" controls, challenging combat and platforming, and unconventional take on Judeo-Christian mythology, El Shaddai is shaping up to be a strong title that may fly under most gamers' radar. "Luckily," said Bettenhausen, "this game doesn't have to sell like a God of War in order to be a success." It likely won't, but perhaps it should.
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"This game is the reason I joined Ignition three years ago," said Shane Bettenhausen, the publisher's director of business development, at a recent demo of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron in New York. "I hate games that...

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Check out some gorgeous new El Shaddai screens


May 14
// Jim Sterling
Here's a batch of new screens for the upcoming brawler/platformer El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. The art style is still as pretty as you remember it, so that's good! I'm really looking forward to checking out the full...

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