Saturday, October 3

El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron - Solum Visio

          El-Shaddai is a hack and slash 3D and side-scrolling platformer with very simple gameplay.  There are 3 weapons you can switch between or steal from enemies that have various movesets and affinities, and a variety of interesting boss encounters that use the simple mechanics well.  The game doesn’t sell itself on any of that.  It’s all about the visual design and narrative concept.
          Some angels have gone rogue, fleeing to earth and creating a pocket dimension to hide from God, rock and roll all night, and party ev-er-y day.  God’s all Old Testament about this and threatens to send another flood, but our protagonist Enoch volunteers to round up the angels if God will spare the Earth.
          Also, Earth has become the cover of a Yes album.  And Tron.  And  several other aesthetics that can be represented in high-contrast colour palettes.
          El-Shaddai is about as style-over-substance as I’ve ever seen a game be.  It’s got solid design where the design is, like eschewing a health bar (or any UI) for the amount of armour your character or target wears.  New elements to the combat are introduced far apart to make them easy to play around with and understand, but I don’t think it’s actually necessary.  The gameplay is simple and the additions minor enough that its learning curve is more of a gentle bump.
          I like the visuals.  The colourful environments don’t pull focus from the play, keep a consistent aesthetic for any given area, and do change to represent the power of the beings you’re up against.  I would almost expect the game to be a Soulsian difficulty wall, but even the more elaborate boss fights don’t give you a deep verb set. Enoch just doesn’t have enough moves to develop or master.
          I like the actual story design less.  It feels really pushed to the side, many times told in short clips between levels, rather than through the aforementioned visuals.  We get glimpses of what the angels have brought to the humans, like a futuristic city or fertile mountains, but they interact with the player in very minor ways, or not at all.  I also don’t need a narrator to tell me how half-angel nephilim eating one another works.  I can be shown that, super easily.  I get to see it happen, but I don’t get to draw my own conclusions. 
          And this game would be even better, weirdly, if the story was more open to interpretation.  Because characters are constantly talking about it around me while I do some uninspired, finicky platforming, I don’t get invested in the story.  I don’t have to engage mentally.
          Maybe that’s the most damning thing about El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, that it asks nothing of me.  There are no puzzles, the hack-and-slashing is easy button mashing, and the platforming  is rectangles hanging in the void.  The games sells itself on visuals and concept, but doesn’t back it up with engagement, which some people consider the core goal of game design.  It might be worth playing for the visuals and occasional silliness, but it doesn’t have enough fullness to be worth your time.

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