El Shaddai: Ascension of the What The Eff

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is the most interesting game I have played in some time. It loosely follows the first part of Book of Enoch and sets you on a mission to go out and dispose of some fallen angels (called Watchers) who are doing bad things to humanity. This sets up one of the most gorgeous and inspired games I have ever come across. The combat is simple but not boring and moves you smoothly through a wonderful journey of colorful surreal and abstract art.

The game is ostensibly an action title, and so there is plenty of combat. It is extremely simple but not boring. You fight with rhythmic presses of a single button, and there are three weapons you can grab off creatures and a happy little weapon triangle. That’s about it. The boss fights involve weapon matching and quick thinking but in most situations you’ll use whatever your favorite is. I mostly used the ranged weapon because it had a quick dodge, but there’s also a swift light melee weapon and a heavy melee weapon that does heavy damage and shields you.

While El Shaddai is billed as an action title, I feel that it is much more of a platformer in terms of the gameplay because of how it is incorporated into the art and design of the game. The platforming elements are used to showcase certain areas in 2D and give you a feel for the environments, and there are also some very advanced and challenging 3D platforming levels that help shape the otherworldly feel of the Watchers’ Tower.

The core of El Shaddai is its approach to art and presentation. I think that to the general gaming public “beautiful game” is equated with one that emulates real life pretty well, but that is a very narrow way to look at things. El Shaddai throws this out the window and takes its queues from the world of fine art. I’m not going to get into an argument about whether games count as art here or not, but the design work in El Shaddai is amazing and deserves tons of praise. Every floor of the Tower is distinct in style, color palette and feel and clearly influenced by the world of fine art. You can really feel and appreciate the effort that the design team put into the world they created.

A random scene from El Shaddai

Most importantly, there is an extremely well-crafted nightclub scene that segues into a fight with one of the Watchers. It is bizarre and actually fits right in with what’s going on in the level.

As I mentioned earlier, the story in El Shaddai is based on a part of the Book of Enoch. I had a vague understanding of what was going on thanks to taking Theology in college, but if you haven’t read it you won’t really understand a whole lot of what is going on. I don’t want to give the impression that I followed along exactly, either, but I got the gist of things.

Once you get past the introductory cut-scenes much of the story is related by God’s right-hand man Luciel (voiced by Jason Isaacs who does a real bang-up job) and done in two ways. There are exposition sequences where you control Enoch in a 2D environment where the background shows you the events being related and you catch bits of conversations Luciel is having with God about your mission progress.  It’s hard to follow beyond the base story, but I took it as a weird surreal experience and I don’t think it takes away from the game. If you play ugly games for the story, why not play a beautiful game for the design.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metraton is a conventional game hidden in an unconventional shell. It has some of the most amazing art direction and graphics I’ve ever seen in a game, and is worth playing through just to take in the experience. The platforming and hitting things with weapons won’t blow your mind but it all comes together in a nice package if you don’t try to think too hard about the story.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade

Before I put together an actual list of the games I wanted to get out of the way during the baseball offseason I knocked out Vanillaware’s Muramasa: The Demon Blade. If you’re not aware, Vanillaware’s ambition is to make great 2D games and Muramasa is their third title to be released in North America following Odin Sphere and Grim Grimoire for the PS2.

Here’s a quick summary of each of these games:

  1. Odin Sphere – Sprawling action RPG where you play as several different characters in a story based off Norse mythology. Beautiful game with ridiculous difficulty at times, got a lot of attention for being well made and standing out as something different. I enjoyed it a lot but the game felt very long.
  2. Grim Grimoire – RTS where you take the role of a young student at a magic school where something isn’t quite right. Relatively easy, short RTS. It took a lot of flack for having a story “like Harry Potter” because people pretend that Harry is the first ever kid born to be the greatest wizard ever who needs to learn magic.
  3. Muramasa: The Demon Blade – Action game where you play through two intertwined stories about a sword forged by Muramasa Oboro. Easy or hard depending on which play mode you select, the action is really smooth and effortless but it never feels like you’re just button mashing for combos.
    I really enjoyed all three but even though it didn’t get the critical acclaim of Odin Sphere, I think that Muramasa is Vanillaware’s best game so far. Because the game isn’t punishingly hard unless you choose it to be, and the controls are great so running around Japan and fighting hoards of enemies never gets boring.

The game mechanics other than fighting are solid and easy to understand. At the start of the game you acquire the soul of Muramasa who hangs out in your bag and forges swords for you. To forge swords you need soul, which you get by killing enemies and spirit which you acquire by eating food.

There isn’t much to distinguish the swords from each other except the type (long blade or blade, slow but higher damage or fast with lower attack power) and personal preferences about their special attacks which only really matter if you’re playing in hard mode.  I hate slow attacks so I used blades almost exclusively as soon as I was able to. The characters level up as they gather souls but the world levels up with you so it doesn’t impact much, just heals you for free in the middle of a fight and allows you to equip more powerful swords.

Muramasa has three endings for each character which are easy to unlock and don’t require you to play the game over and over. This is something I really appreciated because I wanted to see them but playing a full game through a second and third time is a chore even if you really do like a game (I make an exception for games that branch off a bunch like Valkyrie Profile DS where you don’t see much repeat action).

Before playing through Murasama the last (home console) game that I just completely ran through without a break was Super Mario Galaxy 2. I never got tired of playing it, or so aggravated that I needed to take a break. Seeing as I am a crazy picky person with no attention span, that’s pretty good company and I really think anyone who enjoys hitting video game enemies with swords will find something to like in Muramasa.