El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron HD Remaster Review

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I absolutely adore the seventh console generation, unironically. Nostalgia has a decent amount to do with that, I will admit. This was the period of time when I started seriously playing console games again after years of exclusively playing handheld games as a kid. As an adult, one who understands a lot more about the industry, I’ve developed an appreciation for creativity born through adversity. When HD consoles were first released, a shift in the industry came from developers largely realizing they couldn’t maintain the tactics established in the previous generation.

We got a lot more linear games, or ones compromised in some way by bloating development times and costs needed to create HD assets. They were also difficult to develop for, and ambition would likely also not always mesh with the strength of the hardware. I’m happy that these games have seen a resurgence in recent years on PC or modern platforms to give players an idea of what these games “should have been” in relation to performance and visuals.

And then there are the Nintendo Switch versions of seventh gen games, which I’m even more interested in seeing. As a pretty old console in its own right at this point, we all kind of know that it’s struggled to pull its weight regarding ports from other consoles. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is the poster boy for literally all of this. It got a revival on PC a few years ago thanks to the original creator buying the rights back and has now finally made it to Nintendo’s portable.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron HD Remaster Review Screenshot 1

I’m not terribly familiar with religious text, but the story of El Shaddai relates to and was inspired by the Book of Enoch, which was removed from the bible. You play as Enoch himself, as he is sent to Earth to recover a few fallen angels called the Grigori before the great flood. While I think it is always fun and interesting to see Japanese takes on Christian mythology, I wouldn’t say you need to understand it to appreciate what El Shaddai is doing. The story itself was said to be unfinished by the original creator Sawaki Takeyasu, but I genuinely think this is something you experience rather than parse. For people who do love the plot, the remaster features an epilogue novel written to try and flesh it out further.

One thing that might be a bit obscure for first-time players is that El Shaddai has a weapon triangle. There are three weapon types: Arch, Gale, and Veil. Arch is a curved sword, Gale is a ranged weapon where you shoot shards, and Veil is a shield that breaks apart into two gauntlets. If you break one of your weapons there’s a bare fist style that is a lot more fleshed out then you’d expect, but you’re going to want to always get your hands on one of these weapons. The enemies in the game will mostly always be using one, which you can steal by weakening them. In addition to this, you also need to worry about your weapon health, which can break if you don’t cleanse them of the sin they accrue by attacking the game’s foes.

My initial experience with fights wasn’t the best, but once you understand the weapon triangle battles are a lot of fun. Enemies hit hard, but I wouldn’t say the game is very punishing. Enoch’s ally Lucifel is able to snap him back into reality with a bit of mashing on your part, which gets more intense the more you die in a run. The game autosaves frequently, so if you run out of retries you’ll be able to respawn close to where you left off. There’s an optional HUD you can turn on, but most of Enoch’s health status is visible by just looking at his character model. His fantastic design of a beautiful man in denim jeans is accompanied by heavenly armor that breaks off bit by bit. Once he’s shirtless, a single attack will knock him out. You can restore health by either breaking objects in between battles or by popping Overdrive, which will power him up and let him unleash a unique attack based on the weapon.

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Outside of battles, your experience with El Shaddai is rather linear. This is an action game in the vein of Devil May Cry (the creator of this was even a designer on it) but with fewer side paths. The nature of each stage is meant to be surreal, so there is less of a chance to obtrude the linearity that a realistic setting would have been able to. You’ll often have long pathways floating in beautiful painterly backgrounds, with little chance to go off the beaten path. I don’t find this as much of a problem, since the world of El Shaddai is visually diverse and consistently beautiful. What you do in every set of levels for each fallen angel is unique, often mixing in platforming challenges which were pretty fun to engage with.

Playing El Shaddai feels like walking through an art gallery, with Lucifel there as your tour guide to narrate every painting. This game is certainly not for everyone, and you could easily brush the entire thing off as pretentious, but it’s hard to deny the artistic expression on display. I appreciate how the game feels like it drops you in the middle of the story, and you frequently feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of new locations and concepts. The biblical story influences might have largely gone over my head, but they’re told in such an engaging way. Add a fantastic voice cast, and you’re in for a real treat of a game with only the occasional frustration to just add an endearing texture.

The whole game is unlike anything else I’ve ever played, and you can tell that even though the game feels “unfinished” in a sense you are still getting a unique vision with a good amount of budget put into it. A game like El Shaddai probably wouldn’t exist in today’s gaming landscape, with a lot of its quirks possibly being seen as a bit too risky since it might alienate players. El Shaddai wasn’t a success when it was released originally, but I’m really glad it was made at all.

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But this is an action game, and as much as I want to wax poetically about the artistic merit of the game how it plays is pretty important. It was definitely a fun play, but the Switch release comes with some caveats. The less important one I think is the quality of the pre-rendered video files which play on occasion, that unfortunately have some unfortunate compression artifacts that make it distracting when playing on docked. There are two “Operation Modes” in the options menu: Hi Res and Action. Both of them target 60 frames per second, and neither of them are able to hit it consistently.

Hi Res has a higher resolution that seems to my eyes to target 1080p docked and 720p undocked, but has pretty egregious slowdown issues often. Action has a much hazier image, but more consistently hits the target framerate and was still pretty playable in my opinion. I wish there was an option to lock the framerate to 30 fps, but since we are seemingly on the cusp of a new Switch I think Hi Res mode will stand the test of time well. With stronger hardware able to brute force performance issues will make that the ideal situation to play El Shaddai for someone like me who prefers portable gaming.

Calling El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron “weird” doesn’t give it nearly enough credit. I think it was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, because the rise of indie games and uniquely told video game experiences has made titles like this a lot more common. We have an expectation for linear experiences, but El Shaddai’s take on action games still makes it stand out. While I wish combat could have more bells and whistles to it, I appreciate how easy it is for most people to jump into. I struggled to decide if I was sad to see its combat not evolve meaningfully after the three weapons are established, but I equally appreciate it locking in its core mechanics so early. This is something you experience, and while the performance issues take away from that I don’t think they hamper it too much. And who knows, they could even get addressed in a patch. This feels like a definitive title in the seventh console generation and is definitely worth a play if you want to experience a bit of gaming history.

Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by crim

8/10
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