Great Azazel keeps killing me.
I've written about El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron before, but here's the 10-second gist: You're Enoch, the most devout man alive, tasked by God (and guided by pre-fall Lucifer) to beat up and bind seven angels who've gone to ground in Bible-era Earth. It's very loosely based on stories found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and let's take a moment to reflect on how no Western publisher would touch that plot with a 20-foot pole. British company Ignition Entertainment did, and Takeyasu Sawaki's (Okami, Devil May Cry) stunningly beautiful, totally bonkers beat-'em-up hits North American shelves next month.
Derek Zoolander invented Blue Steel, but Enoch perfected it.
Now, you might wonder what kind of snowball's chance in Hell a mortal man has when facing off against the heavenly host. To which I'll reiterate: Great Azazel keeps killing me. Watcher Eziekiel, too, and a few others…often in three hits or less.
That doesn't stop the game. It doesn't even prompt a restart. You're supposed to die, repeatedly, in a humbling, humiliating, perhaps frustrating manner. Oh yes, we've all died in games before, but completely shrugged off like an insect? That's different, and the effect is quite interesting.
It goes down like this: Enoch runs until he reaches a platform, whereupon several minions pop in to start some trouble. But occasionally, a quick cut-scene intros what would normally qualify as a mini-boss fight, and you're dead an embarrassingly short time later. The game features Punch-Out!!-style button mashing to revive yourself before the big sleep takes hold, but often Enoch's so thoroughly trampled you don't even get that slender chance.
And then Enoch's suddenly back on the platform, alone, as if waking from a half-remembered dream…and he presses on.
I'm on a mission from God, bitch!
The first few times, it feels like something's missing, or else you're missing something. Gamers are hardwired to accept death as an inevitable (if temporary) result. A stray asteroid hits your ship. Monsters corner you in the maze. You miss a jump. The other guy doesn't miss with his super combo. A 13-year-old sniper splits your wig from two kilometers away. These things happen, and we accept the consequences for failure. You lose a life, restart at a checkpoint, wait out a respawn timer, pay a bribe, lose your weapons, the game ends…something.
Not here. Angels show up to periodically remind you just how insignificant you are. That's it. On the two occasions I somehow managed to beat my opponent, the result didn't change. Enoch went back to the platform as if nothing happened, and indeed, those same enemies showed up later to destroy me again. And again. And again.
It's such a strange conceit that only the game's well-established biblical trappings keep this crazy train on the rails at all. Failure doesn't matter. Victory doesn't matter. You're a plaything taking part in some divine plan that goes far beyond such shallow concepts. So yeah, it's disconcerting, jarring, irritating, perhaps mildly depressing…and a fascinating approach. Few games actively try to make you feel small, much less succeed. More to the point, it fits in perfectly with the Christian ethos of enduring tests and hardships imposed by the Almighty. You prove fealty by enduring everything without ever losing faith.
If you don't buy into that aspect, El Shaddai might only test your patience.
Don't get me wrong…the combat feels fairly good — particularly once you dial into the combo system — and El Shaddai does feature real boss fights that you must win to progress. By comparison, they all feel extremely forgiving (despite a host of cheap moves), because you at least have a fighting chance. Truth be told, I started looking forward to those unwinnable battles. I wanted that test, and with a little practice, I did get my hits in. Always something to be said for spitting in the eye of the uber powerful. Sometimes I even poked that eye out.
Bottom line: El Shaddai tests your faith. You won't always understand what it wants of you. You will question your abilities as a gamer. You'll just have to hope that, by the time Enoch reaches the end of his road, you'll have those answers…and the hardships endured along the way will feel entirely justified.