This has been the summer of the bizarre Japanese video game.
Since June, we’ve been treated to the hallucinatory “Child of Eden,” the gruesome “Shadows of the Damned” and the brain-bending “Catherine.” Each has its faults — but they all share the virtue of being unlike anything else on the market right now.
“El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” (UTV Ignition, for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $59.99) is the latest blast of Japanese weirdness to arrive on our shores, and it may be the strangest yet.
Let’s start with the title: “El Shaddai” translates as “God almighty,” while Metatron is a sort of angelic mediator between God and humanity. The game itself is drawn from the Book of Enoch, a bit of Biblical apocrypha that I cannot even pretend to have a grasp on.
Here, Enoch sports blond hair and bluejeans that give him the appearance of a surfer dude, but his mission is no day at the beach. God has sent him to Earth to retrieve a group of fallen angels, whose fascination with mortals has warped mankind’s evolution. Enoch is assisted by Lucifel, a black-clad archangel with a direct cellphone connection to the Almighty.
The distinguishing feature of “El Shaddai” is its art direction. As Enoch travels through the tower built by the fallen, each level looks radically different. One is a snowy landscape shaded in pastels; the next may be a metal-and-neon cityscape.
One level is a series of candy-colored platforms that could have been plucked from an early “Super Mario Bros.” game. A little later, you find yourself doing battle in an underwater disco.
The graphic variety, however, won’t distract you from the realization that the uninspired gameplay essentially boils down to two alternating activities. The running-and-jumping platform sequences are rudimentary and not much of a challenge to anyone who’s been playing Mario games for the last 25 years.
And then there’s the combat. Enoch and his enemies are limited to three weapons: The arch is a sword, the gale is a projectile weapon, and the veil is a shield that splits into two powerful fists. The weapons work like rock-paper-scissors — arch beats veil, which beats gale, which beats arch — so Enoch needs to keep switching weapons to defeat his foes.
The weapon-switching adds an interesting angle, but once you figure out the three-way strategy, the fights become repetitious. The boss battles against the fallen angels aren’t much more rewarding, and can typically be won as long as you can keep pounding on the attack button.
While the setup is fascinating, the story in “El Shaddai” fails to gel into anything coherent. The stakes — no less than the survival of humanity — are about as high as you can get, but Enoch’s mission never develops any sense of urgency. You never learn anything about the desires and motives of the fallen angels. And potentially intriguing sidebars — like the fate of the Nephilim, the offspring of humans and angels — are left unresolved.
Despite such frustrations, I kept playing “El Shaddai” mainly out of a desire to see what new visual surprises it had in store. On that count, it surely delivers, but it’s a shame that its other elements don’t live up to its beauty. Two stars out of four.
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