Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ascension of the Metatron

Hey, everyone! Exams are finally over, and so I return to blogging! Two weeks of essay writing, test taking, and language learning was pretty intense. It was hard to find the time and energy to blog in depth about fun and interesting things, but now I return! And so, here's a change of pace:

I've been playing a few video games lately and one that I happened to pick up recently was the PS3 version of Ignition Tokyo's El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (this is also the Japanese title). And what a game it was . . . 

This game came out back in 2011, so it's fairly old by video game standards. I'd had my eye on it for quite some time, and when I saw it for a rather cheap price, I decided to snatch it up. After finally beating it a few days ago, I'd just like to say that I really enjoyed this game. Is it the best game I've ever played? No, it's not, but it is pretty neat, if mostly for the visuals and the whimsical nature of the narrative. 

No, there is no filter on this screen shot. This is actually what the game looks like. 
So the story of this game is actually based on religious stuff, in this case the book of Enoch from that best-selling timeless classic the Torah or, if you prefer, the Old Testament (though the book of Enoch is apparently not canonical in almost all Christian traditions). You play as Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah -- you know, the guy who built the ark -- and you are tasked with "purifying" (i.e., beating the snot out of) and returning to heaven a small group of mischievous fallen angels who decided it would be fun to descend to Earth and get mixed up with mankind. It turns out that when fallen angels and humans "get busy," their babies end up being these weird, sausage-shaped minimalist creatures that eat each other and turn into giant hideous monsters . . . not good!    
There's Enoch jumping into the mouth of a 'nephalim,' the offspring of a human and a fallen angel. 
 You are accompanied by three swans who are physical manifestations of non-fallen angels (Gabriel is among them) and a svelte-looking guy with a cellphone who is constantly talking to someone from "upper management" -- gee, I wonder who that could be? (I think the dude himself is supposed to be Death, but the game never says!)

This guy handles all your game saves and updates the Big Man about all your progress.
So the game itself is pretty straightforward. Run on a predetermined path with little deviation from point A to point B, fighting baddies and attempting not to die. There are three modes of fighting baddies, that is, three weapons one can choose from: a quick, scythe-like melee weapon; a heavy, uh,  glove-like(?) melee weapon; and a long-range weapon that doesn't do all that much damage but keeps enemies at a distance. Each weapon has a nifty secondary feature. The scythe thing lets you do a twirly dodgy action, and if you jump you can sort of hover for a bit; the glove-like weapon generates a shield that will protect you from most attacks; and the long-range weapon gives you this dash move that is great for dodging and the like. The combat is pretty basic and works like a simplified Devil May Cry system, but with enough complexity that a certain degree of strategy is required. Still, there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about it. The health system is dependent on your armour, which gets chipped away if you take damage à la Ghouls and Ghosts; however, in the event that you die you can mash buttons to revive yourself with full armour. This can be done only a limited number of times, mind you.

One of the side-scrolling levels.
Where the game really sets itself apart is in the art style, narrative, and perspective shifts. The art style is . . . well, just look at the screen shots. I'd describe it as a kind of minimalist, surrealist dreamscape full of interesting shapes and textures not often seen in games of this console generation. The art style and colour palette change with each level. At one point you may be wandering through rippling green clouds and trees, the next running through a bright red Cubist landscape with spires jutting up in the distance. One of the reasons I felt compelled to play on was to see what the next level would look like; advancing through the game was like walking through an art gallery -- it was wonderful!

The sinister tower where the angels reside.
The narrative is equally minimal, though at certain times perhaps too ambiguous for its own good. The player is told that Enoch's got to find some angels, and there's a giant tower in which they all reside. As you advance through the levels you get higher and higher up the tower, and occasionally the fallen angels, who show up as bosses in their respective levels, will attack you in other levels and you're apparently supposed to lose to them. However, the game doesn't indicate that you're meant to lose and the angels seem to attack at random, so it can get rather frustrating: you feel like you're doing something wrong. There's also a sudden story shift in which Enoch gets trapped in ice for ten years and this little girl Ishtar takes up his quest (though you don't play as her; it's explained through cutscenes); this is also documented in the whimsical and ambiguous fashion of the rest of the game. Finally, the perspective shifts are quite interesting, as some levels are in standard 3-D perspective while others work like a 2-D platformer, which I enjoyed because it added some variety. There's even a motorcycle stage that takes place in a sort of cyberpunk future city, which seems totally out of step with the rest of the game as it is such an obviously rendered space. It catches you off guard but it's pretty awesome.

Concept art for Ishtar.
In the beginning I put down the game for a while because I wasn't sure if I was playing it properly, so I suppose the ambiguity hurt the experience a bit in the beginning. However, once I got into the headspace of the game and just started accepting what was happening, I found it really compelling. Things just sort of happen and some of them are pretty bizarre. To enjoy this game I think you really have to try to absorb what's going on as it's happening, without thinking too much about it. The nature of the art and narrative reminded me a lot of the Paradiso portion of Dante's Divine Comedy, in which it is assumed that Heaven is beyond human understanding and thus is portrayed as a kind of surrealist wonderland in which time and space aren't clearly defined and so don't really matter all that much. I thought it was pretty cool, although I can imagine this minimalist storytelling getting on the nerves of those who prefer more clearcut narratives. Still, I love games that challenge convention and leave themselves open to interpretation. We have films, books, and television series that do this often enough. I definitely think that games like this could give credence to the idea that video game narratives and design will one day be studied in universities from a theoretical standpoint (if they're not already). In any case, by now you should know if this is your thing or not; if you're not sure, try it out! The game retails for around $20 to $30 these days and is available for both XBox 360 and PS3.              

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