“I believe in a long, prolonged derangement of the senses to obtain the unknown.” ~ Jim Morrison

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” ~ Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing and Las Vegas

“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” ~ The Beatles in “I Am the Walrus

Never in the singular history of video games have I had the opportunity to describe a game as psychedelic. I started this review off with all of those well known quotes of the acid culture for a simple reason. The video game I just finished, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, is a visually arresting journey into ever-shifting landscapes that makes me think more of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test than any video game predecessor that springs readily to mind. From the creative mind behind the character design in Okami and the original Devil May Cry, El Shaddai stands as one of the most unique visual experiences I’ve ever encountered in all of video games and is on my short list for most beautiful game of all time. Alas, video games are a medium meant to be played and enjoyed as interactive experience, and in this area, the game falls unfortunately short with an overly simple combat system layered on platforming that gets unfortunately repetitive as the game’s lengthy adventure plays out.

El Shaddai is a very modern and Japanese take on one of the apocryphal Hebrew texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls. You play as Enoch, a human scribe in the employ of God Almighty who is given the task of returning to Earth to destroy fallen angels who have began to corrupt the Earth. You are guided on your task by Lucifel (aka Lucifer, aka the devil) who sports a cell phone and wears black jeans, as well as the four archangels, and this time around, Gabriel’s a woman. Along the way,  you’ll fight through a seemingly endless horde of disciples and monstrous abominations born from the corruption of the fallen angels and navigate the most surreal and essentially mind-boggling landscapes (or even more accurately, dreamscapes) that you’ve ever come across in all of videogames. The game is at its core a combination of arena battles interspersed with platforming segments, and you’ll never quite be able to look at either the same again.

The combat in the system is both deceptively simple and actually too simple. There is only one attack button (as well as a separate block button). Different combinations in how long you hold the button or delay holding the button or how many times you press it, etc, lead to Enoch performing different combat maneuvers. Combat is built around a rock-paper-scissors system involving the three different weapons you are able to employ and figuring out which enemy to kill first and whose weapons to steal in order to fight effectively. At first, discovering how this system works is rewarding as its not like anything else you’ve seen in a video game, until about a third of the way through the game when you’ve done everything you can in the combat realm. It burns out too early. The platforming is more conventional in nature although its purpose is simply to show off the gorgeous environments that the game’s artists have crafted.

If you thought to yourself that Japanese writers trying to adapt one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the book of Enoch) into a sci-fi/fantasy epic would end up being a little confusing, you’d be right. The game’s story has an interesting premise, and there are certain set piece moments in the game that really cement neat ideas and concepts. However, the game’s plot makes virtually no sense. There’s not much in the way of exposition. Too much exposition can be bad, but this game has virtually none, and as you are shuttled along from place to place, you aren’t really given much more motivation than simply wanting to see the next great level that the game is going to give you. At around the 1/3 mark of the game, I simply had to accept that I was never going to comprehend this game’s plot in any meaningful way, but I almost feel as if it isn’t meant to be comprehended. You’re just meant to be taken along on this game’s extremely psychedelic ride and just place your trust in the designers.

This is simply the most beautiful game I have ever played. The only competition is the creator’s other big name project, Okami. It doesn’t have the most powerful graphics engine on the planet, and whenever the game tries to render more conventional looking scenery or objects (which is thankfully rare), you can see the limits of the enginge, but that’s really not the point here. This game is about creating levels that stand on their own as works of art. I’ve never done LSD, but I bet this is kind of what it’s like. Not since Braid, have I played a game that has such specific modern art sensibilities. From water-color paintings to Tron to M.C. Escher style geometries to Tron‘s world to something that was almost Dr. Seuss-esque to things I simply don’t have the vocabulary to describe, this game throws you into one visually astounding level after another, and you simply beg for more.

It’s almost impossible for me to over-state how much good will this game’s peerless art design earns for itself. Without its dream-like worlds and constantly shifting scenery, this game wouldn’t have made nearly the same impression on me. It’s combat is overly repetitive and there’s nothing especially innovative about the platforming. However, like I said, no game currently on the market comes close to matching the sheer artistry that follows from nearly every second of this game. Video games do not get the respect they deserve in the realm of real art, and if a game is ever going to make a case for video games as a medium for expressing art, this is it. I wish the gameplay were better integrated into the over-all artistic experience, but it doesn’t do enough damage to ruin how much I simply enjoy looking at this game. When the rest of the hyper-realistic games from our generation such as Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire age and begin to look like dated artifacts, I’m fairly positive that El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron will stand the test of time in the visuals department.

Final Score: B+

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