Games 8/16/11: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, Labyrinth, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: UTV Ignition
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $60

During its opening moments, “El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” sees fit to send you down a path where you not only must fail, but will face what initially resembles a “Game Over” screen.

It isn’t. Rather, it’s your first definitive clue that “Metatron,” while a product of familiar influences, has designs to take those influences down some wonderfully unique new avenues.

Fundamentally, “Metatron” is an action game in the same ilk as “God of War” or “Bayonetta” — fixed camera angles, an agile mix of melee and ranged combat, and a control scheme that’s overwhelmingly dependent on hitting the same attack button ad nauseam.

The difference here is that mashing those buttons won’t get you as far as will tapping them rhythmically. There’s no beat to follow, but keeping one in your head will result in attacks far more powerful than the stock manuevers.

“Metatron” puts the combat (and the need to employ a similarly measured defense) to great effect by giving you fewer enemies to fight but making each one formidable. You also only carry one weapon at a time, which means that if you want to switch from melee to ranged combat, you have to disarm an enemy with the weapon you want and take it from him. It’s a dangerous approach, but it’s far more satisfying than simply swapping weapons like you can do in every other game.

“Metatron’s” excellent treatment of stock enemies comes at no expense to its bosses. To the contrary, its treatment of the seven fallen angels whose reign of terror you must end — “Metatron” is a very creatively liberated interpretation of the Book of Enoch — is magnificent.

In contrast to the normal pattern of boss introductions, “Metatron” introduces you to all seven angels before sending you down swinging against one of them. From there, the fallen angels make frequent appearances in battles you can’t completely win, fostering rivalries that culminate in boss fights that are significantly more satisfying to win after all that buildup. “Metatron” unfurls its story at a pace that’s recognizable but unpredictable, and you’ll face off against some angels multiple times over multiple chapters before getting your chance to put them away for good.

The confidence and fluidity with which “Metatron” plays with convention is apparent everywhere else — in the soundtrack, the narration (how does a guardian angel talking to God on a smartphone sound?), and the brilliant way the game sometimes abandons the third dimension and illustrates important story points as a fantastically fun sidescrolling platformer.

“Metatron’s” 3D platforming sequences are no slouch, either, thanks in equal part to fluid controls and some ingeniously weird level designs that twist, elevate and sometimes form under your feet. Another gameplay shift — occurring exactly once in the middle of the story — is so starkly different and stupidly fun that even hinting at what it is would just be wrong.

But nowhere is “Metatron” more confident than with regard to its visual presentation, which emerges as the showpiece of a game that’s full of them. Each level flaunts a dramatically different style — white skies and dynamic violet landscapes here, a living sheet of canvas there, the most electric worlds Kevin Flynn never created in between.

The visual variety makes an unpredictable game that much more surprising, but it’s the insane skill with which “Metatron” brings them to life that makes it impossible for even screenshots to do the whole thing justice. Whether altering character states, swapping dimensions or continuously redrawing entire horizons as you race through them, “Metatron’s” animation drops jaws with a relentless brilliance that has very few peers.


For: Nintendo DS
From: Mentor Interactive/dtp young entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)
Price: $20

Mentor Interactive has talked a good game with its thinkSMART video game imprint, which purportedly bestows its blessing on games only when they achieve a satisfactory standard with regard to educational as well as entertainment value.

“Labyrinth” is among the latest crop of games (the others being “Scotland Yard,” also for the Nintendo DS, and “Crazy Machines” for the Wii) to bear the tag. And while it isn’t much at all to look at or listen to, it definitely passes muster as a puzzle game that doesn’t take its audience’s intelligence lightly.

Even describing “Labyrinth” without making it sound impossibly complicated is a bit tricky. Essentially, you and up to three others are pawns in a disconnected, maze-like labyrinth that’s littered with treasure. Each player is after a specific piece of treasure, and with each turn, you can add a maze piece to any edge of the labyrinth that “pushes” the opposite edge away and transforms the corridor arrangement of the entire labyrinth. The object is to clear a pathway to your treasure while preventing others from doing the same first. Each player has a handful of treasures to collect in order, and the first to nab them all wins the match.

(If that sounds like a complete mess, rest assured that it makes sense after you see it in action. The video game also is based on the board game of the same name, so if you’re familiar with the board game, you can just ignore the preceding attempted explanation.)

Were “Labyrinth” a solitary endeavor, it’d still be challenging. Having to create a path two feet in front of you while also modifying the labyrinth in a way that won’t stifle you three turns later isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s just impossible. There’s a balance between thinking three steps ahead and making a compromise for the immediate greater good, and you’ll occasionally curse yourself when you make a move that simply reveals a much better move after the labyrinth shifts.

But the challenge takes on another tenor entirely with an adversary sharing the maze with you. (“Labyrinth” supports up to four players via local single-card wireless play or by passing a single DS around, and it supplies up to three A.I. opponents when human competition isn’t available.)

As you might expect, the internal battle between planning and reacting grows that much more complicated when opponents interrupt your process with their own turns. Occasionally, you need to just abandon your own hunt and spend a turn shifting the board to block opponents or box them in. You don’t know which treasure they’re specifically hunting for, nor do they know what you’re after, so it helps also to pay attention to their moves, discern what they’re after, and keep them off the path. If you can do that while simultaneously paving your own way, more power to you.

The immense amount of moving intellectual parts gives “Labyrinth” a formidable level of depth that defies the budget price and appearance. The game’s music is hard on the ears, the graphics are extremely rudimentary, and the quest mode’s storyline isn’t exactly a hotbed of compelling characters or high production values.

But all of that stuff — even the quest mode as a whole — feels like secondary dressing.

In a pleasantly surprising role reversal, it’s actually the Quick Play mode that gives “Labyrinth” its longest legs. Each new game introduces a randomly-generated maze — essentially running the level count into the gazillions — and you can customize the intelligence and number of opponents to tailor to your ability and/or appetite for punishment. Outside of opponent intelligence, which lies at the mercy of your friends, all that holds true for multiplayer as well.


Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: FuelCell/Gagne International
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $15

Exploring the atmosphere of “Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet” is akin to wandering around a country without knowing the language, and that’s where its genius lies. “Planet” marries traditional 2D space shooting gameplay with the kind of non-linear exploration found in the likes of “Metroid,” populating regions you visit early on with areas you can only access once you return later with a gadget that can pave the way. “Planet” isn’t as sharp as “Metroid” about keeping the backtracking to a minimum, and purely as a space shooter, it’s more good than great. But the game redeems itself not only with the variety of gadgets you eventually collect, but in the clever way it challenges you to figure out the right tool for every job. “Planet” almost completely eschews language in favor of symbols: Your object scanner uses icons to hint at which gadgets are useful where, but you’ll need to flex some ingenuity to decipher what these gadgets do and how they apply to any given situation. Even in the first area, the game spells nothing out for you. The minimalist approach works in tandem with a vector-esque visual presentation to give “Planet” a fresh identity, and it joins forces with some great puzzle design to do the exploration theme proud. Should you occasionally crave something a little more frantic, the Lantern Run mode — a score-based, co-operative (four players, local or online) survival mode which puts your ship on the run from considerably more dangerous enemies — will prove a nice and punishing change of pace.