When Braving the Depths of Hell One Should Always Look Their Best. Garcia Hotspur Did it Wearing His Purple Jacket.
It feels like only yesterday that we were expounding the virtues of the moral high road by condemning the tasteless sexism and infantile humor found in Duke Nukem Forever (We weren't the only ones). But like all things, context changes perspective, and quality earns you leeway. When aiming below the belt there's a fine line between hitting your target square in the nuts and missing completely. The former results in widespread laughter from all parties save perhaps the victim, while the latter results in you holding your arm between a man's legs while he drags his penis up and down your forearm and whispers sweet nothings in your ear. In this case the former is Shadows of the Damned, a raucous adventure that takes you to the depths of Hell with one hand on your Johnson and the other on a Big Boner. And if you're wondering - yes - I'm trying to cram as many dick jokes into this opening paragraph on purpose, so that I can prove Shadows of the Damned did use them all up.
I Shit You Not - This Is Actually Real.
Shadows of the Damned is an action-horror game, from the minds of Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami, that puts you in the role of the justifiably cocky demon hunter, Garcia Hotspur. Garcia, and his precision demon-slaying side-kick, Johnson, head to Hell to save Garcia's girlfriend, Paula, whose soul has been claimed by underworld overlord, Fleming. It seems Fleming decided that messing with Garcia's insane girlfriend in the afterlife was the best way to return the favor for Garcia's wanton assassination of demons. Over the course of about seven or eight hours - you get to prove him wrong.
Shadows of the Damned comes bearing the burden of expectation, but that doesn't necessarily mean everyone will expect it to be amazing. They'll expect it to be weird. In that regard Shadows of the Damned succeeds mostly by being a pleasant surprise more than it does being downright shocking. Dick jokes are the most used and least funny of the package, but they're usually pulled off by the sheer enthusiasm of the characters you encounter and the overall self-aware tone. This is a world where demons piss Darkness (a threatening shroud that slowly kills Garcia should he fail to light up a goat-head), gates are guarded by strawberry devouring baby-demons, demon-pubes block your path forward, and Garcia offers more one-liners than Charlie Sheen's mirror. And it all works. This world feels more believable than many others you'll come across. If you're particularly averse to nudity and gore, however, you should know that Shadows of the Damned uses both like most games use checkpoints.
But all of that nonsense isn't what makes Shadows of the Damned such an enjoyable ride. Garcia and Johnson are a wonderful duo that can carry the moment to moment aspects of the gameplay on their dialogue alone. But on top of that, Garcia's investment and determination in finding his lost love is, under all of the lunacy and bullshit, quite touching. Suda 51 has managed to craft a grindhouse story that knows when to pause and when to turn the focus in on itself, poking fun at will. It's an accomplishment that can be attributed to the script and the actors, neither which seems to miss a beat, especially during some of the most surreal scenes in the game.
If It Moves, Make It Explode
While the acting and story carry you most of the way, the gameplay has its own load to shoulder. Unfortunately, the results are far more mixed. The gameplay is very, very simple, relying heavily on the shape-shifting gun, Johnson, to change between one of three guns at any time. You'll use a pistol, assault rifle and shotgun to blow the living Hell, literally, out of any enemy that crosses your path. That aspect alone deserves mention, because the gory dismemberment that you dole out with each shot can be insanely satisfying. Each weapon also lets you fire off lightshots, a burst of fire that lights up Goats, to clear the shroud of darkness, or rids enemies of protective shells, sort of like Alan Wake but much less tedious. As you progress you'll find blue gems to stick into Johnson which provides upgrades to your guns. These are unavoidable, but they provide the combat with depth that it needs, constantly making Johnson's guns more powerful and fun to use. But that fun can be limited, as Shadows of the Damned suffers from some common third-person shooter pitfalls.
For starters the camera is often way too close, so any time you're up near a wall your line of sight is totally blocked. This, combined with the stiff-armed, Resident Evil-like but better than Resident Evil aiming makes for a shooter that is more cumbersome than it needs to be. The caveat there is that Shadows of the Damned is also really easy. It doesn't matter if you move a bit sluggishly since enemies always approach predictably. They either come at you face on in a slow, mindless stupor, or rush you quickly in a straight line that easy to dodge. The simple approach is used during boss fights as well, putting you into battle after battle of find-the-weak-spot. This isn't meant to sound really down on Shadows of the Dammed, because many would argue that these boss battles get by on spectacle alone. But if you want an evolution in survival-horror, it's just not here. Shadows of the Damned leans on tried, tested and true gameplay every step of the way. It doesn't mean it's bad; it just lacks the boldness the rest of the package has.
But that doesn't mean the action is entirely remiss of ideas. The aforementioned Darkness mechanic is initially very interesting. Various points in the demon world get covered in blinding darkness that eats away at Garcia's health, while also making enemies tougher to kill. From the start you're just trying to light the way, even if only temporarily, by lighting things like fireworks - which, while a favorite underworld past time, also hurts demons. But eventually there are certain points that can only be accessed inside the darkness and enemies that only take damage in it, too. It's well done but could have used an extra layer of complexion.
The other neat wrinkles are the games 2D side-scrolling twin stick shooter levels that utilize the same lightshot/goat/darkness mechanics as the rest of the game and a long tower defense sequence. The side-scrolling levels take place in strange watercolor drawn levels that look like they're pieced together on construction paper. The tower defense portion succeeds largely on the use of the Big Boner alone, a special-use function of Johnson that turns him into a massive long-barreled gun, allowing you to defend yourself against hulking monsters that rush you from multiple angles. These extra sections are generally fun, but both wear out their welcome well before they actually end. Given the sparse gameplay depth and so-so campaign length, these sections feel too much like padding, albeit welcome in the place of a shorter game.
Hell's A Dirty Place
As well constructed as the world is in Shadows of the Damned it isn't technically all that impressive. There's no denying that the full fledged, inhabited alter-world is an awesome take on Hell, but it suffers greatly from latent texture loading and inconsistent character animations. Frequently during combat I witnessed Garcia skip a few frames or saw his attackers jump animation points, creating a jarring visual experience that sticks out like a sore, throbbing, purple, bruised thumb. But if you don't care about shine and polish then you'll take comfort in knowing that the characters and the world are visually striking. Though it shoves female flesh in your face any chance it gets - I'm not opposed to naked women, I just think it's a lazy, unnecessary approach to bringing 'cool', and 'sexy' to entertainment - the game does have some splendid, and stylish character designs. Some of the best designs are the bosses, enemies and the Wendigo store merchant, Christopher. So while your opponents might not always present you with the toughest of challenges, at least they look awesome while they try.
The actors deserve their own share of the spotlight here, since much of your enjoyment hinges on you getting behind them. Garcia is voice by this year's Nolan North, Steve Blum who, even while being ridiculous, feels right at home in this demon infested world. Industry vet Julianne Buescher plays Garcia's insane and insanely hot girlfriend, Paula. Greg Ellis might be the best of the bunch as Johnson. And the rest of the cast is rounded out by Paul Mercier, who delivers a solid performance as Fleming, and Cam Clarke who eats up the scenery as Christopher. It's a testament to Suda and Shinji that they've pooled from so many of the actors they've worked with before and extracted excellent performances from each of them. All of this is tied together with the eerie, piercing score and audio mixing of Akira Yamaoka, famed sound director of the Silent Hill franchise. Akira's work here is absolutely sublime, proving once again that audio is still one of the most overlooked, undervalued and crucially important aspects in game design.
Shadows of the Damned is a fantastically perverse plunge into the depths of a neon-highlighted Hell that actually leaves you feeling like the badass interloper you're meant to be. But if you were expecting an off-the-wall niche adventure that others 'just don't understand', this isn't it. Shadows of the Damned is an easily accessible game, and one that suffers from being overly simple and without challenge. The perfunctory attention given to the controls is a disappointment, but at least they're functional enough that the gloriously bloody demon-slaying will keep your attention. But if you have no affinity for Evil Dead nods and grindhouse exploitation then most of what Shadows of the Damn trades in will fall flat, especially without the gameplay to back it up. Ultimately, Shadows of the Damned is boasts a decent campaign that just doesn't have much replay value and lacks the depth of design to make it truly extraordinary. So while I think everyone should check it out, I can't honestly say it's worth the full price of admission.
Final Score: 78%
75-79% - "Impressive” This game meets a level of playability and fun that makes it easier to forgive flaws. The uptight “85 and up” crowd won’t want to bother, but the rest of us know they’re missing out on something really solid.