Take a stroll through Suda 51’s interpretation of Hell – an underlying demon world that is both gothic and psychedelic, with old century architecture mixing with the large spectacle of neon lighting. It’s a digital land unlike anything else the gaming world has ever seen, which is a major understatement to say the least. Book your ticket on this surreal ride by picking up a copy of Shadows of the Damned, though beware the things that go bump in the night.
It’s a passion project that features an all-star team behind the reigns, containing the ever-popular Suda 51 (creator of the amazing No More Heroes) Goichi Suda and Shinji Mikami – who’s known as one of the main men behind the Resident Evil series. A collaboration game that mixes punk rock with survival horror and oozes character out the middle.
If you’ve ever played a game from Suda 51 and his team at Grasshopper Manufacture before, it won’t come as a surprise that his latest offering is full of creative weaponry, out of this world character designs, and more personality than ten war games put together. Taking the form of a third-person shooter and action-packed survival horror gameplay mixture, Shadows of the Damned has all of that and more. The term unique doesn’t really come close to describing it, which is certainly a good thing in this case.
Players take on the role of Garcia ‘Expletive’ Hotspur – the most badass demon hunter that the two worlds have ever seen. He’s on a mission to save his beautiful but strange damsel in distress, who has been captured by the lord of the underworld. The demon’s plan is to use her for his own means (possibly to turn her into one of his female reapers, formed out of the souls of some of the most beautiful maidens in our planet’s history), but we all know that won’t fly with our manly hero.
Garcia is full of anger and he’s not afraid to take it out on the next animated corpse, twisted looking demon or gigantic boss beast that he sees. This anger is infused through the use of his companion – a former demon turned into a talking skull, named Johnson. You see, Johnson isn’t just a witty and hilarious friend who’ll keep you entertained along the way. That would be too simple. Instead, he’s your weapon and your torch, with the ability to transform himself into three different weapon types (pistol, shotgun and machine gun) with tons of upgrade possibilities and alterations.
In combat, your goal is to defeat those who stand in your way. Though it may sound simple, that’s not always the case. You have puzzles, an enveloping (deadly) darkness that Garcia must not stay in for long, as well as new forms of enemies around every corner. Luckily, switching weapons to get an advantage is as easy as can be, with colour coding to boot. You use the directional pad to input your change and voila, your torch changes to the weapon’s colour and it’s at your dangerous disposal.
Like its zombie-infested competition from Capcom, Shadows of the Damned employs a structured aiming system that forces players to tread lightly while they adjust their sights. Each of Johnson’s transformations has its own laser-sight, meaning that it’s pretty easy to target exact body parts with the right joystick. Weapons have their own special abilities, uses and enemy preferences, so you’ll need to try to use the best one for each twisted situation you find yourself in.
This system works pretty well and fits the game nicely, though it’s certainly not perfect. At times, it can be difficult to target the exact location you want, ending up close but not right on. Plus, there’s the odd clunky moment where the game doesn’t do exactly as you’d like, like missing an evasive roll. However, these moments aren’t very prevalent, so you don’t need to worry about being constantly frustrated. It’s also not a game-breaking issue by any means.
Shadows of the Damned may not have the most creative core mechanics, but it’s really all about the world they’re surrounded by. Its gameplay is reminiscent of other titles and isn’t as polished as that of some of its brethren, but it does the job pretty well. Boss battles are aplenty and the game’s lore paints a dark and twisted story around each one, captivating you and making you want to see what the story’s main character has turned into in demon form. The resulting battles are pretty fun, but they have a fault in lacking creativity within their mechanics.
There can be a bit of repetition in the core gameplay, but the development team did a decent job of attempting to break it up with humor-filled cutscenes, creative visuals and even some altered mission types. In fact, there’s a section of the game where it completely alters itself, becoming a cool 2D side-scrolling shooter (like Aegis Wing or Gradius). It’s quite fun, and really highlights just how amazing the imagination of the team behind the wheel really is. There are also some turret sections, where you must guard an area from oncoming hellmonkeys, using a large rifle known as ‘The Big Boner, because of its look/usage, and the fact that one of your main forms of ammo is bone.
Gamers who are afraid of the dark need not worry too much because this experience is more about action, a good amount of gore, and some dastardly beasts. Its goal isn’t to scare you with enemies who pop out of nowhere. Think of it as a quick-paced, grindhouse survival horror game – sort of like what Silent Hill would be like if it was developed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.
You’re not going to live in constant fear of the shadows or wet your bed due to its inflicted nightmares, but you still need to worry about the enveloping blue fields of darkness that pop up quite often. It factors into puzzle solving and core gameplay mechanics, forcing you to quickly dispel it before it eliminates your shield, and ultimately your last inch of life force. This surrounding blue force can be sent packing by shooting a light shot at a goat lantern (yes, you read that right) or hitting a series of red targets – dependent on location. It adds a lot of tension and a decent new mechanic to the game.
Generally speaking, the game’s mechanics work quite well. You use your weapons to take out foes or solve puzzles, while using your roll ability to evade incoming attacks. It’s fun and features quite a bit of content but you will run into the odd glitch where the game will freeze your character for thirty seconds before loading a cutscene, or the odd random hiccup. It’s not perfect, but it’s just so much fun and so strange that it’s quite easy to overlook these issues.
The writing here is top-notch. It’s witty, creative, dark and twisted, all in one, with grindhouse flair. Gamers who complain about every game being a sequel or a similar version of another these days have received their wish here. Shadows of the Damned is unlike anything on the market – film, video game or literary novel. Its world is so alive (for lack of a better term), surreal and strange that you’ll never want to take your eyes off the screen or finger off the trigger.
Like with all of Suda 51’s games, Shadows of the Damned doesn’t skimp on presentation, the game has an art style unlike any other game in memory. Using the Unreal Engine, the team at Grasshopper Manufacture was able to put forth an interactive product that shines with not only polish and great visuals, but also disturbing characters that are interesting in design. In all honesty, it’s one of the best looking games in its genre for sure and does a good job of setting itself above a lot of other games on the market.
Throughout the journey into the darkness and great unknown it surrounds, you’ll be treated to varying scenery. There are moments where the world will change a bit to represent the psyche of the boss you’re fighting, with an example being a cracking world showing lava as you battle against a winged beast. This scenery features gothic European architecture and pedestrian stores that you’d normally see in our world, including bars that serve liquor that heals you, meaning there’s no need for health packs here. Those environments show quite often, though gamers are also treated to different landscapes and locations (the aforementioned magna river, a sewer and a library), as they complete their journey.
If you’ve been looking for a game that will captivate someone who maybe thinks video games are a waste of time or doesn’t understand them, this is certainly a good choice. It’s so amazing, wonderful and twisted that it’s like watching a great movie when you’re not holding the controller. Not only will your jaw drop, but so will those of your family and friends. Even if they don’t initially sit down in front of the tube, most gamers will want to invite a friend over to marvel in its brilliant strangeness. The only deterrent is prevalent screen tearing that pops up most times you move the camera.
Fans of the Silent Hill series will be happy to know that Akira Yamaoka, the series’ legendary sound designer, makes a triumphant return in this project. His music and sound design are a mix between eerie tones, punk rock flavor and a Spanish guitar influence. It’s an amazing menagerie of sounds that fits the game to a T, adding an amazingly creative flair to the procession, while giving the world its own strange theme songs. The original soundtrack is amazing to say the least, and the game’s sound effects are far from slouches too. This is a very loud game, but it’s also a very well-designed game in terms of auditory effect.
All of the main characters in the game have full voice over for each one of their lines of dialogue. The cast does an exceptional job, treading the line between over-acting and keeping a sense of normalcy within their performances. It’s easy to go too far with material that is inspired by grindhouse films, but that’s not the case here. The actors who voice both Garcia and Johnson are amazing. It’s enjoyable to just listen to them talk to each other, with inside jokes about different popular horror movies, gloomy humor and tons of character.
Overall, Shadows of the Damned is a thrill-ride that should not be missed by any seasoned gamer. Its core mechanics may not be the most creative in town, but the world around them makes it easy to overlook them. If you’re looking for something fresh and new that isn’t just another war game, shooter or RPG, this is for you. It’s a surreal, dangerous, dark and twisted trip that is well-worth taking. Such an enjoyable experience in fact, that you may not want to eject the disc during its ten plus hour duration. Enjoy your trip into the madness.
Shadows of the Damned was released on June 21st, 2011