Shadows of the Damned: Neither Long, Nor Hard, But A Great Ride All The Same
Shadows of the Damned is the result of a team-up between gaming mega-stars Suda 51 (No More Heroes) and Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil 1-4, Devil May Cry), as well as composer Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill). If this already has you excited, then what the hell are you reading a review for? Go out and get this game. It does not disappoint.
For the rest of you, Shadows of the Damned is a highly stylish old-school third person shooter that trades much more on its story and dialogue than it does on its actual gameplay. The game stars Garcia Hotspur, Mexican demon hunter extraordinaire. That is, Garcia is Mexican, and he hunts demons. He doesn’t hunt Mexican demons. Not that he wouldn’t… whatever. You get the point.
Garcia, has a good buddy named Johnson. Johnson is a floating glowing skull who can transform into a torch, a motorcycle, and various guns. Johnson speaks with a posh British accent and is a reformed demon, dedicated to helping Garcia in his never-ending quest to kick demon ass.
One day Garcia and Johnson are minding their own business when Fleming, the lord of Hell, busts into Garcia’s apartment, murders and then kidnaps Garcia’s girlfriend, Paula. Naturally, Garcia can’t let this stand, so he goes off on an Orpheus-like quest through the underworld to rescue his lost love, and bring some Latino justice to Fleming.
That’s the basic set up, but don’t get overly invested in the story. The narrative focus of the game is really on the comical relationship between Garcia and Johnson, as well as Garcia’s utter joy at killing various demons as he treks through Hell. Paula, for her part, gets herself killed over and over again throughout the game. It’s hell, and she’s already dead, so poor tortured Paula can’t really die, but that doesn’t stop Fleming from tormenting Garcia at every turn with his girlfriend’s disembodied limbs. This begins as shocking, but happens so often it becomes comical, almost like Paula is doing her best Kenny impression.
The over-the-top story and the amusing dialogue sets this game apart from the rest of this year’s Summer-stock. For one, the game is prurient, never shying away from a dick-joke when the opportunity presents itself. I cannot stress this enough: there are a ridiculous amount of dick jokes in this game. The game goes back to the dick-well so many times that it seems in danger of not being funny anymore, but the writing deftly bypasses that hazard keeps up the comedy, if only in the sheer amount of penis-related humor.
Take, for example, Garcia’s basic gun (which, like all his guns, is a transformed version of Johnson). It is a pistol that shoots demon bones. So, of course, it is named Boner. It is later upgraded to shoot bombs, so it is renamed the Hot Boner. Finally, in one level, it is turned into a giant pistol to take down giant enemies, as so, naturally, is named the Big Boner. This just scratches the phallic surface of Shadows of the Damned. There is also female nudity, but it’s the dick jokes that stuck with me… not sure what that says about me, but I am not going to pay it too much thought. Probably means nothing.
The characters of Garcia and Johnson are well realized and acted. Garcia is voiced to perfection, and he frankly sounds quite a lot like a foul mouthed Antonio Banderas. Johnson has a fey British accent, uses words like “fudge” and “sugar” as swears, and plays a role similar to Portal 2’s Wheatley, although more gun-like and less bumbling
The various bosses in the game are given character through storybooks hidden throughout the levels. When you find one of these, either Garcia or Johnson will read them aloud, self-consciously narrative a ghost story/fable of how these demons came to be, often through various personal failings as humans. Both the stories and the narration are excellent.
The gameplay itself is fairly derivative, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The game is, at its core, a third person over-the-shoulder shooter. It owes a lot to Resident Evil 4, which is no accident due to Shinji Mikami’s involvement. I swear, I think they actually up-rezed RE4’s boxes for use in this game. One key difference is that Garcia can actually move as he aims, immediately making the combat more fun than any Resident Evil game yet. I wonder if this admission caused Mikami physical pain.
Now, the last time Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami teamed up, they produced the highly divisive Killer 7. Some loved Killer 7’s strange and twisting narrative and unique graphical style, but many were turned off by the odd gameplay. In Shadows of the Damned, the dynamic duo of Suda and Shinji clearly stuck with gameplay basics, unlikely to scare off even casual shooter fans. In a way, the game has more in common with No More Heroes, in that the combat is fairly basic, while everything that surrounds it is unique.
This is not to imply that SotD’s gameplay is entirely unoriginal. The game does have its own unique hook when it comes to gameplay: the interplay between light and darkness. In short, Garcia can either face darkness-covered enemies, or become surrounded by darkness entirely. In the case of darkness covered enemies, he must first shoot them with a light bolt, similar to Alan Wake, before they are vulnerable to his normal bullets. If Garcia is unfortunate enough to be in a dark-zone, he must either find his way out, or must shoot a disembodied goat head to light it up. Staying in the dark too long is fatal in Hell.
When it comes to the gunplay, the results are mixed. For one, the aiming and hit-detection on shooting just feels off. I don’t know how else to describe it. I played around with aiming speeds, and no matter what I did I could never line up headshots consistently, and later game enemies who move around a lot become a total pain to kill. Maybe I am just too used to auto-aim assist in modern games, but the aiming in the game felt much like it did in RE4. The problem here being the enemies in RE4 were fairly slow, whereas the demons of SotD really huff it. I am, by no means, a Wizard-level gamer, but I am willing to bet a lot of players will waste a great deal of ammo trying to hit enemies in SotD.
That is not to say that the game is overly difficult: at the normal difficulty setting, I died maybe a half dozen times in the entire game.
As for the guns, well, there are only three of them: a pistol, a machine gun, and a shot gun. These get upgraded throughout the game, both through the player spending gems to augment their stats, and in upgraded forms through story progression. At their highest level though, they never become anything special. One gun may be better than others at killing certain types of enemies, but I never found myself completely engaged by the combat.
Suda 51 has been compared to Quentin Tarantino, ostensibly for his gonzo take on narrative and game design. If anything, Shadows of the Damned shows this comparison is apt, if only because it shows that Suda, like Quentin, has a great love of film. Nearly every level’s name is a pun on a movie title, and several levels are designed entirely as movie references. To name two prominent influences: one level has the main character running through the woods to escape Paula’s insane corpse a la Evil Dead, and another has you fighting your way through an undead-inhabited library, straight out of Ghostbusters.
It is precisely moments like these that help the game mix things up right at the point where they would become too familiar. Between some light puzzles, narrative integration, well-made boss fights, journeys through alternate dimensions, and complete gameplay shifts, the game never gets too redundant, and never outstays its welcome.
To that point, SotD is pretty short. I beat it in about 6 hours. Also, be warned: after the game is over, there is next to no replay value. The game is entirely linear, and there is no New Game +. I found this omission to be baffling, considering how much upgrading the player does throughout the game. It would be fun to take a fully outfitted Garcia through Hell a second time, just wreaking havoc on the demon inhabitants. Evn so, while the short length and lack of replay value may be a big deal for some folks, I didn’t feel cheated.
The graphics are nothing spectacular. I played the game on the Xbox 360, and I saw quite a bit of texture pop-in as well as screen tearing. At their best, the graphics are reminiscent of RE4 or Devil May Cry, with environments such as a European village at night, a tower, and a demonic tunnel. Point being, don’t come here expecting the best looking game of the year.
As for Akira Yamaoka’s music, I don’t have much to say other than that it is phenomenal. The mix of various styles, as well as sneaky little vocal tracks, really do a great job of complementing both the narrative and the action.
To close out here, I think that a comparison with Alice: Madness Returns is apt. Both games are modern takes on an old-school genre, and both eschew modern improvements in favor of classic mechanics. Alice is a platformer, whereas Shadows is a shooter. However, Shadows is infinitely more successful than Alice for one key reason: it does a great job at keeping the player engaged, both through a humorous and compelling narrative, as well as through solid and varied gameplay. If this game were stripped down to just its shooting mechanics without any of the narrative hooks or the gameplay twists, I would be giving it a bad review, straight up. However, Shadows of the Damned shows what good game designers can do, even with an otherwise limited toolset.