Shadows of the Damned
Reveling in its grotesque aesthetic, Shadows of the Damned exists as an unapologetic celebration of infantile humor, cult grindhouse films, and the unmatched credentials of its creators. As a collaborative effort between the manic creativity of Suda 51 and the distinguished design philosophy of Shinji Mikami, the title draws freely from both designers’ back-catalogs. Suffice it to say Shadows of the Damned has a lot going for it. Under the weight of all this potential, there’s a foreboding feeling that at any moment it might all fall apart into a heap of good intentions gone awry.
Shadows of the Damned hits a high note right from the beginning, as Mexican demon hunter Garcia “Fucking” Hotspur swerves in and out on his motorcycle, backed by a heavy-handed punk rock arrangement. We’re prompted to ‘start our own road movie’; and away we go.
Garcia is swiftly flung from his motorcycle, as everything but the skull mounting is compacted into the shape of a gun, and the game’s side-character is revealed. Johnson is a sardonic, shape-shifting skull, serving as Garcia’s only line of defense against the legions of demons. His conversations with Garcia often induce an effective combination of horror and comedy that few other games have truly pulled off.
The storyline follows the clichéd formula: Garcia’s girlfriend Paula is captured by a perverted demon named Fleming and is taken to his castle. Whipped boyfriend that he is, it becomes Garcia’s singular purpose to get her back.
Entering the demon world, we’re introduced to the prominent aesthetic of rooms washed over in darkness. There’s a clear fixation on the grotesque. Dead, naked bodies hang from hooks; their innards used as set decoration, while clear lines from the incisions have been stitched up. Blood is spread across the walls, an eerie atmosphere, similar to that of a Grimm fairy tale (which are often parodied throughout), lends a pervasively sinister vibe to the long series of claustrophobic corridors leading to Fleming’s castle.
Founts of dark matter spring from the floor, sectioning off the mortal realm from that possessed by the demons – introducing the key game mechanic of light vs. darkness. This feels novel initially, but is relied upon too heavily as the game progresses. Not one to take himself too seriously, the earmarks of a Suda 51 joint are seen in the mounted goat heads, which must be triggered with Johnson’s light shot to clear an area of darkness. Within the confines of the dark matter, Garcia’s health dwindles away, while enemies cannot be harmed, so it’s often imperative to restore these sections back to normal.
A third-person shooter at heart, the gameplay is largely informed by Shinji Mikami’s work on Resident Evil 4, consciously ignoring advancements in Western third-person shooters (and even Mikami’s own Vanquish) in favor of a tank-like control scheme that’s better suited for this style of horror. Shadows of the Damned also adopts Resident Evil 4’s weapon upgrade system, as well as the general feel of its shooting, yet allows Garcia to shoot on the move. These are all tried and true mechanics; merely functional, but nothing especially new or exciting.
Some parts of Shadows of the Damned provide a welcome change of pace. A couple missions apply the game’s mechanics, on the most fundamental level, to the context of a 2D side-scrolling shooter. Reminiscent of an aging Capcom property, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, these sections carry the aesthetic found on the lovely loading screens between each level, and make you wish there were some other twists that felt as significant. As it stands, there’s too many antiquated design choices that could’ve been replaced with something as unique as these faux-Shoot-‘em-up sections. Some of the dated concepts are aggravating, such as each boss fight boiling down to shooting their red spot, sloppy chase and turret sequences, and an imposed linearity that almost feels necessary to keep it all going at times.
While there’s probably something to be said for an inclusive single-player experience, there’s just not a whole lot here. Polishing off the main game within about nine hours, there’s nothing else to do. No new game plus, leaderboards, unlocks (besides a difficulty setting), or really anything. In fact, you can’t even return to the levels you’ve completed. It’s a shame, as the main attraction’s a lot of campy fun in and of itself. As a whole, however, the lack of any real replay value (besides ratcheting up the difficulty for the hell of it), is a pretty big letdown. This is effectively ensuring Shadows of the Damned’s fate as an ideal weekend rental, and making it far more difficult to recommend as a purchase.
What’s ultimately most satisfying about the game is its use of audio. Featuring arrangements by acclaimed Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka, there’s rarely a moment where the soundtrack falters. Every song fits the context of the situation wonderfully, whether it demands badass biker tunes, or something somber, he delivers.
Other audio elements are also handled well, including the voiceovers. This might sound insignificant, but looking back at Duke Nukem Forever highlights the importance of getting dick jokes just right. There’s never going to be any controversy over Shadows of the Damned, because it has a fun natured attitude about its comedy. Rather than simply being crass for the fuck of it, all that foul language is providing some backbone behind what this game’s all about; perhaps shedding some light on what the overtly sexualized content might be saying about the society, and moreover, the player. (That we like dick jokes, or something deeper about our preoccupation with sexuality?)
The most significant downside of the experience is that feeling of having too many cooks in the kitchen. Much of the conceptual insanity indicative of a Suda 51 game becomes nullified by Shinji Mikami’s pragmatic approach to game design. It’s not that either of their influences are negative – in fact, they’re both very good – but developer Grasshopper Manufacture is left to mediate this difficult balance. As a way of circumventing the problem, most of the creative contributions come from Suda 51. That’s also the problem, as it feels like his vision has been given the wrong set of mechanics.
What would’ve worked better is to create a pairing of two separate games with the same core premises and present both designers’ interpretations as a double-header. Consider the separation between Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof as seen in Grindhouse. It works all right as a double feature, as both directors are given proper breathing room, yet if you were to combine either film’s plot into the other’s structure, they’d be grotesque for reasons beyond subject matter. This may not be analogues for all videogames, but it seems to offer a tidy solution for how to better such a “passion project” as Shadows of the Damned
The pairing of Suda 51’s unhinged creativity with Shinji Mikami’s sense for distinguished mechanics is enough to make Shadows of the Damned a compelling release in its own right. All said, their last collaboration resulted in one of the most conceptually interesting experiments in game design, in the form of killer7. This time around, Mikami’s influence is accentuated, making for a more playable end product, albeit one which is more concerned with functionality than it is with challenging gameplay conventions.