Shadows of the Damned
Garcia Hotspur’s girlfriend, Paula, has been abducted. Fleming, the Lord of the Underworld, is just a little bit upset with Garcia’s line of work – he’s a Demon Hunter. Garcia, with the help of Johnson, his demonic shapeshifting firearm/torch, has been a royal pain in Fleming’s side for some time, sending his minions back to Hell in gruesome fashion. Understandably, the Lord isn’t too pleased with Hotspur’s handiwork, thus, he decides to exact his revenge in a way well-known to all video game antagonists: kidnapping. Fleming, however, decides to spice things up, promising the Demon Hunter’s lady to an eternity of suffering. This doesn’t sit so well with Garcia. With Johnson in tow, Hotspur follows Fleming into the unknown, diving headfirst into the Underworld.
Right from the beginning, Shadows of the Damned asserts itself as one of the more immersive games of the generation, but not in the way you might expect. The world, or more specifically, the Underworld that Grasshopper Manufacture has crafted, is a bizarre place to behold. The entire game is stitched together with a nonsensical, twisted form of logic that perpetuates even the smallest details: locked doors are opened by feeding strawberries to baby demons, which Johnson claims are ‘catnip for demons’, and exploding barrels are filled with light, because the demons had no better place to store it. Shadows is unapologetically a video game, and proud of it; it wastes no time shoving the player’s nose in it.
Running through the Underworld and blasting demons, Johnson does his best impersonations of a magnum, an assault rifle and a shotgun. Shadows’ incantations of these well-versed weapons are separated by their demonic, tricked out designs, but also by the unconventional ammunition you’ll be spewing from them. The ‘Boner’, Johnson’s pistol form, shoots bones, and later, after receiving his first upgrade, becomes the ‘HotBoner’, which appropriately unlocks the ability to fire your ‘Sticky Payload’.
In the wake of Duke Nukem Forever, Shadows of the Damned is the undisputed king of dick jokes. Garcia and Johnson are a frequently hilarious, often depraved duo; the perfect protagonists for this sort of head trip. Although one is a human and the other is a reformed demon sidearm, the pair share a real sense of camaraderie and friendship; it’s obvious the two have been through a lot together. Through Garcia’s tales of Paula and Johnson’s insights into the Underworld, their motivations are slowly revealed to the player. But, neither of them take anything too seriously and neither should the player. Their relationship is a subtle layer of context; a light spritzing of logic and disbelief in this crazy world.
In collaboration with Grasshopper and their eccentric CEO, Suda 51, Shinji Mikami’s mark is visible in many facets of Shadows’ core gameplay. The over-the-shoulder camera, the feel of the shooting, the boss battles, the gems, the crates and barrels, the entire experience is permeated by tasteful nods to Resident Evil 4, his survival-horror classic. But, again, Shadows of the Damned takes these worn mechanics and twists them for its own deranged purposes, resulting in something that is clearly homage. The weird on purpose, inappropriately voiced demon salesman Christopher being the greatest nod, who stands in for Resident Evil 4’s iconic black market salesman.
Although Shadows’ third-person gameplay veers more heavily toward action than horror, Grasshopper seasons the experience with an element of survival. As evidenced by their desire to barrel up stray light, the demons don’t react too well to concentrated emissions of the stuff; on the other side of that coin, Garcia doesn’t take too well to thick darkness either. Throughout the experience, Hotspur is forced to brave thickets of darkness, which slowly drain his energy and forces the player to think and act quickly. Light Shots can be used to trigger goat heads and lamps, which either clear the darkness for good or provide temporary relief. In a clever twist though, darkness is often necessary to solve puzzles or kill certain enemies, which adds a necessary element of tension and feeling of urgency to many conflicts.
Unfortunately, with all the crazy ideas injected into Shadows of the Damned, inevitably there had to be a few misfires. The most egregious misstep revolves around a handful of instant death sections that immediately break up the previously great pacing. The context in which these sections happen are justified in terms of the characters and narrative, but they’re essentially wild cards, and frustrating ones at that. The title also makes an extremely large departure from its established gameplay. Without spoiling the nature of this excursion, it tends to work more in concept than it does in practice. It’s strange and it’s cool, if for no other reason than the balls it took to do it, but other titles that have focused on that sort of gameplay have done it better. Finally, while not a creative misfire, Shadows has an annoying habit of checkpointing immediately before cut scenes; this wouldn’t be an issue if cut scenes were skippable, but, of course, they’re not.
Despite these missteps, Shadows of the Damned is an eclectic ride from beginning to end. Accompanying you for the duration of that journey, Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack is one of the real highlights. His signature use of guitars is still on display, clearly evoking the sounds of his work on the Silent Hill franchise, but his tracks feel significantly less confined here. The moods portrayed in Shadows of the Damned run the entire gamut of emotions and Yamaoka seems to have embraced that range, delivering one of his most varied compositions to date.
Shadows of the Damned is a truly unique, absurd action game that no one should miss. With the help of Shinji Mikami, Suda 51 has delivered his most palatable experience to date. Charged with the same sorts of insanity Grasshopper is known for, Shadows is a solid, competent shooter that separates itself with its bizarre logic and premise. In an era where cinematic action and immersion have supposedly become king, it’s a welcome trip to step back and just play a video game.