Shadows of the Damned - Review
Shadows of the Damned was a Suda 51 project from the outset. The CEO of Grasshopper Entertainment, and the man behind Killer 7 and No More Heroes, Suda was eventually joined by Shinji Mikami - the creator of Resident Evil, Devil May Cry and more recently Vanquish - in the role of creative producer. The final, high-profile member to join the team was composer Akira Yamaoka, best known for his work on the Silent Hill series.
Despite its noteworthy contributors, Shadows of the Damned is a Suda 51 game through and through, and your opinion of his previous work is likely to dictate whether or not you pick it up. However, Shadows of the Damned can be enjoyed by any gamer, irrelevant of their fondness for OTT violence, juvenile humour and gobshite protagonists.
Garcia Hotspur is our foul-mouthed, demon hunting lead, who is in search of his girlfriend who has been kidnapped by the demon lord, Flemming. We guide Garcia and his ex-demon side-kick Johnson - a skull that transforms into a variety of weapons - through the varied locales of the underworld in search of his blonde-bombshell, who Flemming enjoys killing over and over again, in ever inventive and painful ways.
Whilst being rather juvenile, the central characters are still entertaining, though not quite on the same level as Travis Touchdown. Between them, Garcia and Johnson love nothing more than making thinly veiled dick jokes and smart quips before dispatching yet another tortured soul. As his name suggests, Johnson is an extension of what swings between Hotspur's legs, as he transforms into phallic weapons with ridiculous names like the Hot Boner and the even more imaginatively titled Big Boner: a growth spurt brought on by some telephone-box sex talk.
Although the script feels like it has been written by a horny thirteen year old, it never quite gets in the way of the adventure. There are some exceptions that will make you cringe, such as references to demon pubes and one boss who constantly squeals "fuck you" in a gratingly high pitch voice, but for the most part you can ignore it, or indeed revel in the childishness of it all, if you so desire. I have to admit, I stifled a few giggles between my groans, and after all those F-bombs it was quite refreshing to hear the odd c*nt dropped in for good measure.
The underworld is a rich and varied setting; far more than the collection of lava and torture devices that has too often passed as a video game hell. It displays the sense of style that Grasshopper are well known for, and when the dick jokes have been long forgotten it will be the aesthetics of a unique rendition of hell that you'll best recall. It starts off in a rather pedestrian Victorian looking town, but over the course of 8 hours you will be led through a collection of striking locales. From a dank village that wouldn't look out of place in Resident Evil, to an evil bowling alley, there is so much to see. My personal favourite was the neon lit, red-light district, with its fetishist imagery and seedy high-rises, which resemble some of Tokyo's less desirable back streets at night. Minus the thirty foot demons of course.
The fruits of Suda 51's twisted mind, these settings could have felt somewhat disparate without Yamaoka's brilliant score bringing them all together. Covering a spectrum of genres, from Spanish guitar to a spot of metal, this eclectic set of tracks does wonders for the atmosphere. I'm not someone who usually latches onto in-game music, but time and time again I found my ears pricking-up as I heard yet another piece of master craft coming through my TV speakers, completely unlike anything else I'd heard elsewhere in the game, yet perfectly suited to the moment and setting from which it emerged.
The subtlety that is to be found in the score does not carry over to the combat, which is brash, bloody and at times infuriating. There are three firearms – a handgun, machine gun and shotgun – but they are far more weird and wonderful than they initially sound. Levelling up as you progress, they tear through the legions of the damned, shooting bones, teeth and skulls at their fleshy targets, as well as offering some explosive secondary modes. Weapons and inventory are the areas in which Mikami’s influence can be best seen, as well as in Christopher - the half demon half human weapons merchant.
Combat is partially concerned with the movement between light and shadow; the demons prefer the darkness whereas Garcia will quickly perish if he lingers for too long outside of the glare. Each gun offers a light mode, which can be used to momentarily stop marauding enemies in their tracks and ignite lanterns and goat-headed chandeliers, which will dispel the darkness. Many of the boss encounters revolve around the manipulation of light and dark, and these battles offer some of the most exciting and challenging moments of the game. However, the less said the better about the time consuming, bullet-sponge final boss.
The third person controls do take a bit of getting use to and are entirely unpolished. You will be tearing your hair out as you sprint straight into walls and bounce into the clutches of an instant death enemy, and swearing more freely than Hotspur as yet another bullet sails through an enemy, undetected. Some sort of auto-aim would have been a god send, and you have to wonder why such a simple addition would be left out. These are frustrations that should have been addressed early on, but for better or worse most Suda 51 games are guilty of valuing style over substance, and the controls are often the first to suffer.
Unlike many of Shinji Mikami's past games, Shadows of the Damned offers no new-game+ or bonus features to make you want to return after the first run-through. Non-stackable difficulty trophies/achievements are a shallow attempt to get you to return and not flog your copy back to your local retailer, perfectly demonstratting the laziness that hounds certain aspects of the game. This is in stark contrast to those elements that interested its creators far more, and therefore enjoyed more attention, such as the setting, music and outlandish characters.
Picking faults with Shadows of the Damned is like shooting fish in a barrel, but by doing so you would be ignoring its many qualities and the simple fact that it is a very entertaining experience. It will keep you on your toes throughout, offering rich and varied gameplay. For example, one section ditches the third-person action for a side scrolling shooter, featuring simple but charming cut-out visuals. Shadows of the Damned knows when to change up the pace and when to introduce a new, twisted feature and I didn't consider its linearity to be a drawback. It is not afraid to just be a game - despite its many B movie cliches - and its linearity helps to keep it focussed and concentrate.
As with any Suda 51 game, you have to be willing to take the rough with the smooth. If you are prepared to see past its various shortcomings, there is one hell of an adventure to be had, that is as exciting as it is eccentric. Just remember to ask your Grandma to leave the room before you start playing.