Creating a game that successfully merges cheesy dialogue and sexual themes with tons of badassery is no easy feat. Just look at how disastrous Duke Nukem Forever turned out. Grasshopper Manufacture has made such ambitious titles as Killer7 and No More Heroes. Now Shadows of the Damned is on the resume of director Goichi Suda, or Suda51. This action-packed game comes courtesy of the video game supergroup consisting of the aforementioned executive director, Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, and Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka. The end result is a labor of love that has a few rough edges but manages to present an enjoyable thrill ride for gamers.
Shadows of the Damned stars the duo of Garcia "F*cking" Hotspur and Johnson. The former is a demon hunter whose girlfriend is taken hostage by Fleming, a massive beast of a demon with plenty of pervy things to say. The latter is a talking skull who used to be a demon but now accompanies Garcia on his travels, transforming into torches, weapons, and motorcycles. Yeah, this is definitely a Suda51 game.
Upon seeing Fleming jump into hell with his girlfriend, Garcia immediately gives chase, and the ride through the dark world begins. And what a ride! The moment you step foot into the underworld, you are greeted with flashing neon lights that adorn Gothic buildings and a constant eeriness that envelopes Garcia. Of course, this eeriness isn't too grim-natured. Though hell is a dreadful place, you'll savor your time in the dark realm.
Shadows of the Damned borrows some elements from Mikami's Resident Evil series, but it strips away the inability to move while you shoot, making this a much more action-oriented experience. You can freely run around as you blast enemies to pieces and splatter their blood everywhere. Often you encounter large groups of enemies, so don't be surprised if you resort to some RE-esque tactics, such retreating into a closed area to pick off baddies one by one.
For the entirety of Garcia's trip to hell, you'll be engaged in heavy action sequences. There are minor puzzle elements peppered throughout the adventure, but these are sparse. Mostly you'll be wasting enemies, and you can bet the combat aspect of the game is completely satisfying. The lack of puzzles isn't a disappointment, as the game challenges you to fight legions of enemies nonstop as you try to save Garcia's kidnapped love, the game never losing sight of the main objective.
Because hell is a dark and dreary place, natural light is hard to come by. It seems the denizens of the underworld aren't too fond of brightness, so many of the game's sequences require you to seek out elusive light sources. You can shoot glowing barrels to damage nearby enemies or remove their protective darkness. You can shoot out light rounds–great for opening certain doors or de-shielding bad guys. And in what is probably the craziest use of light in the game, you can shoot goat heads tacked on walls to bring a nice glow to the dark world. A lot of your success in Shadows of the Damned relies on how effectively you use the light around you, and because staying in the darkness for too long can actually hurt Garcia, running around, blasting enemies, and exposing light is a hectic but gratifying feat of balance.
Massive bosses make regular appearances in Shadows of the Damned, and the battles that ensue usually act as puzzles themselves. Each of the boss fights is purposely old school. The guardians of hell have specific vulnerabilities, and it is your job to exploit them. You'll have to get behind the bosses and shoot their bright red weak points, enter the darkness to spot their vulnerable areas. and so on. At times, figuring out how to kill some bosses can be tedious, but once you get it, it's just a matter of continuously attacking the same spot.
It's not all fun in Shadows of the Damned, though. Unfortunately, this title suffers from a few hiccups. The most noticeable flaw in Shadows of the Damned is the constant pausing that occurs when the game autosaves your progress. Oftentimes, this causes the game to freeze up, regardless of whether you're beginning a new section or watching a cutscene. The constant freezing doesn't tarnish the experience all that much, but a few instances during my play sessions made it seem like the game had frozen entirely. Besides this technical hitch, loading screens are a bit lengthy, and don't be surprised if you encounter audio bugs every once in a while.
Visually, Shadows of the Damned is a stylish action-adventure game with tons of graphical appeal. This has got to be Suda51's most stylized game, and the horsepower of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 ensure that Garcia Hotspur's journey through hell looks a lot better than Travis Touchdown's climb to assassin superstardom in the two No More Heroes games. While graphics are usually the least of my worries, I couldn't help but be hypnotized by the brilliance of Suda51 and Shinji Mikami's design choices. The game looks good from a technical standpoint, but its entire aesthetic luster is just gorgeous. The architecture is especially old school, but the levels themselves, though straightforward, look great. If I had to point out one flaw in the game's visuals, it would be the constant recycling of enemy models. You won't see too much variety in bad guy design, but the enemies that are there are frightfully dark and creepy.
Akira Yamaoka did a great job in the sound department. The music constantly changes, so you won't get tired of any of the game's themes. You'll hear music suitable for a bloody action flick, weird banjo themes, and even some songs that sound like they came right out of the 1920s. The sound effects are equally enjoyable, if not more so. Gunshots are loud, enemies cry fiercely, and even Garcia's footsteps are crisp. The sound design goes hand-in-hand with the graphics in Shadows of the Damned to create one great presentation.
Of course, a major part of the sound design is the actual voice acting, and neither Garcia nor Johnson disappoint. At first, it may seem as though Garcia is the typical Latin hero, spouting out nonsensical one-liners–and he kind of is. But once you get to know the character, you can't help but cheer him on and enjoy his whimsy. Like Travis Touchdown before him, Garcia "F*cking" Hotspur is a cheesy but memorable delight of a protagonist, and Johnson doesn't stray too far behind. His eloquent British tongue is especially enjoyable to listen to, and although he appears to be the less extreme of the two, he's right up there with Garcia in terms of personality.
Shadows of the Damned is a one-way game, and as such, it shouldn't take you any longer than 10 hours to get through the entire story. Aside from the collectible red gems (which upgrade your weapons and health), there's nothing in the way of branching paths. And while that would likely hurt another action-adventure game, the linearity in Shadows of the Damned is more than welcome. This isn't the type of game that would benefit from an open world, decision-making, or expansive levels. Instead, the devs kept things simple, ensuring that you're constantly moving forward at a rapid clip and frequently kill demons.
Suda51 is by far one of my favorite designers in video games, so I had high expectations for Shadows of the Damned. Ultimately, while the game might not reach the high standards that No More Heroes 2 and Killer7 set (I truly believe the former is as close to perfection as a gamer's game can get), this action romp is one exhilarating trip through hell. Shadows of the Damned is worth playing for anyone who enjoys brutal shooters, tons of dirty humor, cheesy dialogue, over-the-top characters, and absurdity galore. To a much simpler degree, Shadows of the Damned is an amazing experience that anyone with a sense of humor and an affinity for rich games should get their hands on ASAP. Who would have thought that going to hell would be so damn awesome?
[Reviewed on PlayStation 3]