Shadows of the Damned is what happens when you artistically throw spaghetti on the wall, and you like what sticks. In this case, the spaghetti-tossers are the people at Grasshopper Manufacture, and the result is a game that feels entertaining almost by accident.
You get demons, guns and visceral gore blended with lots of phallic humor, perverse literary narrative and some goofy design choices that involve retro side-scrolling shooter action. It's reckless, volatile and strange fun, even if there are going to be some moments that make you utter, "Wait, what?"
It helps to know the track records of Goichi Suda and Shinji Mikami, two of the game's main craftsmen and two faces you'd probably put on the Mount Rushmore of strange, scary and freaky game design.
Suda, aka Suda51, was the central creative force behind Fatal Frame, No More Heroes and the acid trip called Killer7, where you played a crippled assassin who was able have his multiple personalities physically manifest themselves into a team of specialized killers. Mikami is the godfather of the Resident Evil franchise who also worked on Killer7, Devil May Cry and Vanquish. At a glance, this combination should guarantee a mix of demonic action and unique interpretations of the subject material. In this case, it's the journey into hell.
You step into the boots (at least I think they're boots) of the interestingly named Garcia Hotspur, a tattooed Latino gunslinger whose sole purpose on the planet appears to be whittling down the demon population. Sadly for him, he's a bit too good at his trade, and that gets the attention of the Lord of the Underworld, named Fleming. In retaliation, Fleming snatches Garcia's woman Paula (whom we first see hanging from the ceiling) and takes her into the depths of hell to be his mistress. Naturally, Garcia jumps in after her.
Garcia is not alone. With him is a demon named Johnson, a small, floating and flaming miniskull with a British accent. He's an expat of the underworld and carries the power to turn into almost anything Garcia needs. Johnson functions as Garcia's upgradeable arsenal of firearms as well as a portable torch to be carried around throughout the game. To get into hell (which is "past the sound barrier"), Johnson turns into a motorcycle. There are also odd, campy names for Johnson's weapon forms, the most prevalent being the "boner" pistol form. You eventually get the ability to fire sticky bombs that can be detonated when shot, which the game describes as the "hot boner" and using your "sticky load" against your enemies. I smirked, cringed and shook my head at all this, but ultimately accepted it as part of the game's charm.
The disarming, sophomoric goofiness of what was just mentioned is why it's a mistake to classify Shadows of the Damned as pure survival horror. There's very little to fear; the game is more along the lines of a Robert Rodriguez piece in terms its attitude toward elements that normally creep out people.
Plot-wise, the story more or less echoes "Dante's Inferno," which is chilly enough in its literary imagery. (I am not talking about the game, which played too much like God of War and basically gave up on ideas near the end.) However, Grasshopper's interpretation of hell doesn't involve circles that house sinners, with each circle worse than the last. Instead, the underworld feels like a dark, alternative city with malicious inhabitants and strange rules. It blends the modern with the medieval by balancing out stone buildings and wooden cabins with a large, modernized red-light district and massive towers, the largest being Fleming's keep. The game makes good use of the Unreal engine, providing a wealth of gory detail and some pretty memorable twisted demons. What the game may lack in fear, it makes up for in twisted imagery.
I was intrigued by how almost every part of every level was in conflict with the player, as if the underworld knows Garcia is an unwelcome visitor. It's also where you'll find many of the strange concepts that advance the gameplay. Creepy infant faces function as the "locks" for special doors, and the only way to open them is to feed the faces what they want, be it a strawberry, an eyeball or a brain. It's not particularly hard to track down these items, but it does require some running around, which can get a little tiresome after about six hours of play.
Then there's the constant use of the conflict between darkness and light. In total darkness, the world starts eating away at Garcia's soul, and it's up to him to illuminate the area around him. Shooting glowing goat heads in the vicinity with "light shots" from Garcia's gun usually achieves this because apparently in the underworld, we're told, goat heads are awesome light sources. This basic light-versus-dark premise is used deftly throughout the game with a few different twists. For instance, the goat head might be swinging on a chandelier, or plunging into total darkness is the only way to see an enemy's weak point or gain access to a particular door. You find yourself fighting the very nature of the underworld in addition to its enemies, and that refreshingly — if not frustratingly — puts constant pressure on the player.
Garcia has everything he needs to handle what the world throws at him. I mentioned Johnson and his "boner" pistol form, which can also fire the aforementioned light shot. It's not only good for lighting up goat heads and lanterns, but it also can freeze certain demons in their tracks for a split second so that Garcia can line up a perfect shot. The "sticky load" explosive is good for targeting weakened walls, doors or enemies.
Garcia also has a shotgun-type weapon that can eventually be upgraded to fire an even bigger blast or deploy a rolling bomb. He's also got a small machine gun that fires teeth, which demons apparently hate. This gun later blossoms into a something that fires enemy-seeking teeth, with targeting not unlike a Robotech missile system. Players can stock up by using diamonds collected from dead demons on the random vending machines scattered throughout the land. The machines dish out various kinds of alcohol, which function as the method of healing in the demon world. In a nod to Resident Evil 4, you eventually run into a seemingly omnipresent demon shopkeeper who can supply drinks and ammo.
Actual gameplay felt smooth, considering the merging of Suda and Mikami's design principles. I was familiar with both the quick mobility and pace of No More Heroes as well as the over-the-shoulder camera angle during gunfights, which you'll find in the last couple of Resident Evil games. The left-trigger-zoom/right-trigger-fire combo is standard stuff, as is pushing the B button for melee attacks. In a nice touch, you can retaliate against enemies creeping up from behind, as the B button prompt appears if something gets too close. Garcia responds with a slow-motion attack that stuns the offending enemy and treats the player to a chuckle from Garcia. All weapons feature a laser sight that requires very steady aim, even in chaos, as being off by a few notches can lead to serious consequences. Skilled players would probably enjoy the bevy of moving weak points and pressure situations, the most heinous examples being found in the last few major boss confrontations. Japanese action design is not known for its mercy toward the casual or novice action gamer, and this is no different.
What truly sets apart the game from its demon-hunting contemporaries, however, is some of the blatant goofiness mentioned earlier. Some of the conversations between Johnson and Garcia certainly remind the player that the game is rated "M," as are some of the other narrative examples. There are storybooks scattered throughout the underworld that can be opened and read aloud by either Johnson or Garcia, and without spoiling, have to be among some of the most disturbing bedtime stories ever created. There's also a strong current of penis humor, either regarding size or other things I probably can't mention here. One level is dedicated to this, when Johnson extends to massive proportions (think of the Joker's mega-pistol in the Tim Burton "Batman") and is dubbed — sigh — the Big Boner. He has the power of a Howitzer during this level, and with Garcia, functions as almost a turret warding off a platoon of large demons. It doesn't help that Garcia yells out stuff like, "Taste my big boner!" whenever he lets loose with a cannon shot.
I found some of the design and gameplay frustrating, namely the overuse of old-school, side-scrolling shooter levels that are styled to look like a paper storybook. After three instances, it stops being a nifty artistic aside and made me raise questions as to whether or not the design team started running out of time or ideas. You actually fight one of the boss characters this way in a very difficult battle, and given the many epic confrontations these designers had given us before, it felt a little cheap. There were a handful of these levels, and that felt like too many. It reminded me of how RTS was force-fed to the players of Brutal Legend and integrated into the central part of the gameplay, practically sucking the life out of the experience. Thankfully, Shadows of the Damned did not let it get that far.
There isn't much replay value left after defeating Shadows of the Damned (about 8-10 hours), but I found myself back at it just to take in the experience of digesting this mishmash of action and terror ideas and trying to figure why I was so entertained. Perhaps I should stop asking so much and just appreciate what I see sticking on the wall.
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