26th June 2011 - Goichi Suda, aka Suda51, has always had a special place in my heart. With past titles such as Killer 7 and the No More Heroes series under his belt, the man's name has become connected to colorful, quirky games with a satirical, tongue-in-cheek presentation. His newest project, Shadows of the Damned, seems to put him to one last trial before being accepted into the ranks of Tim Schafer, Warren Spector and Gabe Newell. The breakout star of the last console generation, coupled with Resident Evil and Vanquish Creator, Shinji Mikami, and the original composer of the Silent Hill series, Akira Yamoaka, are now charged with creating a AAA unique game experience. Does Suda51 make the cut? Keep reading to find out.
You play as Garcia Hotspur, an Hispanic demon hunter with a penchant for tattoos and leather pants. After Garcia aggravates The Lord of Demons, Fleming, by killing a few too many of his followers, he decides to take Garcia's girlfriend, Paula, into the Underworld. With the aid of his supernatural flaming skull partner, Johnson, Garcia plunges into the City of the Damned to rescue Paula, and put a bullet in Fleming's head while he's there.
The core gameplay of Shadows of the Damned is a third-person, over the shoulder shooter, identical to Resident Evil 4. This core gameplay is functional and gets the job done with rarely any hiccups. You have your combination of pistol, shotgun, machine gun and melee attack for all situations of combat, and a stunning Light Shot to help you against more difficult enemies and during the game's light and dark puzzles. The puzzles aren't as direct or grounded in reality as Alan Wake, but how it is presented makes it feel unique. Occasionally, the darkness of the Underworld consumes Garcia, making enemies invincible, and the only way to disperse it before it drains your health dry is to find a lantern and shoot it. The puzzles at the beginning are basic, but eventually become more and more complex, some even going as absurd as playing a large scale version of Pachinko to unlock a door. Thankfully, these puzzles are well paced and do a great job of breaking up the gun fights.
The level design however, feels a bit dated. The extent of progressing through a level of Shadows of the Damned is finding a locked door, traveling through a roundabout route to obtain the key, going back and unlocking it. Throw in some gun fights and puzzles, rinse and repeat. The boss fights also have this weird feeling of being old school, all the way down to the glowing weak points. There are plenty of moments where the game shows great variety, however. A particular trademark of Suda51 is a series of levels where Garcia is placed into a 2D side-scrolling shooter that resembles a storybook. These levels are tricky and can be hard for those not ready for the shift in playstyle but the fact that a game involving demons and the Underworld has a bunch of levels that look like they're from a fairytale book is inherently funny.
And this is why I've always loved Suda51's past games: his sense of humor and social commentary doesn't completely compromise core gameplay mechanics. With so many horror game oriented big names behind the project, one would assume the game is meant to be an action horror game taken with a straight face like the Dead Space series. However, the presentation of the game has a whole lot more in common with a tongue-in-cheek Grindhouse style drive-in movie. The game doesn't take anything seriously, least of all itself, and has fun with its satirical jabs. This is properly illustrated by one level where the game pays homage to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films, where the player is forced into a small cabin with enemies all around. In an average horror game, this would be the most intense moment ever, exacerbated by few usable weapons, no discernible way out, and low health and ammo. Instead, it becomes one of the games high points of action. Being able to plow through so many enemies in such a small contained space has a certain bloody, visceral appeal that any veteran of God of War can appreciate. This might come off at first as a shallow pop-culture reference but upon further examination, it is actually a comment on current horror games in this generation.
By taking one of the most fear-inducing moments from a film and putting it into a thrill ride of a game, it exposes how horror games of the past few years have become indistinguishable from action games, the only differences between the two being twisted body horror for the enemies. It's subtle and it isn't presented in a ham-handed way, and it bumps Shadows of the Damned from a mindless 3rd-person horror action game to a 3rd-person horror action game Quentin Tarentino and Robert Rodriguez would make. There are several other moments like this in the game but that would be telling. In short, this game gets more interesting the more thought you invest into it, and if not, it's still pretty funny overall.
Shadows of the Damned's use of the Unreal Engine is what to be expected. The textures are distinct, and the character models are spot on. There are lip sync issues here and there and there was one moment where the models disappeared all together then snapped back into reality two seconds later. The visual flare of the game is center stage though, not how many polygons it can render. We've seen loose adaptations of Dante Aligheri's image of hell in Dante's Inferno, a bloody disgusting interpretation of hell through Silent Hill's Nightmare World, even a literal “War is Hell” in the first Painkiller game. So how does Shadows make itself stand out? By making Hell more uncanny and identical to the real world than relying completely on Hammer Horror. I can't say anymore because that would be spoiling the game.
Akira Yamoaka's score in Shadows of the Damned helps reinforce the B-Movie atmosphere mentioned earlier perfectly, and the vocals given by returning talent, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, are always a joy to hear. Steve Blum does a good job voicing Garcia Hotspur, Greg Ellis gives a hilarious performance as Johnson, and the rest of the cast are clearly having fun.
To say the least, Shadows of the Damned has a niche appeal going for it. But, if you are able to look beyond some repetitive key hunts and are willing to put in some thought while you play, Shadows of the Damned might be the most unique and original game to come out in 2011 this far. If you're looking for something with innovative gameplay or a heartwarming story, or something with multiplayer, look somewhere else. Otherwise, Shadows of the Damned will probably be the best nine plus hours you'll spend.
Shadows of the Damned is that rare game where its presentation and its wit outshine any shortcomings it may have in the graphic or gameplay department. If you want a break from regular games, I suggest you pick this one up. If you don't want a break, get it anyway, because it will stick in your head for a while. I guarantee it.
AAG SCORE: 8/10
+ Great Presentation
+ Clever sense of humor
+ Gameplay is varied, if a bit repetitive
+ Truly Unique
+ Good musical score
- Level design and boss fights feel dated
- Lip sync and graphical hiccups
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey