Welcome to Hell. Shadows of the Damned isn’t a game for everyone. It’s filled with as many dick jokes as b-horror movie references, and is a better game for it. Shadows of the Damned’s punk rock spirit shines through it’s storytelling, voice acting, and it’s varied game play. While not as polished as past endeavors from Suda51 (No More Heroes) and Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil) Shadows of the Damned perseveres through it’s originality and it’s memorable characters. And while it might not be for everyone, it’s bizarrely creative rendition of Hell, revealed through outstanding art and character design, maybe enough to keep most gamers on board until it’s exciting conclusion.
It’s a story as old as time. Boy meets girl (in a dumpster). Boy loses girl (after she commits suicide and is dragged to Hell by the lord of the demons). Boy gets girl back (by traversing the underworld slaying every demon in his path). Simple enough right? The story of Shadows of the Damned doesn’t get any more complex than that but it’s strengths lie in it’s odd intricacies not it’s complexity. Shadows of the Damned drops you into Robert Rodriguez-inspired world as seen through the sake tinted glasses of Suda51. When you enter a world where shooting a goat head will lighten a darkened room, or feeding a door knocker a strawberry will unlock a door, you know you aren’t in Kansas anymore.
The characters of Shadows of the Damned are few but memorable. You play as Garcia Hotspur, a wise-cracking Latino demon slayer. Your only ally is your ‘Johnson’. Yes, you read write. Johnson, an English accented talking skull that can morph into a motorcycle, torch, gun, and happens to be your only friend. Johnson can change into the boner, teether, and monocussioner; equivalent to pistol, machine gun, and shotgun, and can be upgraded throughout the game. Other memorable characters include: Christopher, a half-demon redneck; Fleming, the Lord of the Underworld; and One-Eyed Willy, a demon that marks your progress by defecating light turds. However, at the crux of Shadows of the Damned is the relationship between Garcia and Johnson. The two engage in immature bathroom humor so genuinely, you actually believe they are friends. Johnson’s Freudian phallic humor may be a turn off for some players, but could also be right up their alley. Johnson’s presence also helps you feel, not so alone, on your hellacious journey. The voice acting is superb. Garcia is voiced by Matt Blum, anime and video game veteran, while Johnson is voiced by English character actor Greg Ellis.
Gameplay and art design are creatively intertwined. While on the surface Shadows is a third-person shooter, much of the game involves adventure style puzzle-solving. At specified times deep darkness fills your vicinity, slowly depleting your health. The deep darkness hits you in a wave of purple and blue hues and a haunting chant that leaves you in a state of panic (but more on that later). The only way to escape the darkness is to shoot a goat head or activate another light puzzle, such as setting off fireworks. Some enemies become stronger in this darkness, while others are weakened, or are even killed. And much of Shadows of the Damned revolves around the contrast between light and dark. Most of the puzzle-solving involves escaping the darkness in precarious situations; but puzzles can even force you to sacrifice your energy, by diving into the darkness to find an enemy’s weak spot. Garcia travels across Victorian streets, abandoned farm houses, spooky lakes, and gothic towers: hitting all of the cliché horror movie settings. While graphics are not groundbreaking, colorful backgrounds and detailed shading keeps the demon world visually compelling. However, the linearity of Shadows’ world often breaks the illusion of a vast landscape.
Game mechanics is where Shadows of the Damned falls short. Shadows of the Damned follows the Resident Evil control scheme from acclaimed designer Shinji Mikami, and this is both beneficial and problematic. Although, you can now move and run while shooting, not much else has changed since 2005. Aiming is difficult, especially under pressure. Garcia takes up nearly a third of the screen while aiming making it hard to see what you are shooting at. Garcia also moves slow and runs inconsistently, which can be detrimental when running from enemies that can kill you with one touch. The camera feels like it works against you by hindering your ability to see enemies that jerkily move about, or when you need precise control to not get stuck in a wall. Shadows of the Damned’s controls are sloppy at best. While some of this difficulty is inherited by design, (one reason I’m not a big fan of the Resident Evil franchise) some is due to shoddy craftsmanship.
Gameplay style also has it’s ups and downs. Most of Shadows of the Damned is played as a third-person shooter. However, unlike Resident Evil, the pace is fast and bombastic and the emphasis is on action, not managing inventory. While the primary action consists of aiming for head shots, or in the case of larger enemies, aiming for weak spots that glow red, Shadows of the Damned mixes up gameplay styles to avoid monotony. Certain chapters place you in a paper cut-out-styled 2-D platformer. This is a refreshing break from the constant onslaught of enemies. The 2-D segments are also representative of a ‘video game within a video game’, a Suda51 staple. However, some changes in gameplay are less welcomed. In Act 4 Garcia is placed in a red light district, though aesthetically alluring in an ocean of neon, becomes a repetitive and tedious turret shooter that long over stays it’s welcome. This chapter is also where the most overused and juvenile phallic references come into play. Garcia screaming, “Taste my big boner,” after every shot of his ‘big boner’ fails the taste test on every level. And possibly the worst in-game gimmick is being forced to run from your possessed beloved, Paula, in sequences where she will kill you with one touch. Poor controls and a finicky camera, not to mention slow loading times, make these chase sequences nearly unbearable. It’s almost enough to make Garcia pack up his Johnson and leave Paula in the hell she’s putting him through.
Boss fights range from inspired to tedious. They take the Legend of Zelda puzzle-solving approach. One highlight is statue that comes to life, complete with a headless horse. The horse defecates darkness, which you use to your advantage. Only after you defeat, or what you think is defeat, the creature tears out it’s own heart, eats it, and grows 50 feet tall. Scale on this size is rarely seen and is reminiscent of Shadows of the Colossus. However, some lackluster bosses such as the Sisters Grim make you want to through your controller. This is because the three Grim Sisters’ cheap shots grow with intensity as the game progresses. Fairy tale stories accompany these boss fights, however, adding depth to these damned souls. Garcia and Johnson reading these stories aloud is one of the highlights of the game. Commentary feels ad-libbed and organic. And since bosses are distributed throughout the chapters, you are always kept on your toes.
Fortunately, Hell never sounded so good. From the first loading screen you know you are in for a treat. Akira Yamaoka, of Silent Hill fame, acts as sound designer and composer of the eclectic soundtrack. Music ranges from hard rock, to spooky, to even relaxingly ambient. Mariachi guitar strumming and middle eastern-inspired tunes make your stay in Hell acoustically enjoyable. While the sounds of goats and babies crying are eerily and strangely realistic. The chant of the encompassing deep darkness is effectively disorienting. You will do anything in your power to escape it’s haunting clutches.
The game opens with Garcia saying this is going to be “our very own road movie”. From this self-aware moment Shadows of the Damned let’s you know it is not taking itself too seriously. Shadows of the Damned’s gorefest aesthetics are in direct reverence of the sources that influenced it. Robert Rodriguez’s imaginative armory and unbridled splatter are obvious sources; furthermore, a chapter titled ‘As Evil As Dead’ makes a fitting tribute to ‘The Evil Dead’. Shadows of the Damned has it’s flaws but it’s undeniable spirit makes it’s trials and tribulations well worth it. What makes Shadows so (dare I say) endearing is it’s devotion to the ironically campy horror films it aspires to be. It is a game made by horror fans, for horror fans. And notably while Shadows of the Damned resembles survival horror, it plays more like ‘Evil Dead’ the game than Resident Evil. That’s not to say that Shadows of the Damned doesn’t have it’s fair share of scenes that will make you jump, but fundamentally, it isn’t scary and wasn’t intended to be.