Shadows of the Damned Review
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On 07/05/2011 at 09:36 AM by Nick DiMola
Easily the best work of Suda51 thus far, but it’s still rough around the edges.
If you don’t mind third person shooters and potty humor, you’ll enjoy this one immensely.
Shadows of the Damned is clearly Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture’s most polished game yet. Whether it’s due to the influence of Shinji Mikami as the creative producer or due to some maturation of Suda51’s style and execution is unclear, but the 10 hour romp through hell is chock full of style, humor, and solid gameplay that trips only slightly along the way. While Suda51’s previous titles can be a bit tough to get into for the average player, Shadows of the Damned is much more accessible and will likely appeal to a much greater audience – assuming they can tolerate the never ending onslaught of penis jokes.
Starring Garcia Fucking Hotspur (yes, that’s his actual name), Shadows of the Damned provides a grindhouse-inspired story that takes the Mexican demon hunter and his trusty sidekick, Johnson, on a trip through hell. The duo is trying to save Paula, Garcia’s lover, from the depths of hell and the grasp of Fleming, king of the demons and ruler of the underworld. Fleming claimed Paula’s soul after she committed suicide. As you come to find out, Paula is a little crazy (but that’s why Garcia loves her), which doesn’t make her hanging too uncharacteristic.
Being that Garcia is already a demon hunter, he’s fairly well-equipped to travel through hell in order to reach his angel (say it with a Mexican accent for full effect). It also helps that he has a tour guide through the place. Johnson, Garcia’s sidekick, is actually a demon himself, though now he is nothing more than a skull… that can turn into a variety of weapons. He also has a pretty cool British accent, a good personality, and a sense of humor, making for an ideal partner for the trip.
Without any real NPCs to interact with, there are few traditional opportunities to explain Garcia’s story and personality or glean details on the setting and enemies. Instead, Johnson and Garcia are constantly chattering, allowing players to forgo the need to interact with NPCs at all. This allows the game to progress unhindered while still making the world feel alive and interesting. As a matter of fact, after playing Portal 2 which approaches things similarly, I find it a preferable style to interacting with tons of lifeless NPCs.In case you ever miss an important detail, all of Johnson’s knowledge is transferred to the “Johnsonpedia” as he dispenses it, which can be easily accessed from the pause menu.
Given the tour guide, it helps that hell is an interesting place. It’s not just fire and damnation; it seems to be influenced by the cobbled streets of some British town, at least in parts. It has places reminiscent of Las Vegas and catacombs as found in Italy. Hell is basically just like places on earth, with the exception of a few details. Dead bodies are everywhere, some mangled, and others stitched back together. Heads are a common entity and blood stains the walls. It sounds darker than it actually looks in the game, but it definitely sets the tone.
Hell is also frequently overcome with darkness. This plays into the mechanics of the game pretty heavily, providing a good number of the challenges and puzzles. When the darkness rolls out, it transforms all of the enemies in different ways, but it also harms Garcia if he stays in it too long. Unfortunately, trekking through the darkness is absolutely necessary. Its inclusion allows for a variety of unique puzzles and enemy designs.
The game also does a great job of providing a diverse set of enemies that differ not just in appearance but in their behaviors and how they must be defeated. With the help of goat heads hung on walls and fireworks launchers, players can both permanently and temporarily dispel the darkness. With enemies that will also restore the darkness, you’ll often be given the ability to toggle the darkness in order to complete different tasks.
The core shooting mechanics behind the game are similar to Resident Evil 4, likely due to the involvement of creator, Shinji Mikami. While they follow the aim over the shoulder convention from Resident Evil 4, the similarities end there. Garcia is a bit more nimble than Leon (still a bit stiff) and has the ability to move with his gun drawn.
Johnson, as stated earlier is your tour guide as well as your weapon, and he has three distinct forms. Essentially they boil down to a pistol, shotgun, and machine gun, but as the quest progresses they are upgraded significantly to perform additional functions. They’re also more humorously named, well at least the pistol, which is called the “boner.” It evolves to the hot boner and big boner, and the hot boner can shoot a sticky wad. You’ll encounter similar jokes throughout; hell, even the name Johnson is a joke unto itself. While I’ve heard lots of complaints about the abundance of jokes of this nature, I found them particularly funny. Penis jokes are funny with your friends and they're funny here as well, especially in the mostly non-serious context of the game.
All of the guns have the ability to shoot a light shot as well, which is necessary for a few different reasons. You’ll need it to shoot the goat heads to dispel the darkness, but it can also be used to dispel the darkness coating a demon from the distance. Johnson’s natural form is that of a torch, which can be used to melee enemies and do the same, but the light shot is effective to keep a safe distance. Once the darkness is gone, it can also be used to stun enemies for a short period of time. Given how much some enemies squirm around, it’s a helpful function.
Given all of the different functions of the three weapons, the enemies will evolve over the course of the game and require different tactics to defeat them. The hot sticky wad described earlier is a great example. On its own, it’s worthless, but if you shoot it with a regular bullet, it will explode. A variety of enemies will require you to destroy their armor and this is the ideal way to do it.
The enemy variety is easily what helps keep the action fresh, and the story and humor push the entire experience forward. The boss enemies are also well designed and can be a good bit of fun to both figure out and destroy. Sadly, they can be a bit longwinded at times and losing will require a full restart, even with multi-phase bosses.
As you may or may not realize, Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka is now a part of Grasshopper Manufacture and has provided the aural experience of Shadows of the Damned, which is absolutely superb. In-game music is rarely memorable these days but Yamaoka often sets the tone with his compositions. The visuals do a great job as well, but the sound absolutely transformed each room into something different. The new tracks are introduced so subtly, it’s not always immediately obvious that you are listening to something different. That’s not to say that the music is forgettable – you just feel the difference before you see it and that makes it all the more remarkable.
Though Shadows of the Damned is fantastic almost all the way through, it does falter in a couple different ways. The first and most regrettable are the shoot-‘em-up segments. I believe there are two or three acts in the game that are centered on the concept and they aren’t very enjoyable. Sure it’s quirky and very Suda51 to include something of the sort, but they really kill the pacing and feel like filler.
The control also feels very stiff in general. It’s not quite as stiff as Resident Evil 4, as it has adopted a more natural third person shooter control scheme, but it’s not as fluid as something like Gears of War. The problem comes from the slow turn and backing up movement speeds, which can’t effectively be adjusted. Additionally, it doesn’t implement a great auto-targeting system that could help you hit an enemy quickly. Being that many enemies require you to hit a very particular spot to defeat them, this would’ve been extremely helpful in areas with tons of enemies. As it stands, your gun just seems to aim at an arbitrary location when drawn and with the stiff turning can be a bit slow going in getting to an enemy in time.
As always with Suda51 games, Shadows of the Damned is a bit glitchy. I had a couple instances where events should’ve occurred, but didn’t. One particular instance forced me to replay a particularly tough section which was extremely frustrating.
The greatest frustration by far are the frequent “points of no return.”Just about every little segment in the game eventually prevents backtracking. Because there are branching paths to explore and it’s not always clear which one will progress you, it’s easy to choose wrong and miss out on collectibles and valuable red gems. It’s not game breaking by any means and you won’t ever progress and miss something critical, but as a completionist it drove me absolutely nuts.
While Shadows of the Damned is by no means perfect in its implementation, it’s absolutely memorable and unique, and perhaps most importantly, it’s fun. I’m not sure that everyone will enjoy the game, but I think most with a tolerance for third person shooters would really have a great time on the quest through hell. The ten hour quest isn’t followed up by a new game+ which is regrettable, especially for a game of this nature, but I look forward to revisiting the title at the highest difficulty setting for a subsequent play through.