Gaming is filled with craftsmen and creators, but few dream as big as Suda51. Head of Grasshopper Manufacture, the team responsible for such strange titles as No More Heroes and Killer7, Goichi Suda has often made impressive artistic work, even if the games weren’t always the most fun to play. In fact, some titles were downright broken, though we’d rather play a creative flop by Suda51 than a boring-yet-technically proficient game from some mercenary studio. But what if Suda could actually release something with consistently good gameplay to back up his wondrous insanity?
Thanks to the formation of a game development supergroup, Shadows of the Damned is the closest a Grasshopper game has gotten to making those big dreams a reality. With help from Resident Evil mastermind Shinji Mikami and Silent Hill creator/composer Akira Yamaoka, Grasshopper has made its most approachable game yet without having to sacrifice Suda’s effed up sensibilities by cutting back on juvenile humor or the horrifying gore.
In a callback to most games of the 80s and 90s, all the trouble begins when the hero’s girlfriend is kidnapped. In this case she’s not tied to a chair, she’s dragged through Hell to suffer a thousand deaths, but the journey to reclaim her at the boss’ tower remains Damned’s overriding goal. You play as Garcia Hotspur, a rare Hispanic protagonist and hunter of demons, who lost his beloved Paula to Fleming aka the King of the Hell. Hotspur is out for blood and goes on what some ads would refer to as a “roaring rampage of revenge.”
Garcia’s already a badass when you meet him, offing demons left and right with his all-purpose Johnson, a floating skull that transforms into whatever the situation demands. Most often he needs it to be a gun that makes heads explode, switching between the Boner (standard handgun), Teether (machine gun), and Skullcussioner (shotgun), changing on the fly between the three. Unlike stingier third-person-shooters, you’re rarely lacking in ammo for at least one of these weapons, leaving the variety of ways you kill hideous hell beasts entirely up to you. As you upgrade the weapons the variety deepens and that’s not even taking into account the savage melee kills that include crotch punches and decapitations.
Shadows’ gameplay foundation is built upon the type of controls and presentation that Mikami redefined in Resident Evil 4, and unlike RE5, the style has been updated to fit with the times. You run and gun with ease, switch between aiming and melee at a moment’s notice, deftly dodging an attack, then pulling out your Boner just as fast to take down the offending enemy. Who cares if it doesn’t transform the genre? It improves enough on a familiar set-up, supplying thrilling gaming along the way.
Those controls stand up nearly as well in the boss fights, some of which will really challenge players. Most are fun, but a few get repetitive or have solutions and tricks that aren’t very clearly explained. Despite those complaints, the level-closing battles are the source of some of Shadows most ludicrously entertaining moments, such as when an already-menacing bad guy eats his own heart, then explodes into a bloody mess only to turn into a horse-riding goat-man that eventually grows 900 feet tall after eating that same horse, and then he pisses darkness. How many other games have that?
As in previous Suda games, you should toss aside your preconceived notions of what you thought this game would be, especially with Shadows’ very odd version of Hell. Instead of flaming lakes, Hell more often looks like eerily unpopulated cobble-stone streets, or the creaky old cabin lifted almost directly from the Evil Dead films. The spirit of SotD is a fun mix of horror tropes and giddy gore, with the most interesting wrinkle to the combat reflecting that.
There’s the constant threat of intruding darkness at any time, as the screen blackens with a miasma that will slowly kill Garcia if he’s exposed to it for too long. It feels mildly frustrating at first and then grows into a dynamic that helps ratchet up the intensity. Navigating worlds both light and dark takes speed in movement and accuracy in attacks, while concurrently directing the player where to go. Occasionally the solutions to bringing restorative light to an area are unhelpfully vague, but we came to appreciate the mechanic.