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.
Speaking of the mood, the soundtrack deserves special attention. Akira Yamaoka does some of his best work to date here, with music that adds so much to every moment of the game. The eclectic set of tracks in Shadows set the mood perfectly in so many different scenes that you wonder how one man could work in such a myriad of different styles. Yamaoka’s was tied to Silient Hill for years, and now that he’s free to work on whatever he chooses, we hope this is just the beginning of him sharing his composing skills with a wide range of titles.
Even if the gameplay colors inside the lines by being dependably awesome shooter, the game’s personality is all over the place. Were we a therapist, we might say the title suffers from mood swings, but the most fun type of mood swings around. Shadows of the Damned has more than a few unsettling moments of gore and builds a nice horrific atmosphere, but it also has one of the most juvenile senses of humor in gaming history. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Though the game’s immature humor covers basically every bodily fluid and sex act, in addition to some cute references to cult films and other games, what really sticks with you is the mountain of dick jokes. It begins when Fleming kidnaps Paula at the very start and tells Garcia that he can have her back if he admits Fleming has a bigger symbolic dick than Hotspur, which of course Garcia refuses. It only increases from there: most items or characters reference a penis in some form, with a few bearing a strong physical resemblance of the male member. Saying 80 percent of the dialogue mentions a penis in some fashion feels like too modest an estimate.
If you’re offended by that kind of humor or feel it’s beneath you, you may want to skip the game, though you’d be missing out. Though initially we weren’t the biggest fans of the jokes either, as they felt too easy, they won us over. Maybe it was because there were just so many dick jokes that we were overwhelmed and gave in, or perhaps the offensiveness had an almost childlike naivete, reminding us of a cleverer version of schoolyard talk that we miss. The jokes lack cruel intentions, wanting only to innocently giggle at the existence of sexual organs. Shadows of the Damned is richer for its sense of humor, enhancing an already well-realized world, instead of being held back by its immaturity. Other games (like Duke Nukem Forever) could learn much from how Damned delivers its X-rated punchlines.
The humor is indicative of SotD’s entire being: it isn’t afraid to throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks. Not everything does, and that creates obstacles like random pacing issues, painfully tough bosses, and lack of any real replayability. Yet we were having too much fun to care. People are bemoaning the state of Japanese gaming, saying it’s dying from old ideas and backwards thinking. Shadows of the Damned proves that titles developed in Japan can easily keep up with the rest of the world from a design/fun standpoint, while still being lovably weird and distinct.
Dead Space 2? No, but they have different goals. Dead Space 2 wants to be an R-rated action blockbuster, while Shadows is proud to be in the B-movie world, even if the over-the-shoulder shooting in DS2 is deeper and title more significant.
Resident Evil 5? Yes. RE5 lacked any real heart, and it rarely felt like it was having any fun with the situation, and certainly not as much fun as Shadows is having. Plus you can walk at the same you’re aiming your gun in Damned. What a concept!
Vaniquish? Maybe. Vanquish is also quite insane, and had Shinji Mikami involved in development, but each has its own qualities. Vanquish has more exciting gunplay and better pacing, but Damned’s world is much richer and has more compelling characters. Ultimately it depends on how much you love dick jokes.
Combining childish humor with bloody demon murder, Shadows of the Damned pays off on the promise of the creative team of developers involved. It may momentarily waver, but SotD has some of the finest grindhouse fun of the summer.
Jun 24, 2011
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