Shadows of the Damned hands-on preview: 5 reasons video games now have their Evil Dead

It’s hard to get a handle on Shadows of the Damned at first. Its gameplay is sort of familiar, but not. Its tone is reminiscent of various things, but very few of them from within the sphere of gaming. Grindhouse movies. Loony Tunes cartoons. Garish surrealist art. Hieronymous Bosch. All spring to mind at various points.

But beyond those elements, there’s the all-pervading sense that the whole production reminds you of something very specific. Something brilliant and fun and unique that you know well, but that you just can’t put your finger on. But then suddenly it clicks and everything makes sense. The Evil Dead trilogy. In terms of tone, execution, approach to comedy, horror, action and splatter, in terms of the exact kind of deranged, rollercoaster fun you can expect from it, Shadows of the Damned is like the non-identical video game twin brother of Sam Raimi’s classic movie trilogy. And here’s why it needs to be on your radar.

1. The action is anarchic and lightning fast

Resident Evil 4 multiplied by old-school Doom. That’s kind of how Shadows of the Damned’s combat feels at the moment. Those expecting Shinji Mikami’s involvement to bring the razor-sharp, tactical shooting and deceptively deep use of space that made Resi 4 such a brutally intelligent play might initially be a little disappointed by how anarchically Shadows’ combat plays out – this feels very much like Mikamki-san reigning in Suda51’s giddily rampaging madness – but give it a little time, get to know it on its own terms, and there’s a hell of a lot to enjoy here.

Above: Distant crotch or nearby skull? Both are good, but it's your call

The basic, over-the-shoulder mechanics are essentially a slightly remapped Resi 4. Left trigger to aim, right trigger to fire Johnson’s various weapon forms, LT and a backward pull on the stick to spin 180. The context sensitive QTE’s for executions and struggling free from attacks are here too. But you can also strafe and perform a quick defensive roll in any direction. And you’re really going to need to, as Shadows will be throwing beasties at you at breakneck speed right from the get-go. And they all want to eat your face off.

Demon AI so far seems very much of the ‘swarm in and attack’ mentality, but there’s depth to be found if you pay attention. Certain demons, for instance, are shrouded with darkness, a real, tangible force in hell. These need softening up with Johnson’s flare-like Light Shot before they become susceptible to his bony bullets, so there’s a definite game of tactical choice and juggled priorities here when things get hectic. And they will.

Above: Never fails. Absolutely never fails

Shadows’ version of red barrels comes in the shape of kegs of condensed light which litter the environment. There are a lot of them, and for good reason, as they’re game-changers. Not always in immediately useful positions, getting the best out of them is a case of using the enemy swarm AI against itself, herding it around like you would in Geometry Wars 2’s Pacifism mode, before nuking it with a well-placed barrel-shot.

So yeah, familiar, but very different. Where Resi 4 is about well-managed, external crowd control, Shadows of the Damned is about seat-of-the-pants dashing, ducking and weaving through throngs of aggressive pointiness, squeezing off shots where and when you can and trying to mash together some sort of tactical advantage from within the chaotic fray.

Very much like the battle tactics of a certain Ashley J. Williams, then.

2. The pace is relentless

Seriously. Where most action games will start you off slowly – a mini-boss with the structural density of fondue here, a couple of weak-ass zombies made of wet toilet paper and aspiration there – Shadows’ gameplay pacing is roughly on a par with that of its perpetually spewed bullets and entrails.

Above: A recently hanged girlfriend and a soon-to-be-exploded demon. This is 30 seconds in

The first few hours just do not let up. Right from the opening scene, which you’ll have seen in Brett’s recent FAP if you know what’s good for you, you’re thrown from fight to set-piece to brisk action-puzzle to snappy string of comic one-liners to fight to brisk action-puzzle to explosive, bloody fight to gore explosion to fight fight FIGHT!!!!!!! Taking a breath? That’s for losers. Man up and keep up.

Above: In case you don't know what's goodfor you

Remember how Evil Dead 2 positively tumbles over itself in its giddy race to machine gun its anarchic excesses into your face on a second-by-second basis? Shadows of the Damned works in exactly the same way. Other horror games might raise the tension by walking you down long dark empty corridors for a minute at a time, but Shadows would rather spend those 60 seconds throwing dayglow demons and explosive viscera at you like a monkey throwing shit.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.