When we originally heard that some of Japan's most revered names — No More Heroes' Suda51, Resident Evil's Shinji Mikami, and Silent Hill's Akira Yamaoka — were collaborating on a brand new horror IP, our mind started to get ahead of itself with all the psychological horror possibilities. Thus, the eventual announcement of Shadows Of The Damned's Tarantino inspired Grindhouse direction left us cold.
While we enjoy the trappings of the Grindhouse genre immensely, survival horror games have been hard to come by this generation — and it felt like Grasshopper Manufacture had assembled a dream team to pick up the slack left by the decline of popular horror franchises such as Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Alone In Dark.
While there are certainly elements of psychological horror in Shadows Of The Damned, the game is a much more comedic affair than you might initially assume. The game is laced with Suda51's perverted sense of humour, but it never oversteps the mark. The game balances its juvenile jokes against a gothic backdrop, making the package that much more absurd. In many ways it fulfills the role that Duke Nukem Forever haplessly attempted to occupy.
Playing as demon slayer Garcia Hotspur, you're plunged into the depths of Hell in pursuit of your girlfriend Paula who has been captured by the demon leader Fleming. Your first encounter with Fleming sets the tone for the rest of the game. He is a trench-coated villain with three sets of red-eyes set upon a cone-like head. In essence, the game's antagonist looks ridiculous. But it's pretty much par for the course for Shadows Of The Damned's character design.
Garcia Hotspur is accompanied by a former demon called Johnson (seriously!), a good-humoured British skull that can transform into a variety of weapons such as the Boner, Hot Boner and Big Boner (no, we're not making this up!). Despite being utterly bonkers in concept, this provides the familiar staples of Shadows Of The Damned's gameplay. The game is, in essence, a fairly straight-forward evolution of the formula contrived in Resident Evil 4. While the game adopts a number of the genre evolutions introduced by the Dead Space franchise — mobility while aiming, and some aspects of strategic dismemberment — the gameplay itself is very straight-forward. This is perhaps one of Shadows Of The Damned's strongest assets. Despite crafting some incredible games, Suda51's outlandish creativity can often negatively impact the core gameplay of his titles. But despite boasting some unique gameplay experiments — light and dark puzzles become a key factor throughout — the game's nucleus remains accessible throughout, making it easier than ever to experience Suda51's bizarre personality.
The whole game is complimented by a fluctuating soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka — a name famous for his associations with the Silent Hill franchise. Here his audio supplements are as schizophrenic as Suda's design, switching between elements of jazz, blues and heavy metal. The audio is key component of Shadows Of The Damned's unique experience.
Shadows Of The Damned will take an average player about eight hours to see through to its conclusion. There are multiple difficulties and collectibles to encourage additional playthroughs, but the game is disappointingly light on content outside of the main single-player campaign.
Shadows Of The Damned is insane. Early on in the game, Johnson informs Garcia that he can stop the onset of the darkness — a kind of sub-world that consumes your health while you're inside it — by shooting a goats head. "Why a goats head?" asks Garcia. "Tut, everyone knows goats are a source of light," responds Johnson. It sets the tone for much of the game, as Shadows Of The Damned submerges itself into some seriously whacky concepts. The perverted humour that's been present in many of Suda51's games returns with abundance in Shadows Of The Damned. One particular section of the game sees Garcia Hotspur's Boner weapon — a powerful pistol that unsurprisingly fires bones — upgraded into the Big Boner. The transformation takes place by Johnson calling a Sex Line on a public telephone and, well, you get the idea. The game's lunacy is not strictly attributed to sexual references however. At times the game is just plain silly. For example, in order to unlock doors you need to collect strawberries which you can use to feed baby doorkeepers. The game's pretty self-referential too; at one point Garcia and Johnson conclude that a violent demon probably spent too much time "playing video games". The game straddles the line between being stupid and hilarious, and it does it with lots of success. While Duke Nukem Forever was far too serious to be funny, there's a nod-and-wink to Shadows Of The Damned that makes the game far more successful than 3D Realms' effort.
Shadows Of The Damned is a bizarre game, but it's also a solid shooter at its core. Clearly Shinji Mikami's influence has had a very positive impact on the accessibility of Shadows Of The Damned, with the game playing like a solid evolution of Resident Evil 4. The gunplay itself feels satisfying and chunky, with enemies reacting responsively to each shot successfully landed. While there are only three main weapon types to play with — pistol, sub-machine gun, and shotgun — these evolve in interesting ways as you progress through the campaign, and you'll find yourself frequently switching between the weapon types as you happen upon new enemy types. The submachine gun in particular is our favourite, as it evolves into a ridiculous gatling gun towards the end of the game. Shadows Of The Damned makes heavy use of a light-and-dark mechanic, which plays into the games puzzles. While the darkness can kill you, it's also a necessary component as it allows you to view elements of the environment that can't be seen in the light. Despite being quite a linear affair, Shadows Of The Damned is well designed, and there's just enough exploration in the environment to make it worth investigating. The gameplay itself is far from innovative, but its solid and accessible, allowing you to explore the game's creativity without feeling put off by irritating gameplay flaws.
Rounding out the trio of hot Japanese development talent, Akira Yamaoka's audio accompaniment to Shadows Of The Damned perfectly enhances Suda's creative vision. The game's unwieldy sound design transcends a catalogue of musical genres including jazz, blues and heavy metal. It's also worth putting out that Shadows Of The Damned's voice acting is top-notch. There are elements in the game where Garcia and Johnson will read from a story-book, and it feels so natural as the duo commentate on the narrative with their unique personalities. We wouldn't be surprised if much of the game's banter was performed off script, it certainly sounds like it.
While Shadows Of The Damned captures the flickery, low-budget look of Grindhouse movies reasonably, it is still not a particularly attractive game. While we suspect that's partially the point, low quality textures and a lack of aliasing hurt the overall image. The game does not perform particularly well either, with screen-tears and frame-rate dips noticeable when the screen is particularly busy.
Shadows Of The Damned is certainly the most accessible of Suda51's games, but it still has a number of quirks that become irritating as the game progresses. One frustrating element can be found in a series of chase sequences that appear later in the game. In these sections you are pursued by a possessed marionette of your girlfriend. While the sequences themselves are tense and challenging, the fact that they result in instant fail-states make them frustrating. We literally died ten to fifteen times in one sequence, purely because of the instant fail-state mechanic. Furthermore, Shadows Of The Damned's boss fights are particularly weak. While these aren't inherently bad, they're just repetitive and boring. There's usually a puzzle attached to defeating each boss, but these fights typically culminate in a "shoot the glowy red bit" conclusion. While the game does attempt to poke fun at its own gameplay contrivances — the game also jokes about its inclusion of explosive barrels — these feel like cheap ways of masking obvious issues.
Shadows Of The Damned is a blast while it lasts, but there's not much reason to return to the game once you've beaten its sub-ten hour campaign. The gameplay and level design is fun, but we're not sure how many times we'd want to play through the campaign. There are collectibles and multiple difficulty levels to encourage subsequent playthroughs, but a few additional modes wouldn't have hurt.
Shadows Of The Damned is destined to be one of this year's unappreciated gems. Suda51's creative madness is complemented by Shinji Mikami's grounded gameplay design, concluding in an accessible third-person shooter enhanced by a hearty dose of insanity.