Shadows of the Damned has been long awaited by the contingent of gamers who like their play time sprinkled with a dash of horror. The combined forces of two of the genre’s shining lights coupled with the addition of possibly the most creative mind in the gaming industry appears, on the surface, to be a recipe for success. The fact that it comes from Grasshopper Manufacture, who are also responsible for both the No More Heroes series and Killer7 only serves to sweeten the deal.
And what a deal it is. With Suda 51, Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamaoka all in the same boat you are almost guaranteed something amazing and each man has placed his own particular stamp on the title. However, despite the obvious talent on display, the question still lingers as to whether they could craft something coherent in the process.
Luckily, for the most part the answer is a resounding yes. Shadows of the Damned follows the exploits of the demon hunter Garcia Hotspur and his ex-demon companion Johnson. If that sounds like a penis gag to you then be prepared because, with weapons like 'The Boner' and a steady supply of innuendo, you’re going to be thinking things like that quite a bit. Suda 51 has his stamp all over this and the immature humour of No More Heroes is ramped up to eleven here. The best way to describe it would be to call it purposefully puerile. No matter how silly the script gets, you always get the feeling that tongue is firmly in cheek throughout.
The game itself kicks off proper when Garcia’s lady, Paula, is kidnapped by the charismatic demon overlord Fleming in response to Garcia’s penchant for murdering demons. The main plot follows Garcia’s attempts to rescue the fair maiden, but the player will mostly be drawn into the pairing of Garcia and Johnson. The pair will spend the game wisecracking and making crude jokes that will raise a smirk in even the most strong-willed person.
The monstrous creations that adorn the screen are both as disgusting as you would imagine something that emerged from the combined minds of Suda and Shinji to be, while also being lovingly crafted and detailed. The game carries a graphical style that is indicative of Suda 51’s work. It’s not necessarily the best looking game in the world, but the visuals carry a very distinct charm and suit the mood of the game perfectly.
While the oddball pairing of Garcia and Johnson is great for a few laughs, the story itself really just acts as a vehicle for the weirdness that has come to define Goichi Suda’s exploits in gaming. Without giving too much away, Suda 51 mixes moments of eccentric humour, such as checkpoints being marked by a terrified demon that craps itself at the sight of you, with the truly disgusting. The monstrous creations that adorn the screen are both as disgusting as you would imagine something that emerged from the combined minds of Suda and Shinji to be, while also being lovingly crafted and detailed. The game carries a graphical style that is indicative of Suda 51’s previous work. It’s not necessarily the best looking game in the world, but the visuals carry a very distinct charm and suit the mood of the game perfectly. It all combines to create a game that feels fresh and original and while not as purposefully mind-screwy as Killer7 and its ilk, Shadows of the Damned does a good job of keeping you on your toes mentally.
For the most part it manages the same in the gameplay department, and this is where Shinji Mikami’s work comes to the fore. Mikami is most famed for his work on the Resident Evil series and, if truth be told, the core gameplay is pretty much the same as in Resident Evil 4 with an extra dodge mechanic thrown in. That is, admittedly, a little uninspired but it is also forgivable as Shadows of the Damned is a hell of a lot of fun to play thanks to using one of the best gameplay engines in recent memory.
It also has its own touches of gameplay inspiration, namely the contrasts between the light and dark worlds. Quite often during the course of the game Garcia will be plunged into a darkness that renders most monsters invulnerable and also slowly eats away at his health. It also generally serves as the main means of challenge in later sections and boss fights, which often become akin to a puzzle game as a result as the player frantically searches for a way to get rid of the darkness or utilise it to their advantage. It adds a touch of freshness to an admittedly old, though not dated, gameplay system and also serves to move Shadows of the Damned beyond just being a mindless shooter.
On the other hand the game loses some freshness due to a habit of repeating boss battles, especially sub-bosses. Experienced gamers may recognise this as a Capcom-esque tactic so it’s no surprise that it arises in a game with Shinji Mikami’s name attached. Boss battles are great fun at first, especially as you figure out exactly how to defeat each enemy, but only the really major fights aren’t repeated and it does make you wonder if the developers started to run out of ideas for extending the gameplay at points. It never gets too jarring though, and anybody with experience of games like Devil May Cry and the like will be used to it. It just seems a shame that a game infused with as much originality as that offered by Suda 51 would occasionally have to resort to such game-lengthening tactics.
The third part of the holy horror (how’s that for an oxymoron/band name?) triumvirate is Akira Yamaoka. For those who don’t recognise the name, he is the man responsible for the music and sound in the Silent Hill series. I’m sure a knowing smile has found its way onto the lips of many a gamer now and, rest assured, Yamaoka has carried his talents over to Shadows of the Damned. The soundtrack is equal parts funky, intense and flat out jarring. Even the more cheerful numbers seem to carry an odd threat, which makes them a perfect fit for the game. Couple that with some truly off-kilter sound effects and Yamaoka once again establishes his credentials in the genre.
At the end of the day though, there is really only one question on people’s lips. Does the sum of Shadows of the Damned’s parts manage to live up to the hype? For the most part, the answer is a resounding yes. The title’s oddball mix of humour and horror, coupled with a very solid gameplay platform and some ingenious uses of the light/dark mechanic make for a game that is not only a lot of fun to play but also extremely quirky. It pulls of the strange feat of being accessible and slightly off-centre at the same time and, while sections of the game carry the very individual stamp of its creators, it all manages to add up to a game that, minus the odd niggle, is one of the best titles of the year so far.
Shadows Of The Damned is out now on PS3 and XBOX 360