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Shadows of the Damned Review

Shadows of the Damned is immature, occasionally frustrating, unpolished in spots, and, most importantly, oodles of fun. It’s the type of game that’s going to make you work a bit to enjoy it, but for a certain type of gamer it will be more than worth the effort.

Much has been said of the dream team of sorts that came together to develop Shadows of the Damned. Suda 51, known for such wonderfully bizarre titles as Killer 7 and No More Heroes, acted as Executive Director and Writer. Shinji Mikami, creator of the Resident Evil series, was the “Creative producer”, whatever that means. Finally, Akira Yamaoka, sound designer for the Silent Hill series, worked as the sound designer. This trio of talent, with the help of the rest of the folks at Grasshopper Manufacture, created a game that clearly shows the influence of all of its creators. 

Your character is named Garcia Hotspur. His precious girlfriend, Paula, gets brutally murdered and then kidnapped (yes, in that order), by Fleming, lord of the underworld. He’s hard to miss - just look for the dude with three skulls stacked on top of one another. Garcia, of course, must delve into the underworld to come to Paula’s rescue. Luckily he happens to be a demon hunter already, so he knows how to kick some ass.

The setup is basic, but the magic is all in the execution. The gritty grindhouse aesthetic and knowingly immature writing make something that’s both gory and extremely cheesy at the same time, like all of the best B-movies. Whether Garcia is threatening to carve his name into some demonic baddie in his thick Latin accent or traversing the shadowy depths by using the writhing, half-naked form of his giant girlfriend as a bridge, the straight delivery of the absurd material is sure to have you cracking a smile. A certain tolerance for dick jokes and stupid humor is very much required (your phallic gun slash constant companion is named Johnson quite deliberately), but it only rarely becomes too much. I usually have a relatively low tolerance for dumb laughs and I found most of Shadows of the Damned’s writing plenty entertaining.

Anyone who has played No More Heroes might expect nothing less than absurdly humorous greatness from Suda 51, but the best part of Shadows of the Damned is that lurking behind the entertaining facade is a game that’s actually fun to play. It’s not a stretch to attribute much of this to Mikami, as the game plays like a tweaked version of the third-person shooter mechanics introduced in Resident Evil 4. Thankfully, Garcia has gained the ability to move and shoot at the same time, but a couple of other key features set it apart as well. 

The game’s most notable mechanic is darkness. The game uses it in a number of ways to keep things interesting. Darkness is harmful to human flesh, so Garcia can only take so much exposure to it before he keels over. Sometimes darkness is little more than a way to add tension to what would otherwise be a boring hallway, forcing you to run through a short, maze-like section and maybe collect a human heart or two  (don’t ask) to extend the amount of time you can safely spend in it. 

More commonly, darkness is used to make combat more difficult. Enemies covered in it are invulnerable until hit with the light shot, a gun that does no damage, but removes darkness and stuns normal enemies as well. If you find yourself caught in a darkened area full of enemies, you must find the goat head mounted on the wall (again, don’t ask) and shoot it with the light shot to remove the shadowy threat. Some enemies have a nasty habit of attacking the goat head periodically to restore darkness until you kill them. Other areas still will have you solving puzzles while being in and out of darkness or leave you with only a temporary way to restore light, meaning you’ll never feel truly safe until you escape that area. This is, on the whole, an effective mechanic that keeps the combat from getting stale in a fashion quite fitting with the setting of the game.

Boss fights are not especially numerous, but they are easily the high points of the game. Whether you’re taking on the very agents of death itself or a horseman who rides a steed that farts darkness only to eat his mount midway through the fight to grow to the size of a giant, all of the act-ending foes are unique and memorable in some way and you’ll likely leave the game wishing there were more of them. Pay special attention to the brilliant storybooks you’ll run across in each act. These entertaining, and often funny, dark tales tell the origin stories of the bosses you’ll later encounter. The narration of Garcia and Johnson is superb. 

Shadows of the Damned also steals another aspect of modern Resident Evil game design by throwing in mini-games and other specialized gameplay scenarios to give you a break from what could otherwise become a repetitive experience. Unfortunately, while many of the ideas are great in theory, these odd gameplay segments also contain by far the most frustrating moments in the game as well. Some of these bits are fun even despite the frustration, like the clunky-but-charming side-scrolling shooter segments that pop up a couple of times. Others, like the chase sequences where a temporarily insane Paula forces you to flee down obstacle-laden paths where messing up even once will cause her to catch up with you and necessitate replaying the entire sequence, are absolutely maddening. I can see what they were going for here, and I like the concept on paper, but in execution its only redeeming feature is that these trial-and-error nightmares usually at least aren’t very long.

On the whole, Shadows of the Damned is a great example of a game that’s as long as it needs to be. It took me somewhere between eight or nine hours to beat, but it rarely drags and doesn’t overstay its welcome. That said, its fifth and final chapter is more of a slog than it should be, stopping far too often for boring puzzle sequences, unwanted mini-games, or overly long stretches of combat. I kinda wanted it to just get to the point and end, but I felt like it was padding out the final stretch with a bit too much variety, which, as previously stated, is not the game’s strong suit. Still, I’m glad I stuck with it. The ending, inconclusive though it certainly was, fit the vibe of the game perfectly and was still satisfying.

Mini-games are sadly not the only trouble spot. The presentation also leaves something to be desired. Shadows of the Damned was built with Unreal Engine 3, and this is all too evident. Developers have gotten better at using this engine in recent years, finally figuring out ways to visually differentiate games from one another and alleviate the common technical problems that were evident in early generations of UE3 software. Shadows of the Damned exhibits every problem you would expect of an early UE3 game. Its textures are muddy and pop in all over the place whenever the camera angle has the audacity to change. Its color palette is a largely forgettable set of various shades of brown (which could be attributed to art style as well, but I would be willing to bet the engine plays at least a part in its look because nearly all UE3 games shared this same look until more recently). Enemy design could use more variety, especially near the end of the game. There’s even an awkward hitch between gameplay and pre-rendered cutscenes, the video of which looks largely compressed and terrible, at least in the 360 version I played.

Things aren’t all bad though. The graphics are lacking from a technical standpoint, but the game sports a nice art style which manages to make even the mediocre presentation somewhat appealing. The weird, wacky underworld in Shadows of the Damned is a compelling place to explore, and the parts of it that Garcia gets to see generally make for fun environments. Also, as one might expect with Akira Yamaoka heading up the sound design, all aspects of the audio are fantastic, from the brilliant soundtrack to the pitch-perfect cheesy voice acting.

My biggest issue with the game has nothing to do with technical nitpicks or frustration. Shadows of the Damned, despite borrowing liberally from Resident Evil 4 and 5, doesn’t borrow one of the best features of those titles - the terrific replay value. Resident Evil 5 wasn’t a terrifically long game either, but it was that rarest of beasts - a single player shooter with plenty of compelling reasons to keep coming back to it. Aside from achievements, the game features numerous New Game+ style unlockables, letting you keep goodies you unlocked in previous runs, such as powered-up weapons, and rewarding you with ridiculously overpowered bonuses like rocket launchers with infinite ammo for completing certain tough challenges. Let’s not forget the awesome bonus Mercenaries mode as well. Shadows of the Damned has none of this; not even a chapter select. Cutscenes aren’t skippable, you can’t replay while keeping your more powerful weapons, and nothing else is unlocked when you complete it. Even the achievements are lacking in this department, as I got over 700 points in one run. Garcia’s tale is compelling the first time through, but the lack of even the most basic of replay incentives is painful in this day and age, especially for a game that seems like it would be so much fun to go through again, making this a tough recommendation at the full $60 price.

The long and short of it is that Shadows of the Damned is a fun but somewhat derivative shooter that’s propped up by excellent writing and a memorable universe to explore, yet held back by occasionally maddening gameplay segments and uneven presentation and lack of replay value. Those looking purely for a great gameplay experience might be better served elsewhere, but for those with a taste for the bizarre, for those who loved the off-the-wall humor of No More Heroes or the inexplicable weirdness of Bayonetta, Shadows of the Damned is worth a look. Despite my frustrations with it (and the overabundance of dick jokes), it still managed to charm me.

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