Whenever big names in any industry come together you can almost always guarantee fireworks. Such ventures generally end in either a superior product, or a venomous reaction from fans scorned, who dislike the direction their former idol has headed in. A cursory glance at the music industry shows such a pattern. For every successful supergroup, there are ten collaborations that fail to strike a chord, leaving fans dissatisfied and occasionally having an irreparable effect on the artists career.
Similarly, when there is a coming together of minds in the gaming industry, players can only hope that the different personalities involved are able to create a cohesive whole rather than a mish-mash of separate ideas. Such is the trepidation felt when first loading up Shadows of the Damned. On the surface a horror game from the combined minds of gaming luminaries Suda 51 (Contact (DS), No More Heroes (Wii)), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil) and Akira Yamaoka (Composer on Silent Hill) sounds like something special. Here you have three of the brightest stars of the genre combining to hopefully create something that works, but there remains a nagging fear that it wont right until you step into the stylised boots of demon hunter Garcia Hotspur. Ten minutes later, after an adrenaline pumping introduction to the title, most fears about the game can be put to bed, allowing the player to settle in and enjoy Shadows of the Damned on its own merits, rather than as a product based on the reputations of the men behind it.
As mentioned, Shadows of the Damned gives you control of Garcia Hoptspur, demon hunter extraordinaire and the latest member of a very select club of Latino gaming protagonists. He is accompanied by his demon companion Johnson, a small, transforming skull who serves both as Garcias main form of weaponry and a banter buddy to provide exposition as you make your way through the game. Early on you will also meet the other main players in the story in Paula and Fleming, Garcias girlfriend and the Lord of the Underworld respectively. Things kick off proper when Fleming gets his hands on Paula as revenge for Garcias demon hunting ways, leading to our intrepid hero and his wise-cracking companion to literally dive into the depths of hell to get her back.
Its hardly the most inspiring story in gaming history, but its more than enough to provide a framework for the game itself, whilst also providing the developers with the opportunity to focus on the relationship between Garcia and Johnson as the pair struggle to retrieve Paula. Sprinkle in a few moments of trademark eccentricity from Suda 51 and you slowly discover the appeal that Shadows of the Damned has beyond its story. Its all about the oddities and dialogue rather than a complex narrative, but that suits the game just fine.
Shadows of the Damned is essentially a B-Movie in game form. If a demon partner named Johnson is making you snicker a little, theres plenty of similarly humour to be found throughout. The game treads the fine line between innuendo and flat out crudeness, and occasionally jumps right over it, such as when the player discovers that Johnson can transform into a pistol variant that is simply named Boner. The humour is crude, but purposefully so. Shadows of the Damned is certainly not a stupid game and the sexual overtones are handled very much with a tongue firmly planted in cheek, and even the sternest player will be forced to crack a smile at some of the wittier exchanges between Garcia and Johnson.
This is all well and good, of course, but without a good game to back it up there would be little reason to make your way through the title. Luckily Shadows of the Damned manages to step up to the plate in this regard as well. At its core the game is a third-person shooter, switching to an over the shoulder perspective whenever you level one of the multiple variations of Johnson at a demon. It can take a little while to get used to it first, but a handy laser sight allows the player see exactly where their shot is going to go, with aiming sensitivity being adjustable through the option screen as well. Once you get the hang of it youll be ploughing through demons in no time.
As a straight shooter, Shadows plays well, but its when the game starts mixing in the darkness that it starts to show a little more inventiveness. At various intervals throughout the game, the area Garcias making his way through will be plunged into darkness, which presents a hairy situation for the protagonist. In the darkness, demons become invulnerable, and the lack of light slowly eats away at your health. Usually, theres a conveniently placed light source available for Garcia to shoot with his light gun, but finding it can be a bit of a challenge. Boss fights especially will see the darkness coming into play quite often, with Garcia often being forced into darkness to expose his enemys weakness before he can do some real damage.
Talking about enemies, Shadows of the Damned ensures that you have plenty to shoot at throughout. The title intersperses moments of quiet with frantic shootouts, which become only more intense when the darkness mechanic starts to get involved. However the title is also quick to recycle enemies, with sub-bosses especially getting relegated to standard enemy level as the game progresses. While its a trick that many a game uses, it can still give the impression that the developers got a tad lazy. Even boss fights are occasionally reused, though not without a twist or two thrown in to differentiate them.
For the most part the game keeps a fairly steady difficulty curve, with only the odd moment perhaps providing a little bit of a spike. The standard difficulty setting wont provide too many challenges for experienced players, while there is a difficulty level either side of the norm for the less experienced and the hardcore alike. A handy upgrade system also ensures that your weaponry gets stronger as your enemies do, keeping things fairly even-handed throughout. Oftentimes things get a little more difficult thanks to a slightly convoluted control scheme. While the controls themselves are responsive, the game has a habit of assigning multiple actions to very similar button presses. Pressing the A button to complete a 180 degree turn can often result in Garcia diving across the screen instead if the player forgets to ensure that theyve stopped moving, and constant combinations of the shoulder and main buttons can occasionally lead to a bit of a scramble when things get particularly intense.
This is not a game to play with the kids, as you may have gathered already, and the graphical styles only serves to emphasise this point. Each of the demons the player will face has been lovingly crafted to look absolutely hideous and various touches, such as the camera slowing things down so that you can watch headshots in a slow motion close-up, ensures that the gore levels are kept quite high. Moments like this, coupled with a stellar soundtrack that manages to mix funky music with jarring sound effects, can provide a bit of a shock to the system. This is especially true if you have a little bit of difficulty shifting between the humorous and horrific as quickly as the game manages to.
All told, Shadows of the Damned is a game thats definitely worth of anyones time. It is, however, an acquired taste. Its schizophrenic switching between horror and comedy is not going to be to everybodys liking, but nevertheless the game itself plays extremely well, and is guaranteed to get the juices pumping. If the tone suits your particular sensibilities, youre definitely in for a treat. It may not be the longest experience in the world, clocking in at the 10-15 hour mark, but give it a moment of your time and you will discover that Shadows of the Damned is a game that is smarter than its exterior suggests, while still being able to throw the odd crude joke your way in the bargain.
Written By: Lee Price