Michael Kontoudis
29 Jun, 2011

Shadows of the Damned Review

PS3 Review | Damned if you don't.
It was almost three years ago that we first reported the enticing news that Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil fame and Goichi Suda of Grasshopper Manufacture (responsible for cult classics such as Killer7) were joining forces under the banner of EA Games to produce an original horror title for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. At the time, our collective mind boggled at the thought of what the master craftsman and wily iconoclast might achieve with the financial backing of the publishing juggernaut. Now, we have the answer, as Shadows of the Damned finally finds its way onto the platforms formerly known as ‘next generation’. A horror-themed shooter replete with ribald humour, towering boss monsters and an enviable pedigree, Shadows of the Damned will no doubt be of significant interest to discerning gamers familiar with its creators’ former glories. The question is whether the game lives up to its vast potential and delivers an experience worthy of its heritage.

Meet Garcia Hotspur, whose middle name is not fit for print.

Meet Garcia Hotspur, whose middle name is not fit for print.

Speaking perhaps to the increasing homogenization of cultures in a global society, Shadows of the Damned is a heady, potent mixture. A game developed in Japan for a primarily Western audience, it tells the strange tale of Garcia Hotspur, a Mexican demon hunter whose girlfriend, Paula, is abducted by the Lord of the Underworld and whisked away to Hell to suffer for all eternity. Hotspur, being a Suda-protagonist, responds to the situation with a bevy of expletives and with his demonic, talking-skull Johnson at his side, takes to the infernal realm for what the game itself describes as a ‘road trip’ over five action-packed acts. While the plot may seem throw-away, it becomes increasingly clear over the course of the adventure that the narrative and the characters which inhabit it are worth more than they originally appear. Garcia Hotspur begins the game as a rash, unlikable brute, but the game’s script, penned by Goichi Suda and others, doles out portions of his (and other bizarre characters’) back-story in a manner designed to endear him to players by the game’s end. Similarly, Johnson, the talking-skull with the ability to transform into an arsenal of different weapons, is imbued with an indelible personality by virtue of a quirky script and spot-on voice acting, and it becomes a pleasure to revel in his raunchy, often-ludicrous banter with Garcia. Drawing clear inspiration from the collective works of film directors Sam Raimi (particularly The Evil Dead, which is repeatedly directly referenced) and Robert Rodriguez, Shadows of the Damned straddles the line between horror and comedy, where the gore, tension and disturbing imagery are balanced by penis-jokes and self-referential winks. It is not a style for everyone, but those who enjoy Suda’s punk-pop aesthetic or B-Movies will take particular delight in the game’s puerile, adolescent charm which never feels forced, but rather a faithful expression of its creators’ off-beat spirits.

Despite its cult-stylings, however, Shadows of the Damned is remarkably accessible to play, particularly so given the purposeful, almost-Brechtian manner in which Grasshoper Manufacture has previously disregarded conventional mechanics in games such as the aforementioned Killer7. Gamers familiar with Mikami’s Resident Evil 4 will feel right at home, but in truth a comparison with another EA Games franchise, Dead Space is particularly apposite. As a third-person shooter with limited melee options which frames its action with an ‘over the shoulder’ camera, Shadows of the Damned feels a lot like a whole host of other games, with some tweaks of its own design. Garcia can dismember enemies with well-placed shots, take evasive action to quickly roll out of harm’s way, or even walk and shoot simultaneously (perhaps he should give Chris Redfield a call and ask him to take notes). And although Garcia will find himself collecting keys to open doors (specifically, by jamming eyeballs, brains and strawberries in the mouths of disembodied babies’ heads) and collecting gems to purchase ammunition, health-recovery items (represented here by bottles of sake, tequila and absinthe, the latter of which may go some way to explaining strawberry-eating-demon-baby-gates) and various upgrades to the functionality of his arsenal, Shadows of the Damned plays more like a shooter than a horror title in which survival and resource-management is key. Controlling Garcia feels intuitive throughout, and the game’s action is crisp, visceral and satisfying in ways which may hint at Mikami’s involvement.

Hit 'im where it 'urts!

Hit 'im where it 'urts!

Likewise, the flow and design of the game’s encounters is such that the enjoyable combat is never allowed to grow stale. Shadows of the Damned is, for the most part, well-paced and inventive while retaining a laser-sharp focus. Downtime between combat scenarios is limited, although each battle is structured, varied or turned on its head by way of the surrounding environment, the introduction of a new enemy-type, its integration with puzzle-solving or even simply the player’s receipt of an interesting new upgrade for his or her weapons. Progression through the game’s five acts is limited and extremely linear, but the intensity and ingenuity of the action keeps the game taut and compelling. Light puzzle elements, such as the presence of a seemingly-ubiquitous ‘dark world’ mechanic, are interesting and clever while never becoming so complex as to obstruct flow. For example, certain areas of the game are shrouded in a haze of darkness in which Garcia slowly loses health and enemies become indestructible, and it is only by shooting a glowing goat’s head (naturally) that he can dispel the darkness. Some enemies and switches, however, can only be killed or activated under cover of darkness, which introduces an element of risk versus reward which livens up encounters and gives rise to legitimate tension.

Similarly clever are some of the game’s set-piece boss fights against towering monstrosities, created in the same mould as those of The Legend of Zelda series, wherein figuring out how to slay the beasts is often more than half of the battle. While most of the bosses are glorious grotesque and impressively designed, Shadows of the Damned suffers from the unfortunate problem of stockpiling its most memorable encounters in its first half, with the battles thereafter devolving both aesthetically and mechanically as if Grasshopper Manufacture simply ran out of ideas, time and money towards the end of their development schedule. This unevenness is also applicable to the game as a whole, with one of the late-game Acts in particular feeling repetitive and disjointed in a way that the game had previously avoided. Tellingly, the weakest moments in Shadows of the Damned are those when one feels most haunted by the ghosts of Suda’s past: the avant-garde, expectation-subverting ‘kitchen-sink’ approach to game design which typifies most of his earlier work injects not only an element of surprise and chutzpah, but also a sense of wonkiness which almost threatens to derail the endgame before the game fortunately regains its footing in its final few hours.

Hanging with Friends.

Hanging with Friends.

Uneven too is the game’s look, which boasts sumptuous artistic design underpinned by the distinctive Unreal Engine and its all-too-familiar foibles. Characters models are chunky and distinctive, but so shiny as to seem perpetually rain-soaked, and are often crudely-animated. Texture pop-in is a consistent and ugly blemish on the game’s presentation, as is the slight overuse of bloom-lighting techniques which blur the quality of the image; despite these nitpicks, however, the game is largely enjoyable to behold: it’s hard to begrudge a blurry texture or amateurish running-animation when facing a skyscraper-sized minotaur atop a horse with a human head. Such is the precedence of design over technology. In any case, the occasional raggedness of Shadows of the Damned serves only to reinforce its purposefully punk philosophy and aspirations to evoke the rough charms of B-cinema. In contrast, the game’s soundtrack is of the utmost quality in its composition and performance, and Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka should be honoured with top-billing alongside Mikami and Suda for his contribution to Shadows of the Damned, by delivering a haunting score which fuses his signature industrial-tinged melancholy mood music with flamenco guitar-riffs to memorable albeit dizzying effect. In many ways, it is Yamaoka has crafted a soundscape which binds the game together and make cohesive its unusual, often-clashing aspects. From the game’s title screen and loading screens to its memorable end credits, Shadows of the Damned sounds as excellent as any game to which we have listened this year.

While listening to and playing Shadows of the Damned may be an experience to remember, it is not one of significant length; while its core shooting action is imminently enjoyable and capable of being enjoyed time and time again, certain structural problems hinder the prospect of players spending significant time with the title outside of its brief, eight-hour duration. The lack of a chapter select and the presence of both lengthy loading times and cutscenes which cannot be skipped mean that Shadows of the Damned loses a little something on the second go around. Exacerbating the problem is the lack of any option to replay the game from the beginning with an upgraded arsenal, which is a mystifying exclusion for a game structured around the acquisition and development of the player’s tools. In all likelihood, Shadows of the Damned is likely to be blasted through to completion before being relegated to the shelf to hibernate until the urge rises to bask in its madness once more.

The Demon Lord's castle is a looming, threatening presence throughout.

The Demon Lord's castle is a looming, threatening presence throughout.

For all of its serious patchiness, brevity, and chinks in presentation, Shadows of the Damned is one of those rare games which refuses to meld into the busy conga-line of its indistinguishable contemporaries, and for that it will and should be appreciated. Its inherent love of popular culture, of videogames, is matched only by its spirit of brash invention and defiant individuality. This is the sort of game which reminds us of the creative gusto which used to define the best of Japanese developers, eschewing the western-induced trend towards realism and reveling in its own bawdy joy. Shadows of the Damned is very flawed, and certainly not for everyone, but this may be its greatest achievement; by imbuing the game with its own flavour and personality in the face of its many and varied inspirations, Mikami and Suda have secured Shadows of the Damned a position in the company of those games which inspire rabid devotion in a passionate niche audience, of the sort of games referred to in enthusiastic tones reserved only for under-appreciated cult classics, and of the games which live on long after their milquetoast competitors have faded from memory.
The Score
Shadows of the Damned is more than the sum of its rough parts, a rollicking gamers' game which brims with personality and individuality amid a muddy ocean of po-faced shooters. Experience it before its relegation to the status of 'cult classic'.
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

Related Shadows of the Damned Content

Shadows of the Damned Bird Boss Battle gameplay
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Shadows of the Damned 'My Sweet Johnson!' trailer
02 Jun, 2011 Yet such a foul mouth.
Shadows of the Damned Interview with Suda 51
02 Jun, 2011 Finding out the importance of goats in game design.
2 years ago
I see from the media that the washed out black levels are standard, and not simply a fault in my setup. This is both good and bad news.

Annoyance aside, it's pretty great so far for me - machinegun rapid dick jokes and all.
2 years ago
A brilliantly written review as always Michael.
2 years ago
Aww thanks bruv
2 years ago
Sounds like Constantine meets Duke Nukem with a dash of Borderlands (the little robot/the talking skull) thrown in for good measure.

I probably won't ever get a chance to play this but if I did, it sounds like I would have a good time playing it.
2 years ago
an elegantly written review, and the right score. it isnt perfect but you get the sense that the team that created it will definately learn from and improve on it should there be a second game.
2 years ago
This has been getting pretty good reviews, much higher than I expected, so I might try it out as I quite like a mix of crude jokes and light horror in my media.
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Australian Release Date:
  23/06/2011 (Confirmed)
Year Made:

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