Published on June 29th, 2011 | by Cameron Woolsey
Shadows of the Damned Review
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Platform: Xbox 360 [Reviewed], PlayStation 3
Release: June 21, 2011
There’s something I find undeniably attractive in games made by Grasshopper Manufacture, led by noteworthy designer Suda 51. Though each game I played felt like a step back as far as gameplay standards go, there was something there that really stood out and made it feel like a fresh, unique experience. His latest, Shadows of the Damned, holds true to that tradition. In many ways the game takes a step back from others in its genre. Yet unlike some of its peers, Shadows of the Damned offers the kind of gameplay experience one can only find from Suda 51. A survival horror that leans heavily on shooting, Shadows of the Damned is a modern day Dante story filled with fun characters, solid gameplay and more lowbrow dialog than you can shake your Johnson at.
Shadows of the Damned is a game that does not shy away from juvenile humor. Right from the beginning, the game offers a barrage of dick jokes and sexual innuendo without offering a single wink or hint of subtlety. No, Shadows of the Damned almost seems eager, if not proud, to drop enough references to sex and male genitalia to satisfy any self-respecting adolescent. But that’s really a part of the game’s personality. It doesn’t lay it on thick enough to get tiresome like Chair’s Bulletstorm, instead you have a game that knows it’s not taking itself seriously and drops a joke at just the right time in order to grab a good snicker or two before moving on.
The game stars demon hunter Garcia Hotspur and a defected demon named Johnson. The game starts off when Garcia’s girlfriend Paula is abducted by Fleming, the king of demons, and dragged down into Hell to suffer an eternity of death and revival. Garcia is understandably pissed, so he grabs his purple biker jacket and jumps into Hell after them. Grasshopper is known for creating characters with interesting personalities. Garcia is a gruff, vulgar Hispanic man who shouts insults in Spanish as he slays demons. His partner, Johnson, is a small, burning floating skull with a mild British accent and an affinity for “the ladies.” This unlikely pair are great together. The two interact like old friends who have been doing this “demon hunting” thing for quite some time, and offer plenty of snappy dialog.
Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil fame lended his experience in the development of Shadows of the Damned, and it is his grasp of horror with Suda’s punk rock-influenced penchant for the crazy that make the game such a fun experience. The game successfully balances both action shooting and psychological thriller elements, allowing it to end up feeling both familiar and freshly unique at the same time. Grasshopper’s vision of Hell is eerie and believably demonic. The world looks like the human world, but twisted and wrong. It gets even worse when the darkness creeps in.
Darkness is a major gameplay element in Shadows of the Damned. During certain key moments, the world will turn blackish-blue. Darkness in the demon world is like light in the human world. Except for the fact that if Garcia stays in the dark too long, he has more to worry about than a sunburn. Once the darkness hits, Garcia will only have enough shielding to protect himself for a short while. After that, his health literally starts burning away. The only way to bring the world back to the light is to fire a a bolt of light at a goat head (really) which banishes the darkness. Any demons that were in the dark with Garcia will still be covered in the darkness, and must be shot with light in order to be vulnerable again. Darkness is used well in Shadows of the Damned, turning what you would believe to be a standard battle into an edge-of-your seat fight for your life. It’s a perfect example of how the two designer’s different styles can be used unexpectedly well. In another clever twist, alcohol also has an opposite effect, granting health instead of simply destroying Garcia’s liver. There are three different alcoholic drinks from sake to tequila and finally absinth, each one more potent-and lifesaving-than the last.
Of course all the clever gameplay styles in the world wouldn’t help if the game plays bad. Luckily, the controls in Shadows of the Damned are clean and precise, just the way I like them. Unlike Suda’s previous titles, Shadows of the Damned is easily the most accessible Grasshopper game yet. If you have played a third-person shooter before, you will have no problem playing this game. The left trigger lets you aim your gun, the right trigger fires. There’s no cover to hide behind or health to regenerate (thanks to alcohol!), this is a simple run ‘n’ gun balls-to-the-wall shooter. Later on the game breaks up the action with a few brief Galaga-esque side-scrolling mini-games that were fun and challenging. Each level in the game felt different from the one you previously went through, making the game feel fresh all the way to the end. Every level contained a unique theme to itself such as an 18th century town, a theme park, and a dark forest influenced by The Evil Dead as only a few examples.
Garcia’s faithful friend Johnson is his primary source of tools and weaponry. Johnson can transform into a variety of different weapons and can be used to open doors and solve puzzles. By default, Johnson is used as a torch to provide light to the surrounding darkness. At first he can only transform into a pistol, called the “Boner” (yes…subtle). But as the game rolls on he is granted further forms such as a machine gun called the Teether that shoots teeth and a skull launcher, named the Monocussioner. During one level Johnson can transform into a cannon held at crotch level called the “Big Boner,” but he can only turn into the weapon after talking briefly on a sex hotline. Yes this game is unique.
Boss fights in Shadows of the Damned are another aspect worth noting. Every boss is enormous and take planning and strategy in order to take down. Some fights occur in stages. One of which began as a chase scene through a bazaar where you had to damage the boss by shooting barrels of concentrated light as he relentlessly pursues Garcia. During the final confrontation, the boss eats his own heart, splits out of his skin now with a goat head, and grows 50 feet tall. Did I mention this game is unique? After a boss is defeated it drops a blue gem which is used to upgrade one of Johnson’s weapon forms. For example, the Boner eventually becomes the Hot Boner which can attach explosive mines that can break off enemy armor when detonated, or be set as traps. Other gems appear in the game as well. Providing some RPG elements, red gems can be used to upgrade certain things like health, weapon damage, reload speed, ammo capacity and more. White games are used as currency and can be traded in for ammo, alcohol or more red gems.
Though the game utilizes the Unreal Engine 3, the graphics are really anything but spectacular. Textures look chunky, lip-syncing is off and when the camera comes in for a close-up I can almost count the pixels. However, the game more than makes up for it in creepy atmosphere and if you believed anything I have said up until this, the graphics take a back seat to the fun gameplay. After only 10 minutes my mind was too busy enjoying the hunt than worry about if Shadows of the Damned looked better than Game X or Game Y. The audio fairs a lot better. Though not every demon had a quality voice acting (Fleming), both Garcia, voiced by the talented Steven Blum, and Johnson were done pretty well. The music was conducted by Akira Yamaoka, sound designer for the Silent Hill series, and was excellent throughout.
At the end of the game I felt that one thing Shadows of the Damned could have really used is a game plus mode. I did a good job collecting my fair share of red gems, but I only collected enough to upgrade half of everything available. A game plus mode allowing me to go into a hard game with the ability to max out before the final boss fight would have been more than enough of a reason for me to start the game over. Unfortunately there isn’t much of a reason to start a second playthrough without it.
Shadows of the Damned is the kind of game that could likely be passed up at the store. However I would urge otherwise, as I had more fun terrorizing demons as Garcia F**king Hotspur than I did with quite a few shooters in recent memory. Shadows of the Damned is a mixture of hard-hitting action, psychological thrills and fun dialog. Each level is varied and fun, making it hard to put down the controller throughout the 8- to 10- hour journey through Hell. The gameplay is solid and the music excellent. If you’re looking for a fresh and humorous take on the typical shooter genre, look no further than Shadows of the Damned.
+ The team-up of Suda 51 and Mikami create a unique and varied experience.
+ The humor is juvenile yet fun.
+ A different take on the typical shooter genre.
– Poor graphics.
– Without a game plus mode there’s not much replay value.