I'm calling Shadows of the Damned a compromise, and it makes me sad to think about the game that way.
I realize now that this has almost nothing to do with the game I was actually playing and everything to do with my expectations. You'll be hard-pressed to read a review of Shadows of the Damned that doesn't mention its stable of Japanese talent: Goichi Suda, known for making games weird, Shinji Mikami, known for making games fun without making adhering to modern standards, and Akira Yamaoka, known for adding unsettling ambiance wherever it's needed. As someone who's enjoyed the work of all three on multiple occasions, Shadows seemed like a dream project. Suda and Mikami in particular seem like complimentary forces; Suda's eccentric design choices rarely lead to “fun” games, while Mikami's suffer from a lack of creative direction. Or at least, I think they do.
Still, I'm let down, and it's entirely because the game isn't crazy enough, which some of you might think wouldn't be possible. I don't think that's true. The undead-meets-punk aesthetic is a fine touch, and the game's tone is consistent enough to not make the look seem out of place in hell. But this is where I feel that both the narrative and ludological sides capitulate not just for the sake of making EA can actually sell (not that they really tried), but so that the end product ends up being more cohesive. Suda's knack for the absurd is augmented by the fact that for better or worse, his games don't play like anything else out there. Mikami's games play so well because he has control over contextualizing gameplay concepts, even when they seem out of place. With neither person in full control, we end up with a faster, "spookier" version of Resident Evil 4, which is a product six years too late.
When I look at it that way, I find myself at odds. I certainly think the game is good, as my three playthroughs will attest, but when I read unapologetic praise for the game, I wonder what it is that places the game so high on people's "best-of" lists for the year: is it the atmosphere, done better in almost every Suda game? The gameplay, which feels clunky when put beside Resident Evil 5? The papercraft shooter sections? Is it the story, which acts as a metaphor for how loving someone involves embracing the bad along with the good of a person? There's a lot in Shadows of the Damned that makes it good, especially when most shooters don't dare delineate from military conflicts. But though Damned is charming, it doesn't hold up well when looked at past its veil of its setting.
Nitpicks: the big boner sections go from distracting side show to painful grind, and the shooter sections later on are only slightly better. The shooting, again, isn't up to par with Mikami's previous work. Steve Blum shouldn't attempt to mimic Spanish ever again, nor should Suda. The main game and Bosses alike rely on tired lock-and-key and glowing weakpoints ad nauseum. Replay value, one of Mikami's strongest suits in the past, is all but gone here. The game ends one scene too late. These could all amount to kicking Damned while it's down, but these are the kind of things that grate on a player after the first playthrough.
As I said earlier, I do like Shadows of the Damned, particularly for its examination of a relationship past rescuing or fighting with someone. Similarly, Akira Yamaoka's soundtrack seems like the one element of the game that feels unrestricted. And I theorize that for many players, this may be their first true exposure to a Suda title, since they can play it without too much hassle, which may be why so many people laud it for being novel. But I can't escape the feeling that both Suda and Mikami could've done a better job were they each making separate games. Label me a hater, but I think it's because I'm such a fan of both Suda and Mikami's work that I hold the game up to a high standard. Or maybe Suda's messing with me by further deepening the "love the good and the bad" into the development of the game itself.