noct's Shadows of the Damned (PlayStation 3) review

A clunky good old time.

Played through this casually over the course of a weekend. It's definately worth a go, but I'd say it's probably a rental for most people...

First of all, since it seems that some people don't know what an impressive lineage this has (or even that it exists at all), SotD is the newest release from Grasshopper. (Killer 7, No More Heroes, etc). It's dev's are Suda51 and Shinji Mikami (creator of Resident Evil), so I personally find it kinda strange that it seems to have gone under most people's radar, but anyways... It's a good time, but it feels insanely archaic, and it has a lot of problems.
The stand-out issues are that it's totally linear, clunky, and insanely claustrophobic. I don't need every game to be a sandbox, but forcibly marching down one corridor after another feels very tired in this day and age. The whole game is played from the same angle/pov that you use in RE 4&5, except you're even closer to the dude's head here (although you can thankfully move while shooting). In short, you're just too damn close to the character model, especially since there are often guys coming at you from every side. You spend the entire game going back and forth between aiming and spinning the camera around just to see, and it hurts the experience. It doesn't help things that almost every scene plays out in these insanely small hallways that usually lock behind you as you enter. So, there's no strategic aspect to it at all; you just walk forward and blast everything that comes at you.  
The movement and weapon handling in general are pretty clunky too, and you'll spend far more time just trying to line up a shot then actually pulling the trigger. It also suffers from some basic control issues when trying to run and navigate the confined areas. For one thing, half the time when I press the run button, "Garcia Hotspur" doesn't run. Other times he'll start running, and then stop as if I've released the button. It felt awkward, and I probably took a year's life off my Dual-Shock by pushing that damn button down as hard as I did while playing it.

It also just moves really slowly in-between the action scenes. The load screens when you die take forever, there's all kinds of cinematics and conversations that you are forced to repeatedly sit through if you bite it, and there are several extremely long story-book and poster-viewing segments that have you staring at a static image while you listen to dialogue. While (I believe) you don't have to view every story or info sequence, if you do, you're in it for the long haul. None of the text can be forwarded, and none of the dialogue or cutscenes can be skipped. Maybe I'm just too ancy a guy, but it drove me crazy waiting for a lot of it. Particularly when it reads one of the "Story-books in Hell" to you. The stories themselves are pretty twisted and interesting, but again, you cannot forward through any of it, and I read the on-screen text a million times faster then the narration and was often just sitting there fruitlessly hammering on buttons trying to get out of it.
As far as the visuals go, they are definitely a mixed bag. Most of the models are great, and the demon designs rock, but there's some jaggies, some blocky edges, and the lighting is just atrocious. There is also a good amount of texture pop-in, at times rivaling even GTA:San Andreas for some of the slowest texture loading I've ever seen. (It uses the Unreal engine, so this is no big surprise at this point)

The whole game plays on this dark versus light system where you have to turn lights on or off to advance though stuff, kill certain enemies, etc. Every gun has an alt-fire "Light-gun" shot that can be used to ignite torches or stun enemies, and the vast majority of the battles require you to hit a guy or a piece of scenery with the light-gun before you can actually start shooting anybody. 

It all works well enough, but it gets a bit tired after a while IMO, and the lighting effects themselves makes the game look really odd. You have this talking skull on a stick that acts as your light source (and sidekick), who instantly morphs into one of four gun types as you select weapons. Each weapon has a different color to it, which then becomes the color that radiates from the torch, bathing everything (including Garcia) in this really nasty over-saturated light/color.  


It's kinda hard to describe, but everything just looks off... There's this really hard edge of foggy blackness around the screen at all times, and whatever color your gun is just pervasively colors everything around you.  It makes the whole thing just look kinda crappy, and it just made me feel like I needed to adjust the settings on my TV.
Even the damage done to enemies uses some bizarre coloring, and again, it just looks... off. Usually the enemies are covered in darkness, so you only see their glowing eyes until they are right on you, but if you shoot them, this spray of blood comes oozing out and it does not seem to be affected by the lighting. So, a guy will be in total darkness, but his blood spurts are like neon-illuminated and totally over-saturated. It looks kinda cool in a graphic, gory way, but it's a strange effect, and it kinda bothered me from a design stand-point.

As for the controls... Yeah, they are not great. As mentioned, everything is just super clunky. It takes far too long to switch between guns, too long to recover from a shot, too long to aim, etc... I don't know if this stuff was done to add tension, but it doesn't feel great. It also makes no sense and is just confusing to use. Like, one guns alt-fire will be a different button then another, and sometimes it's the same button you use for the "light-gun", just held for a longer period of time.  Even walking is clunky, which you can tell the developers noticed, as they added in numerous ways to instantly turn your character around to deal with it. It's certainly playable, but it's frustrating, and it makes you feel more like you're driving a tank around then sprinting through Hell with a super Demon Hunter.

The sound design is awesome, and there's some great creepy music and effects as you go, but your talking skull on a stick can get really annoying. His name is "Johnson", and it's pushed in your face about once every 5 seconds that his name is a dick joke. It was mildly funny for a little while, but by the end I was just annoyed with it and felt like I was listening to two 14 year-old boys talk. You can barely go 10 feet without hearing or seeing some reference to it, and it rapidly goes beyond over-the-top and ridiculous and enters into juvenile and annoying. For example, your main gun is called the "Boner", and as you upgrade it, it becomes, "the big boner", "the hot boner", etc... It gets really tired. I liked the overall humor to the game, and Johnson himself was entertaining, but the phallic jokes were just pulled out a few hundred times too many.

If you like horror or just generally creepy, bizarre stuff (and I do), there's some stuff to really like here. There's a good bit of insane-looking scenery around, and even opening a door is weird and disturbing. The (locked) doors feature severed baby heads that you have to cram a specific body part in to open. They like do this creepy giddy little giggle-fest when you've fed them, and it definately adds to the "you're in hell" storyline.  

That said, the whole game is supposed to take place in Hell, and you really don't get that impression when playing it. It generally just looks and feels like a dark European town. Every now and then you'll see something cheesy to remind you where you are like a goat head or a pentagram or something, but for the most part, it doesn't do a good job of keeping the "Hell-vibe" going. 

As a whole the game feels like something that was made ten years ago. On top of being 100% linear and basically a TP-corridor-shooter, they have included every staple of 90s shooting games in there. Exploding barrels, health pick-ups, doors and keys, etc... It doesn't ruin the experience, but it makes it feel really dated. There is also ZERO interaction with the environment, and that probably bothered me more then anything. Nothing is destructable, and the sceney objects are exactly that. It goes as far as to even make you trigger a QTE of sorts just to jump off a step. Again, it just comes across as feeling super-dated, and disconnecting you from the environment completely. There isn't all that much to see in most areas either. What is there is modeled very well, but the majority of it just felt vast and empty. I know it's hell and everything, but if every street wasn't just an empty brick-lined hallway, that would make it a lot more interesting. 

Overall, it sounds like I'm saying I hated this game, and that's totally not the case. It's certainly not going to be for everyone, and there's a ton of really questionable design decisions, but I actually really enjoyed it. Despite being clunky, the gun-play is actually pretty fun, and I nev er tired of blasting the demons apart. The boss battles are pretty well done and exciting, there's some massive enemies, some interesting little diversions, etc.  

I have a feeling just like Grasshopper's other games, this is going to be something of a sleep-hit, but also super-polarizing. I'd say it's definitely worth a rental, but it has very little replay value. (A New Game+ option would have helped immensely.) 

Oh, one word for any Evil Dead/Raimi fans... You get to play out a scene from ED2 in here. I won't spoil it for anyone, but as I'm running towards (and through) this one section I was saying to myself how crazy-much it looked like this one scene in ED, and then the main character makes a joke about it. As a huge ED fan, it was worth playing just to experience it.

2 Comments Refresh
Posted by protomessiah

Really good review. You argue your points well and its an entertaining read.

Posted by Noct

Hey, thanks man, I appreciate that. This game seems to be really polarizing, and I've been lambasted on the forums for disagreeing with Alex's feelings on it, but I think I looked at it pretty honestly. It's a fun play, just has problems. Thanks again!

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