A Title With Damned Good Style, But Dated Gameplay
Shadows of the Damned is not simply your run of the mill third-person shooter game, rather this project represents years of work on the part of video game super-developers Goichi Suda, known for such cult hits as Killer7 and No More Heroes, and Shinji Mikami, the man behind such respected titles as Resident Evil and Devil May Cry. The fruits of their labour aren’t quite up to what you might expect from such luminaries, but there’s a good game here none the less.
In Shadows of the Damned you take on the role of Garcia Hotspur, a reckless demon hunter whose girlfriend Paula is kidnapped and dragged into the depths of hell by a demon named Fleming. Accompanied by his cowardly anthropomorphic gun/torch/motorcycle Johnson, Garcia follows Fleming into the underworld to face the terrors within and rescue his beloved Paula. Right from the start it’s easy to see Suda’s famed sense of bizarreness at work and it’s obvious that Shadows is playing up a schlocky, self-aware B-movie plot to its fullest. Overall this is pulled off well, but it doesn’t go right 100% of the time.
When it works there’s something oddly charming about Garcia, Johnson, and the friendship between the two; Garcia playing more of the take-no-nonsense badass action hero type, while the British accented Johnson plays the part of the straight man, or at least as much of a straight man as a transforming flaming skull can be. Sometimes you can’t help but smile at the game as it presents nonsense scenarios that look like they were ripped out of an especially strange low budget horror movie, and there are some wonderful encounters and pockets of dialogue which seem completely unique to a game like this. That being said, Shadows of the Damned also has somewhat of a penchant for obvious one-liners and unimaginative dirty humour. From Garcia’s rather grating action movie phrases, to doors covered with demon pubes or even the basic Johnson metaphor, the game has the capacity to be occasionally off-putting, but to its credit things get better as you get further in.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Shadows is that it sure has a sense of style. Environments are well-crafted, offering a vision of hell that while still grotesque, is much more detailed and full of character than the traditional “fire and brimstone” depiction, with most of it being fleshed out by locations that look like they were transplanted straight out of some twisted landscape from medieval Europe. The only real downfall here is that staring at old timey buildings and cobbled streets can start to feel a little dull if you’re playing for extended periods at a time.
The boss monsters fall well in line with the general aesthetic, treading the divide between the intimidating and the almost unsettlingly odd, and there are even a very small number of levels where the game turns into a side-scrolling shoot-em-up and the art style adopts an impressive and experimental arts-and-crafts vibe. The sound design also stands out well, with cacophonous noise making battles genuinely tenser, the “darkness” in the underworld carrying an appropriately ominous hum, and some sections coming across as just enticingly peculiar. I only wish it could be said that the gameplay was of a similar quality.
Shinji Mikami’s influence on the game design shines through clearly, with the combat bearing some resemblance to the old Resident Evil games, which isn’t always a good thing. When zoomed in, the over-the-shoulder camera feels a little too close to Garcia for comfort, giving you a rather restricted field of view, and the aiming on the guns feels deliberately loose to the point where it makes combat feels less intuitive and more of a precision task. Fortunately, when you do score a hit it’s a satisfying experience; the game is by no means afraid of copious amounts of blood and uses a dismemberment mechanic somewhat similar to Dead Space’s. You can go for the difficult headshot for an instant kill, remove arms to impede their attacking ability and shoot off legs to stop them running for you. I found taking out the legs of enemies and then stomping them to death to often be one of the most effective and fun ways to deal with fights.
The game contains a total of three basic guns: a pistol, a machine gun and a shotgun, and although this system may sound simplistic, it works out fine for what the game does. Shadows’ Hispanic hero also has the ability to push back enemies (but not damage them) with a melee attack and use a “light shot” to temporarily stun them. There’s certainly enjoyment to be had in the combat, but overall I couldn’t help walking away feeling it was just “okay” more than anything else.
It also seems worthy of mentioning that Garcia’s sprint, something you’ll use quite a lot, feels troublingly clunky. Once initiated he is firmly locked into running directly forward and refuses to significantly alter his direction left or right. The small number of shoot-em-up sections I mentioned earlier also feel decidedly awkward, with moving Garcia around feeling sluggish, painfully so when you try to move him backwards.
In addition to combat and moving from point A to B the game includes some puzzles, but these aren’t greatly varied and don’t feel like they fit exceptionally well into the wrapper the game lays out for them. A lot of these puzzle sections involve being trapped in the “darkness” where, if Garcia spends too long he will start taking damage to his health. Basically all of these challenges require finding a special goat’s head and hitting it with the light shot to banish the darkness, and sometimes finding and shooting special stores of blood as well. This helps break up the gunfights, but isn’t a thrilling experience in itself, and like the combat, the puzzles often come off as “alright” in lieu of anything else.
All in all if you’re looking for the kind of bizarre, highly stylised work that Suda is best known for, and can get past somewhat clunky gameplay, Shadows of the Damned is likely to be right up your alley. If on the other hand, you’re after a third-person shooter that puts good gameplay first and everything else second, I’d recommend looking elsewhere.