- Shadows of the Damned
- CLR [rating:4]
Release Date: June 21st, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360 (Version reviewed), Playstation 3
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: 3rd Person Shooter
ESRB: M for “Mature”
Executive Producers: Suda 51 & Shinji Mikami
A Freudian Slip Into a Damned Good Time
Violence isn’t the taboo of gaming, sexuality is. Most games are written with violence as a book is with words, and the thesaurus is getting quite thick indeed. It’s a rare game that delves into both with equal measure and rarer still, that both are done with skill. Shadows of the Damned is that rare game.
What’s even more impressive? This feat was accomplished with such a fiercely purposeful disregard for decency, tact and subtlety as to border on intellectual repugnance. If it were in any lesser hands than Shinji Mikami, Akira Yamaoka, and Goichi Suda’s, it would have been patently offensive and completely forgettable.
However, thank the gods above that they did collaborate in such an all-star dream team, because we get this wholly imaginative, completely twisted, and downright fun game instead. Though it’s not going to redefine any single aspect of gaming, as it’s fundamentally a rather traditional “kill absolutely everything” 3rd-Person shooter, Shadows of the Damned may be a turning point in the industry; for reasons far beyond its simple tale of a boy, a girl and his gun.
Oh and demons, lots and lots of demons.
A demon named Fleming stands out amongst the rest though, not only due to his deformed cranium (three skulls stacked atop each other) but because he’s also the lord of the underworld, and very, very, angry at Garcia “@#*$ing” Hotspur, an uncouth demon hunter covered in tattoos and sporting a sweet purple jacket. For reasons unknown, Fleming captures the soul of Garcia’s girlfriend Paula and taunts Hotspur into following him with puerile insults to his manhood. Soon enough, Garcia is driving Johnson, an allied former demon who usually acts as Hotspur’s handgun or torch but also as his motorcycle, past the speed of sound and into the underworld.
Heavy metal kicks into gear and Garcia’s road movie into hell begins. It’s a journey filled with danger and excitement, and more than a few jokes based on or around the penis.
Shadows of the Damned revels in the fact that it is a video game and that no hint of “normalcy” need apply. Demons apparently LOVE strawberries, absinthe vending machines using diamonds as currency dispense healing liquor, goat heads emit light and magical fish have a leitmotif of bongo drums. This unadulterated madness is just as baffling for Garcia, who eventually gives up trying to make sense of the surreal reality he finds himself in. It’s highly recommended the player follow suit.
Yup, this is definitely the “Suda 51 joint” the cover describes it to be.
For those that may have missed Goichi Suda’s previous works with his studio Grasshopper Manufacture, the man is (to put it mildly) an oddball. His No More Heroes games were a bizarre love letter to Americana, “old school” gaming, super-heroes, light sabers, assassins and Johnny Knoxville. He’s a wildly independent developer who rarely does anything even nominally “normal” (he promoted No More Heroes with toilet paper), and loves a good pop-culture reference – look out for nods toward Evil Dead, Ghostbusters and Alanis Morrissette here!
Which is why Shadows of the Damned is so very strange. Not for the blatantly bizarre turns it takes or its childish humor, these elements are to be expected from Suda. But unlike his previous works, it’s the game play mechanics themselves that are odd . . . for being so very traditional.
“Traditional” doesn’t mean “no fun” though, as it seems obvious the core of the game, the combat, is where Shinji Mikami was allowed to shine. As he proved with last year’s underappreciated Vanquish, Mikami knows how to do action incredibly well, perhaps better than anyone in the business. He proves here that he can even make an otherwise basic, no frills experience thrilling.
The control scheme, though using now requisite 3rd-Person Shooter mechanics, is incredibly tight and very precise. You’ll nimbly roll Garcia out of the way of danger, and deliver melee attacks to demons getting too close before shooting off the heads of those further away. Location specific damage allows for some screwball dismemberment, and it’s a blast toying with the increasingly powerful and outlandish weapons Johnson can turn into, like the “Teether,” a machine gun that uses teeth for bullets and eventually turns into that gun from The Fifth Element .
In the underworld, light physically hurts the residents, and conversely, darkness hurts Hotspur. This light and shadow concept (using the aforementioned goat lamps) is the most consistently interesting level mechanic; used for both the game’s spectacular battle scenarios and its puzzles. It’s a perfect complement to the game’s excellent level design, which continually gets weirder and pays less attention to the laws of physics. There’s an especially neat portion toward the end where you navigate through an M.C. Escher painting!
On top of this excellent level design featuring disturbingly macabre environments (you’re in Hell after all), the music coming from Akira Yamaoka is downright superb. Known primarily for the moody scores to the Silent Hill series, he simply works wonders here. Punk Rock riffs for action moments, Spanish guitar solos when the game gets emotional, bizarre new age tracks for when it wants to get weird, and some truly gothic tones for when it wants to create palpable tension. It’s an incredibly varied, eclectic soundtrack drawing inspiration from all over the musical landscape.
Oh, and be prepared for some big old boss battles that will push your patience to the limit, if not your skills, as they’re quite long. The climactic final confrontation is especially hard, so be forewarned. However, the reward is an interesting character reveal that redefines the character of Paula and partially saves her from being just another Princess MacGuffin, so I recommend persistence.
Wow, look at all my gushing. I’d better start pointing out some flaws with the game lest I lose some of my game reviewer street cred!
Unfortunately for the cynics reading this, there aren’t many. Sure, the lack of health bars for the bosses can be annoying I suppose, but it also amplifies tension. Then there’s the poor lip-syncing, an oddity in this day and age, but it’s a rather negligible fault and may even be purposeful to add to the rushed and messy look the game is actively cultivating.
If there’s any real design aggravation, it’s that the game is not engineered for completionists. Should you miss any of the collectible gems, (and you can, easily) you can’t go back for them. This is tempered however, with the fact that you can buy them later on, and that the game is fairly short. If you really want everything, just play it again.
But these are all negligible faults. If there’s anything that’s going to turn some folks away, it’s going to be the theme of the game. A theme which can be summed up with one word: PENIS!
When Johnson’s main form is a gun called “Boner,” and he becomes a piece of artillery named “The Big Boner” if you let him listen to a phone sex chat line, you know this game’s mind is stuck in the gutter. This aggressively phallocentric humor is everywhere; there’s a character named “One-Eyed Willy,” when taking darkness damage Johnson goes limp, and there are more dick jokes than a Kevin Smith movie. It’s even in the marketing.
So does the game dwell too much on the most male of organs? Perhaps, but most of the jokes prove funny, and either come from genuine characterization or leaning against the fourth wall, effectively making this a better Duke Nukem game than the recently released disappointment. However, what elevates this over Duke and his ilk is that the phallic focus isn’t present solely for laughs; all of the game’s horror is drawn from the same well.
Hotspur and Johnson’s cheesy one-liners and bad puns may be vulgar, but they’re innocent; a counterpoint to the terrifying nature of Fleming, a representation of destructive Eros and rape. Even though the game usually goes for the lighter, “Raimi-esque” style of horror, it creates a genuinely creepy menace in Fleming, and knows to deploy it from time to time. As a result, you’re always on your toes emotionally, and you never really get to settle down or know what to expect. Considering this is fundamentally a horror game, I can think of no better plaudit.
This excellent use of emotional pacing is the evidence of true masters at work in Shadows of the Damned. More importantly though, it’s another game that reveals the idiosyncratic vision of Suda 51, one that seems untampered by its publisher in an industry that tends to smother individuality for the constant pursuit of the largest demographics attainable.
So despite its simplicity and despite its vulgarity, Shadows of the Damned could prove important. Here we have group of gaming visionaries who effectively sold a game to a publisher based off their names alone, and retained creative control over the process. If they can sell it to the audience at large, it may portend a shift in the culture of gaming itself: away from the studio system it’s currently in and into an Age of the Auteur.
Maybe I’m reading far too much into it though. Maybe Shadows of the Damned is just a silly game that wants to let me turn my Johnson into a Big Boner. Even if that’s the case, and I’m overestimating the game’s potential legacy, at least know that that it’s still fully worth checking out for the classic shoot ‘em up experience it contains. If you do, you’ll find a titillating haunted funhouse ride you won’t soon forget.