Gleefully vulgar, smartly written, and effectively voiced, Grasshopper/Suda 51's Shadows of the Damned is an astonishing, entertaining monstrosity born of the unholy union of No More Heroes, Resident Evil, and grindhouse. To imply that Shadows of the Damned is simply an amalgam of influences and other games, though, minimizes the game's originality, unique setting and characters, and thoroughly enjoyable gameplay.
Games such as Killer7 and No More Heroes have solidified Suda 51's (Goichi Suda) reputation as a developer with a bizarre, dark imagination and a taste for over-the-top violence, but whose games often suffer from frustrating controls and a lack of clarity. Teaming up with Resident Evil guru Sinji Mikami, Suda 51 has created a game with a coherent, albeit demonically twisted, narrative and solid controls.
Game designers love to create their own version of Hell, and though even triple-A titles such as Dante's Inferno often miss the mark, Shadows of the Damned's vision is both gross and engrossing, filled with light-emitting goat's heads, demons of all sizes and stripes, Mexican markets, red-light districts, lava pools, miles and piles of corpses, rotting flesh, and towering keeps. You play as Garcia Hotspur, who must journey to Hell to rescue his beloved Paula from the opera-loving demon Flemming. Not over-burdened by convoluted plot, the story is straight-arrow and to the point, which is not to suggest it lacks nuance. It's a game in which the action stops so that you can listen to an extended—and often twisted—fairy tale with a surprising and sometimes even touching moral at the end.
Shadow of the Damned's gameplay is hardly innovative, however—it's a third-person shooter with some easy environmental puzzles (usually based on manipulating light and darkness) and God of War-style bosses, with rarely any confusion about where to go or what to do. Most every enemy has a weak point to target or a pattern to figure out, but now and again the game throws a frustratingly large number of them at Garcia when heath and resources are scarce, along with insta-kill scenarios. Overall, though, the game's very well-paced and ever-changing; it never feels repetitious.
What really sets Shadows of the Damned apart from its peers is its audacious, over-the-top, off-kilter visuals and aesthetics. Many will focus on the game's puerile sense of humor and abundance of crude sexual references—and make no mistake, they're there—but they'd be missing the its real wit, interesting and consistent characterization, and dedication to the grindhouse exploitation film genre. The Unreal-powered product looks good, but the game's lack of bleeding edge visuals goes unnoticed thanks to Shadow's rich sense of style. Even the loading screens are perfectly in tune.
Switching the focus to the audio side of things, it's appreciable to hear how the soundtrack doesn't rely on interchangeable percussion-heavy cues and bombastic horns spewing testosterone like in other actioners. Shadow of the Damned features one of the best, most varied, and surprising scores I've heard in months. Composer Yakira Yamaoka (most famous for his Silent Hill music) and the sound design team deserve credit for outstanding audio, which blends together such disparate sounds as flamenco guitar, mariachi trumpets, opera, and distorted electronics.
All the voice acting is incredibly good as well, but the performance by Greg
Ellis as the dapper, English-accented Johnson really stands out. Garcia's skull-head
demon companion, Johnson serves also as a loquacious narrator, Greek chorus,
and weapon. In addition to being brilliantly voiced and smartly written
(despite, or possibly because of a vast number of crude and/or clever
dick jokes), Johnson turns into a small arsenal of weapon types that are
upgraded and 'enhanced' throughout the game's four acts.
Like the grindhouse films it draws inspiration from, Shadows of the Damned might not be for everyone. It's mature sexual content (and immature sexual humor) that's woven together with gore-splattered gameplay set to a unique and refreshing sense of style. Nonetheless, it's an enjoyable experience that never flags.
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