Suda and Mikami, sitting in a tree. D-E-V-E-L-O-P-I-N-G.
You couldn't ask for a more epic alliance. The industry's two most flamboyant producers share over thirty five years of third-person adventure experience - and their collaborative project, Shadows Of The Damned, is set to play to their respective strengths. After extensively trying it out at a recent EA Showcase, I'm convinced that it delivers the best of both worlds... and that it's the most balls-out, batsh*t crazy, snooker loopy experience you'll have played in years.
Shadows Of The Damned tells the story of Garcia Hotspur, a leather-clad latin heart throb who has to descend into a nightmarish demon world in order to rescue his girlfriend from the clutches of an evil fiend. Once there, he allies himself with Johnson: a shapeshifting devil whose skittish, matter-of-fact demeanour puts him at odds with the rest of his nightmarish peers. Put simply, Johnson just wants to be normal- but the duo will need to do an awful lot of killing first.
Hotspur's adventure takes place from a third person perspective, and initially, everything is exactly as you'd expect. You'll control his actions with the left thumbstick, rotate the camera and reticle with the right and aim by holding the left trigger, with melee attacks mapped to the B button. It's a familiar setup that lets players get straight to the murdering, but with a number of considerate touches to make things more interesting. When approached from behind, a simple context-sensitive tap will cause Hotsput to wheel around to face his would-be attacker, and downed enemies can be finished off with a hilariously graphic body slam. Or a swift kick to the demonic balls.
Johnson, however, is infinitely more than a standard NPC . He's a shapeshifter, and since human weapons can't harm demons, he's willing to transform into any firearm that Hotspur desires. His floating, leering skull becomes the barrel for a powerful revolver (known as the Boner since it spurts out... well... bones), a machine gun that fires concentrated bursts of demon teeth and a shotgun powered by skull fragments. He'll also shift into the form of a flaming club for melee attacks - and this is where the bipolar darkness mechanics kick in.
Much has been made of Shadows Of The Damned's light vs dark mechanics, and it's been implemented extremely well. Cloying clouds of purple darkness frequently shroud the arenas; providing invulnerability to enemies as well as slowly decreasing player health. It's therefore up to Hotspur to dispel the gloom in any way possible - and can use each weapon's alternate fire mode to create a blast of light that ignites flaming torches or firework machines to provide temporary release. Darkness still clings to enemies, however, and needs to be removed by bathing them with the light shot or beating them savagely with Johnson's flaming club form. Each arena contains different ways to disperse or plain avoid the darkness, as well as introducing enemies that can produce it on cue.
From the two levels I was able to play, it's clear that Shadows Of The Damned is set to be exceptionally well-paced. Even though the core experience revolves around slaughtering your way through linear collections of small to mid-sized arenas, the darkness mechanic makes each encounter unique and interesting - and the environments are littered with secret stashes and hidden items to reward players who take the time to stray from the beaten track. Large bosses (including a massive Krueger-esque monstrosity and a menacing demon horseman) also provide a hectic change of pace, though rely heavily on the tried-and-true big red weak spot chestnut. Other gameplay elements involve swinging around on a chandelier to smash into massed enemies and ascend up a tall tower, and it's likely that similar sequences will help to switch things up.
Right. It's time to talk craziness. Goichi "Suda51" Suda is infamous for his auteuristic love of all things bizarre, creepy and bonkers... and Shadows Of The Damned is packed full of good old fashioned crazy. You'll drink from Tequila fountains to top up your health. The shopkeeper is a horrifying monstrosity with a friendly demeanour and a redneck accent who eats collected crystals and vomits out your weapon upgrades. Scantily clad curvaceous women abound - only to have demons burst out of their skin. A depraved sorceress sings songs of slaughter even as the camera zooms in on her lady parts. Doors are unlocked by fat cherubic faces who gobble up brains instead of keycards.
And, hell, your only friend is a transmogrifying floating skull who talks like a British tax accountant.
It's unsettling, unnerving and really rather wonderful. Each new enemy, bizarre occurrence and revelation caused me to either squeal or burst out laughing (causing great amusement amongst the EA reps who are clearly used to it), but like most of Suda's past works, Shadows Of The Damned is an interesting mix of tongue in cheek parody and daily normalcy. The characters, including Hotspur himself, accept the completely screwed up chicanery as the status quo; gleefully set about their murderous business as if shoving bodily organs into impish faces is the normal way of opening a door. This strange blend of acceptance and hilarious, disgusting weirdness makes the experience seem even more unsettling, though I daresay that we'll start seeing brains as keycards and tequila as health packs after a few hours of play.
Quite frankly, Shadows Of The Damned is looking absolutely brilliant. Mikami's experience with polished third person mechanics and Suda's... remarkable imagination... provide the perfect balance between functionality and freakishness. Light and darkness, if you will. I personally can't wait for the delayed deadline to roll around this June - and I'm already steeling my psyche against the assault of sheer insanity that's bound to follow. I suggest you do the same.