On a particularly wet and dismal Thursday afternoon late last month, Dealspwn trekked across a London swept in blankets of rain and irritable commuters to Tiger, Tiger off Piccadilly Square, where EA was hosting a plush, purple-lit review code event for Shadows of the Damned, a joint collaboration from Japanese auteurs, Shinji Mikami and Goichi Suda, aka Suda51.
So, once we had nested ourselves in a leather booth surrounded with ample amounts of provision, we grabbed hold of the nearest controller and dived in.
A Rude Awakening
Shadows of the Damned isn't exactly subtle. Whereas quite a few po-faced titles prefer a gentle build-up, Suda51 and Mikami throw you right into the thick of it. As Garcia 'Fucking' Hotspur, demon-hunter and lover of purple leather, you find yourself in a plush hotel corridor, following the screams of your captured love, Paula.
You find Paula, hung from a ceiling fan, ostensibly dead. But to make matters worse, her corpse begins to writhe and throb, before a zombie-like creature bursts from her body, slavering at the toothed jaws, rotten flesh hanging from its skeletal, shuffling frame.
Armed with the Boner - a demonic pistol that fires shards of, you guessed it, bone - Garcia sets about avenging his dead wife. The demon is soon joined by its cohorts who crash through the plate-glass windows, but Garcia makes easy work of them, the combat simple if effective. However, before he can savor victory, Flemying, Lord of the Underworld, arrives on the scene, brandishing a giant staff and sporting six eyes. With Paula bent over in a suspicious position at his waist, Flemying proceeds to make a number of phallic jokes before hopping back to the Underworld, Paula in tow. As any good demon-hunter worth his leather would do, Garcia dives after them.
And so begins to the game proper. Introduced to Johnson, your demon ally who can take the form of a glowing, grinning skull when he's not a variety of phallic-themed weapons, you set off to find Flemying and rescue Paula's soul. But it won't be easy; Garcia is in their world now, and their scales are quite certainly tipped in their favor.
Shadows of the Damned is a pretty typical third-person shooter. Garcia controls reasonably well, charging down the cobblestone streets of the Underworld - reminiscent of a Dickensian fable gone bad - and armed with the fearsome Boner pistol. The Underworld is crawling with the zombie critters Garcia met earlier, who comprise the bulk of your encounters, but beware; they're not the only things lurking in the dark.
Darkness plays a key role in SotD. Demons thrive of it, and can summon immense walls of the stuff that swallow the land, plunging Garcia into a realm he cannot endure for long. However, scattered across the six acts are Goat Heads, perched on walls. Your Boner can fire a Light Shot which, when fired at a Goats Head, removes all Darkness from the area. It can also stun your enemies for a moment, should you wish to line up a stylish, slow-mo headshot.
Kiss My Big Boner!
Believe it or not; that's an actual line from the game. Shadows of the Damned takes an over-the-top approach to just about everything. Garcia is a larger than life character, imbued with just enough heart and bravado to be likable, whereas pal Johnson's supposed wit is a little grating. Their an amicable duo, however, helped along their journeys by One-Eyed William, a ghost sprite from Ukraine who drops glowing lumps of feces that act as checkpoints. As you do.
Shadows of the Damned is a little slow to get going, despite all the ridiculous world-building. But once it hits its stride, it's quite thrilling really. Garcia is still chasing Paula's spirit across the Underworld, although it's unclear whether this is really her, or a cruel hoax summoned by Flemying or some other cruel chap.
In Act Two, Garcia finds himself in a meat market, where Paula - now decapitated - is searching for her head. She has a habit of birthing demons, however, as another monster rips itself free from her torso. George, however, is no mere cannon fodder. A VIP, according to Johnson, before a tense boss-fight ensues as you lure George around the meat market, detonating light-barrels so you can hammer away at his exposed glowing weak-point. Japan has a bit of an obsession with those.
Bigger, Better, More Barmy
Shadows of the Damned is quite mad. I've already told you that? Well, it's worth reiterating. You encounter George once more, but he decides to rip out his own heart and swallow it, transforming him into a giant goat-headed monster who summons a decidedly odd horse to ride around on. You'll also encounter Christopher, a half-breed demon wearing a spider-like array of glowing lamps. Speaking in an inexplicable Southern accent, Christopher rewards you with items and ammo in exchange for White Gems, the Underworld's currency of choice.
Oh, and things are a little different down there. Alcohol, instead of battering your liver and forming dependencies, actually heals you. Tequila is strong; Sake is even better. Oh and the lost souls of children are fused permanently to doors, and only let you past if you treat them to specific provisions, be it strawberries - apparently a demon-made food comprised of ground-up tongues - or brains and eyeballs.
Thankfully, Mikami and Suda51 juggle the ridiculous with the fun. For every stupid moment, there's an awe-inspiring set piece. Like in Act Three, when Garcia ascends a cathedral by swinging a giant chandelier around and around. The visuals take a plunge when the scale expands, but it's thrilling stuff nonetheless. Around Act Four, the game gets positively barmy, with random 2D shooter segments filling up portions of the game, with a floating Garcia traversing a paper-mache pastiche of the game itself. It's weird and it's wonderful.
Overall, Shadows of the Damned shows a lot of promise, despite a myriad of flaws and shortcomings. It's a curious mix of archaic design and bold, ridiculous ideas. But in a world of straight-faced, self-indulgent titles, it's nice to a see a developer let loose with the fun. We'll have a review for you very soon.