Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: EA Games
It's not often we're treated to work from not just one, but two esteemed auteurs of a particular craft. The upcoming Tintin film has cinema legends Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson teaming up, and I suppose we can count David Cameron and Nick Clegg as a decidedly odd power partnership. The point is; heaping established names atop of a product generates a certain amount of expectation accordingly.
So when Shadows of the Damned begins with a sweeping title credits sequence proudly declaring the names Shinji Mikami - creator of Resident Evil and Devil May Cry - and Goichi Suda - otherwise known as Suda51, the cult-classic developer of No More Heroes - it's difficult to remain objective. But do big names make a great game?
Before You Die, Demon...
I'll cut to the chase; Shadows of the Damned is insane. You're armed with a pistol dubbed The Boner - which, incidentally, expands in length when you dial a demonic sex-line - your best friend is a flaming demon skull named Johnson - geddit? - and you'll breathe a huge sigh of relief when you spot a ceramic goat's head perched on a wall, nibbling nonexistent cud.
You step into the boots of Garcia Hotspur, a leather-clad demon hunter whose dived head-first after his love, Paula, whose soul has been snatched away by Flemying, the demon lord of the Underworld. Garcia finds himself in a quaint village, all cobblestones, gas-lamps and festering corpses, following wayward visions of Paula as he carves a bloody path across the Underworld.
Which isn't a welcoming place, for your information; especially for a demon-hunter like Garcia. It's crawling with shambling critters, hulking monstrosities and intermittent waves of flesh-devouring darkness. But Garcia isn't alone, aided in his quest by the aforementioned Johnson, a helpful demon guide who can transform into all manner of weapons and provides helpful tips and comic relief; in a stilted English accent, no less!
Kiss My Big Boner!
Shadows of the Damned is a typical third-person shooter with no real gimmicks or twists. You'll guide the somewhat stiff Garcia down linear passages carved across the various environments - which range from medieval villages to neon-soaked sex cities - blowing apart demons with rudimentary controls. Gunplay is meaty and visceral, and your enemies come in a variety of flavors, some who lob projectiles from Pyramid Head-esque maws to hulking cyclops who require cunning minds to defeat.
It's the Darkness that separates Shadows of the Damned from your run-of-the-mill shooter. Walls of the swirling, black-blue stuff descend on you at select moments, imbibing enemies with a nigh-unbreakable shield and threatening to eat Garcia alive if he can't find an animated goat's head perched on a wall. Yes; a goat's head. Goats, obviously, are a sign of light in the Underworld, and hitting one with a charged Light Shot fired from your weapon purges the nearby area of Darkness.
It's a great mechanic, and instills a sense of dread in what would otherwise be a pretty uninspired experience. Garcia is robust and capable, his health replenished by a quick swig of tequila or sake - alcohol in the Underworld cures ailments, rather than causing them - and his weapons are in a constant state of evolution, the shotgun eventually firing up to four punishing blasts at once. But he's helpless in the Darkness, and his enemies are made stronger, so when you're forced to wade into the stuff willingly to reach or achieve a certain objective, it's tense, to say the least.
Underworld Or Underwhelmed?
Shadows of the Damned is decidedly odd, an element I suppose we can attribute to Suda51. Mikami's work is evident in the shambling, zombie-esque demons and towering monstrosities, but I'm almost certain we owe Suda credit for a boss-fight where you duel a demon who rides a festering steed farting lumps of Darkness, before he rips his own heart from his chest, devours it and grows several hundred feet tall, encrusted in glowing red weakpoints.
And it's the weird and the wacky that separates Shadows of the Damned from the competition. When you're swinging a giant chandelier around a cavernous cathedral to smash phallic-shaped furnishings, or dialing a sex-line to engorge your Boner pistol and trigger a turret-section where Garcia screams salacious one-liners like "Kiss My Big Boner!", you know you're bearing witness to something very great or very bad.
You see, Shadows of the Damned is divisive. For every cracking boss battle - which up the scale considerably - you'll grow frustrated with its dated design and generally poor story. Then they go and throw in a fantastic Evil Dead homage, replete with a cabin in the woods, and you're in love all over again. It's almost impossible to discern whether the humor is tongue-in-cheek or a genuine attempt at appealing to Western audiences. That said, Garcia is a charismatic lead, and his friendship with Johnson develops nicely. But don't get me started on Christopher, a half-demon merchant with pallid grey skin, horns and a Texan accent. Or the random 2D side-scrolling detours. Just... don't!
- Abundant with weird and wonderful pleasures
- Meaty, satisfying gunplay
- Striking imagery
- Poor story, generally bad writing
- Can feel overly linear and repetitive
- It'll prove very divisive
The Short Version: Shadows of the Damned is a tour de force of the weird and the wacky. It's positively dripping in great ideas and interesting quirks, but too often is Mikami and Suda's ambition undermined by dated design and rote objectives. It's not quite Shakespeare, but it has more heart and character than half the releases this year, and once its got its hooks in you, it's difficult to let go.