Shadows of the Damned Review

Shadows of the Damned (PS3, Xbox 360)
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Electronic Arts

Shadows of the Damned is a game that indulges in its idiosyncratic personality to varying degrees of success. When it is focused on adding new elements that varies the core gunplay, the game shines, but when it tries to craft radically different experiences, it falls apart. And when it is doing neither, as it does in the final act, it repeats old concepts entirely too much. Shadows of the Damned overly relies on its satirical stylistic sensibilities by being too radical and too content in the second half of the game that ruins the fantastic pacing of the first half.

Shadows of the Damned mocks the very gaming conventions it uses: doors are unlocked by feeding giggling demon babies brains, eyeballs, and strawberries; Willy the blue wisp marks your checkpoints by pooping and scurrying away; and different varieties of liquor replenish lost health. This satirical sense of style works to the games advantage – these aesthetic changes on tired concepts fill the world with a farcical levity. Even your gun is a transforming skull named Johnson – expect many phallic innuendos from this ally with a British accent (if he was not British I am pretty sure he would have been less endearing and more irritating). Think Navi for adults. These elements, combined with a hotheaded protagonist, Garcia Hotspur, and excessively violent and raunchy imagery, come together to make Shadows of the Damned the best example of pulp gaming. Suda 51, the executive director, is known for such ridiculous subject matter (No More Heroes, Killer 7), and this game is his finest, most accessible execution of his eccentric sense of style to date.

Shinji Mikami, the creative producer, previously directed the fantastic Resident Evil 4, so it comes as no surprise that the core gameplay of Shadows of the Damned is a third-person shooter in the same vein of his previous work. However, the combat is less rigid, giving players considerably more maneuverability – you can move while aiming and can also roll to dodge attacks. Because of these additions, enemies swiftly approach you, making combat intimate, fast-paced ordeals that are more action-oriented, with less of an emphasis on precise aiming. The three guns available to you all have their uses and can be upgraded in three categories: reload speed, damage, and ammo capacity. New functions are constantly being added to your arsenal, which prevents the limited selection from becoming stale. Occasionally the controls act irrationally – guns will shoot even though you aren’t pressing the fire button, switching weapons takes multiples presses, and the camera will infrequently resist your control – but the core gunplay mechanics provide such a visceral treat that these issues are easy to look past.

What separates Shadows of the Damned from its kin is its use of light and darkness mechanics. Demons thrive in the darkness while you languish in it, so finding a light source is vital for survival. Light sources, for whatever hilarious reason, take the form of goat heads that can be conveniently heard chomping on grass. Shooting these with your guns’ alternate light shot clears the darkness from the area. Darkness also sticks to enemies and makes them invincible, so you also have to shoot them with light shots to make them susceptible to fire. Moving light sources, in the form of anglerfish, enemies that attack the illuminated goats, and frequent boss battles are a few examples of how the simple darkness mechanics are manipulated with enemy designs and environments to create a variety of interesting situations that constantly engage.

Spectacularly horrendous levels punctuate the fourth act, marking the overall decline in quality that is to ensue. A breast-filled sniper level has you shooting at large enemies that steadily approach you. Because you cannot zoom in (what kind of sniper level restricts you from zooming in?), aiming from afar is overly difficult. The other issue is that you use the shoulder buttons to quickly switch between alleys where demons approach. This setup creates situations where enemies are in spots that you cannot aim, resulting in many unwarranted deaths. The premise of this stage is absurdly silly – Johnson, your gun, dials a sex hotline that, errr, elongates his shaft to transform himself into a sniper rifle – so it’s all the more disappointing that this amusing concept suffers from misconceived execution. And hearing Garcia yell, “Check out my BIG BONER!” after each shot fired certainly does not help matters.

While there is only one sniper level, there are three sidescrolling stages in the fourth act that are painfully mundane. Because Garcia inexplicably floats during these parts, they play like classic shooters, where the left stick controls movement and the right stick controls the direction of your bullets. Enemies appear based on your progression, so if you proceed too quickly, you will often be punished by unforeseen demons that will repeatedly damage you. The last stage pits you against a boss, which could have been fun if it did not take so long to kill her. The paper cutout visual aesthetics and incorporation of light and darkness mechanics hardly make these levels any more tolerable. Shoving all of these misguided stages in the same act absolutely destroys the pacing of Shadows of the Damned. If these conceptually interesting stages were further developed and strewn across multiple acts, they could have been highlights.

Shadows of the Damned never reaches its former glory after its first three extraordinary acts (although the first act does not really count). The fifth and final act lacks new concepts and mostly just repeats old ideas with increased difficulty and the penultimate boss battle is even an amalgamation of virtually every concept previously introduced rather than presenting a unique threat. What ends up happening is the second half of the game ends up feeling like a shell of what it originally was – even all of its initial quirkiness starts to grate, with each subsequent penis joke becoming more and more grating. These issues crop up because of stagnant gameplay – when Shadows of the Damned becomes complacent, unoriginal, and poorly designed, the entire experience unravels.

Despite its unremarkable second half, Shadows of the Damned is worth playing for its style alone. The sheer ridiculousness of ideas on display is staggering – a boss that poops darkness and a maniacal psychopath who only screams “FUUUUCK YOOOU!!!” are absolute highlights. Even if the more gameplay-centric ideas detract from the overall experience, seeing what new crazy concept lies ahead is a bizarre treat. There is a point in the third act where you climb on a chandelier and control its height and movement. It lasts for just a few minutes, but its incorporation and wackiness were clever and unobtrusive in a way that makes the more peculiar ideas feel tacked on. Shadows of the Damned shines when it subtlety integrates its outlandish style into the gameplay, which unfortunately happens less the more you play.

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