Shadows of the Damned Review
Featuring brain-eating baby heads, bleating goat busts, and a redneck demon shopkeeper, Shadows of the Damned is Suda 51’s most mainstream offering yet. Sure, this grindhouse-inspired trip through hell is twisted as all get out, even making EA’s last invitation to the nine circles, Dante’s Inferno, look like a day trip to Disneyland. But it’s still a far more accessible experience than his studio Grasshopper Manufacture’s previous mind-screwing entries, No More Heroes and Killer 7. It’s also their best game to date, one that will hopefully find an audience far beyond their established cult fan base.
You can’t discuss Shadows without first addressing the elephant--or, in this case, the darkness-defecating-horse-ridden-by-a-demon--in the room. First and foremost, Suda 51’s latest “trip” (says it right on the box) is over-the-top bonkers, beyond bizarre, and fitted for a straightjacket right out of the gate. On top of the aforementioned absurdities, it features guns named after private parts, living sushi that illuminate darkened paths, and a talking-skull-on-a-stick sidekick. Its humor, profane and juvenile, is also obsessed with both sides of the swimsuit area.
Despite being crazier than Charlie Sheen‘s and Lindsay Lohan‘s future lovechild, and as taken with toilet humor as a ten-year-old, it somehow works--dare I say…even brilliantly at times. Much of this can be credited to its self-awareness. Unlike Duke Nukem Forever, Shadows knows when it’s being dumb instead of funny, and it wants the player to laugh--or roll their eyes--right along with it. It’s not a quality easily articulated in words, but it’s best summed up like this: Shadows’ writing never made me cringe or feel embarrassed for the developers the way Duke’s sometimes did; it all just clicks in Shadows. It certainly doesn’t hurt that its genuinely funny moments--the boss baddie storybook-like fairytales are a laugh-out-loud highlight--prove the writers weren’t just relying on a copy of “101 Dick Jokes” when penning the script.
Shadows‘ insane style and punk rock presentation also manages to sidestep the pitfalls that have tripped up many other so-called “edgy” games. Unlike even Grasshopper’s previous titles, which tried a bit too hard to be crazy-cool, this one usually hits the sweet spot. It’s as overtly bizarre as their other offerings, but its content, whether shocking, silly, or scary, always services the story in some way. Okay, sure, drawing a connection between demon pubic hair and, well, anything is a bit of a stretch, but the crazy rarely feels like it’s there just for craziness’ sake. Whether it’s a blood-soaked freak bursting from the protagonist’s nearly-naked girlfriend or a cherubic baby face with an appetite for eyeballs, all the pieces feel like they fit into Shadows’ surreal puzzle.
While its story and presentation have style to spare, due in no small part to an outstanding score by Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka, Shadows‘ mechanics play it pretty safe. This isn’t a bad thing, especially for anyone who couldn’t get their head--or fingers--around Killer 7‘s and No More Heroes‘ non-traditional controls, but don’t expect the gameplay to follow the same nutty path as the narrative. It’s essentially a third-person shooter, sporting controls that will feel familiar to anyone who peered over Leon S. Kennedy’s shoulder in Resident Evil 4. This similarity is no doubt the result of that game‘s creator, Shinji Mikami, serving as a producer on Shadows.
As demon-hunter Garcia Hotspur, players will blast hell’s finest from behind a machine gun, shotgun, and pistol; well, technically, his wise-cracking, charming Brit of a sidekick Johnson transforms into these death-dealers when not acting as a melee torch. Following a mostly linear path, Garcia and his chatty, bodiless bloke also solve puzzles utilizing a light/dark mechanic. The “darkness”, an inky blue glaze that protects the underworld’s hordes, must be removed with a light shot--an alternate fire on all guns--before they can become permanent smears on the cobblestones. Some areas are consumed by this lack of light, forcing you to find an illuminating source before Garcia’s health bar depletes, while others require darkness in order to defeat its inhabiting foes. From simple progression puzzles to enemy encounters, this idea’s implemented pretty well and balanced nicely against the more run-and-gun action.
Shadows also injects some variety in the form of tension-amping areas where Garcia must hightail it from a possessed version of the girl he’s set out to save, old school-ish 2D sections, and, of course, chapter-capping encounters with big bosses. Like the level-to-level shooting, boss battles will also feel familiar, especially to anyone who’s aimed their sights at a glowing-red weak point on a towering monster. While the combat plays it pretty straight, Shadows seeps its style into the gameplay just enough to keep things interesting. Your arsenal, for example, doesn’t fire bullets, but instead uses bones, skulls, and teeth as projectiles. It can also be pimped, RPG style, by spending collected gems to increase reload speed, ammo capacity, and damage. Bigger perks, like the ability to fire four skulls simultaneously from the shotgun, are also earned automatically as you progress through the campaign.
Whether plowing through dozens of minions in minutes or dedicating a substantial stretch of time to taking down a more serious threat, you can count on being engaged by a gore-spewing variety of things that want to eat you. You’ll encounter gasmask-wearing demons, the Grim Reaper--which is actually a trio of sisters in Shadows’ world--and, my favorite, a dude who swallowed a harmonica in life, so now he wheezes disturbing tunes in death. Environments are similarly satisfying; early levels are evocative of creepy London streets where Jack the Ripper would feel comfortable wandering, while a later area turns hell into a Red Light District. In between, you’ll find the usual fire-and-brimstone aesthetic replaced by swamps, forests, caverns, and even an Evil Dead-inspired call-out.
Shadows is certainly not for everyone. Still, it’s far more accessible and appealing to the mainstream than Grasshopper’s last few games, while remaining super-satisfying for their faithful following. Familiar, but fun gameplay is expertly complemented by a production that must be experienced to be fully appreciated. If it’s not your thing, you’ll know in about 30 seconds. However, if an unapologetic blend of dark humor, hell-dwelling, damsel-saving, and demon-blasting sounds like a refreshing change of pace from all that save-the-world-as-a-space-marine stuff, then Shadows just may be what the witch doctor ordered.