Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language]
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I’ve never felt more like I should have a bottle of tequila in one hand and a cheap stripper in the other than while playing Shadows of the Damned. It’s grungy in the best way possible–a video game version of From Dusk ‘Till Dawn that provides a unique and unrestrained road trip through hell. While the gameplay isn’t as original as the setting, this game deserves attention because, like SUDA 51’s previous games (Killer7, No More Heroes, and others), there just isn’t anything else like it.
Shadows provides just enough story to show you lots of blood, demons, and recurring images of a blonde in lingerie. You play as Garcia Hotspur. Demons have kidnapped your girlfriend. You have to get her back (are you a bad enough dude?). To do so, you team up with Johnson, a floating skull that both cracks wise and morphs into guns with equally suggestive names like “Big Boner.”
Occasional dick jokes are sprinkled in the game’s banter between Garcia and Johnson, which is genuinely funny and will make you laugh more than once. Other elements give Shadows of the Damned incredible personality, such as giant storybooks that tell a one-off ghost story (with commentary from Johnson and Garcia). I won’t spoil anything else, but there are so many curiosities and wonders sprinkled around Shadows’ version of hell that the game becomes a great road trip. In fact, it’s even declared as such by the protagonist at the game’s outset.
The meat and potatoes of Shadows’ gameplay isn’t as unique as its setting. In practice, the game feels like a mishmash of Resident Evil 4 and Devil May Cry, which is not at all surprising considering the game’s Creative Producer, Shinji Mikami, developed both games. Aiming, shooting, and moving is nearly identical to RE4. An over-the-shoulder camera tightens to Garcia when you pull up to aim, and a laser sight on every weapon shows you where your shots will land. Levels are typically pieced together from arenas that lock shut when you enter, only opening when you’ve dealt with all the baddies in the area (there’s the Devil May Cry influence).
Certain areas of the environments are shrouded in darkness, which turns demons invulnerable and leeches life from Garcia while he’s inside. You can chase the darkness away by firing a light shot at candles mounted on a living goat’s head (yep). You face tense situations in which you have to sprint through darkness to fight your way back to the light. The game builds on this mechanic as it progresses, introducing demons that are killed instantly by darkness or switches that you can only hit while inside the black stuff. The darkness mechanics modernize the game somewhat, but blasting waves of demons in Shadows still feels slightly behind the curve.
And, as you might expect in a SUDA 51 game, there are numerous retro nods. Power-ups come in the form of giant multicolored gems, and gate keys take the form of giant strawberries and eyeballs. Boss encounters are a particularly enjoyable blast from the past, as they toss you against a giant demon nightmare with nothing more than experimentation to find the weak points. Sometimes they’re as obvious as a giant red circle, and other times you have to pull of a specific chain of moves just to expose a weakness. This was a tad frustrating to start, but makes eventual victory much more rewarding.
The vision of hell in Shadows is without comparison. Neon signs mix with European architecture to produce a visual cross between a vice-ridden Mexican border town and a demon-invested Transylvania. Every scene is drenched with originality, from the disturbing monsters to the demonic strip clubs. The use of color is equally excellent, with vibrant purples and greens infusing character in to what’s all-too-often decorated with only bones and blood. There are some telltale Unreal Engine signs though, such as jarring texture pop-in.
Akira Yamaoka of Silent Hill fame lent his talents to Shadows, and it shows. The soundtrack is filled with his mellow-but-uncomfortable guitar tunes, occasionally jumping to driving combat tracks that incorporate unsettling sounds like stuttered screams and breaking glass. The soundtrack from Shadows is easily my favorite of Yamaoka’s work, and I already hope they release it separately from the game. Sound effects are equally excellent. Demons scream as they chase you and the parade of disgusting sounds that are indigenous to the demon world are a delight to hear. If you’ve never heard thirty heads rolling downhill, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Shadows of the Damned is a fantastic road trip through hell, but be aware of what that means. You see some crazy sights, meet some insane characters, and have a lot of fun, but once the trip is over, it’s over. If you’re jaded with recent shooters or just want to see what crazy shit falls out of SUDA 51’s head this time around, Shadows is everything you could want.