Suda 51, Akira Yamaoka, Shinji Mikami. When you hear those three names are coming together to give you some interactive media, you get your wallet ready. I admit to being hyped about Shadows Of The Damned before I thought it looked like an alright RE5 knock-off during the early trailers. But after playing the game it feels less like a copy-cat and more like a spiritual successor.
But there's more...ohhh...there's so much more. You see, Shadows Of The Damned, is the ,most entertaining third person action game I've played since Bayonetta...and that's saying a whole hell of a lot. Garcia Hotspur and Johnson have charmed me, the game play has me hooked, and it would have only taken *one* feature to skyrocket this mad tale above the games it stands firmly on the shoulders of.
tl;dr version: I love this game, needs stat tracking.
To me, Shadows Of The Damned deserves a special breakdown pre-review. Here's some information about the headliners behind this game.
Executive Director Suda 51
Goichi Suda's "Hello!" to North America was my #2 Favorite Game of All Time: Killer 7. From that moment on it was obvious we had a winner on our hands. He's worked on the gorgeous Samurai Champloo adaptation for the PS2, created No More Heroes, the ethereal Flower, Sun and Rain and even got his hands dirty with co-designing Super Smash Bros. Brawl's "Subspace Emissary" mode. Play any of his games and you'll get a sense that something's not quite right with this guy. In the best of all possible ways. He's a self-proclaimed punk game designer and his studio Grasshopper Manufacture has a way of delivering everything but what you'd expect in hardcore packages that leave you smiling.
Creative Producer Shinji Mikami
Mr. Mikami created Resident Evil and went on to work on God Hand, Devil May Cry, Dino Crisis, P.N. 03, Viewtiful Joe, Vanquish, Resident Evil 4, Onimusha, Phoenix Wright and more. What a resume! He's a king of the action arcade genre, after starting off as the king of survival horror. In a way he's defined the evolution from the slow-paced puzzle solving style of survival horror into the current style of high action shooting-gallery games we're now used to. And we love him for it. There are a few definable "styles" to Eastern Action games, and Shinji Mikami's is one of them.
Composer Akira Yamaoka
When you think "Silent Hill" you think Akira Yamaoka whether you like it or not. He started off as the series' composer and his music became legend. The haunting riffs of the absolutely incredible Silent Hill 2 Theme are hard to beat. His influence on the series peaked when he became a producer on the series. His music sets a tone like no other game composer can...a tone that can only convey the type of melancholy and doom that shrouds the darkest of mysteries. Prose? Sure. That's how his music makes me feel.
Shadows of the Damned contains direct, and easy to spot influences from all three of these men, from top to bottom. It's hard to imagine three unique visions coming together so sweetly, but looking at their track records it seems destined. I hope the breakdown helps convey how excited I was about this game's release, and why I think we should all be pretty excited to get our hands on it.
The game opens by tossing the player into the boots of Garcia Hotspur: badass demon hunter and boyfriend of Paula, who's been kidnapped by the Lord of Demons, who's name is Fleming. The damsel-in-distress is motivation enough for Garcia to leap into the underworld and demand his honey back. Along for the ride is Johnson, a magical, talking, flaming skull torch who morphs into the various weapons Garcia employs. The banter between Garcia and Johnson turns the game's plot hole riddled narrative into an enjoyable written buddy comedy, and once the dick jokes get spaced out a little there's actually a lot to enjoy when listening to G and J bicker and tease each other.
The denizens of Shadows Of The Damned are dangerous and hysterical. As Garcia and Johnson track their way through the underworld, they face dangers from lower and higher demons, including savage demon VIPs (Bosses). The VIPs each have their own storybooks hidden in the game that explain their history, and little about why they're demons in the first place. The storybooks delighted me with their artwork, and the narration provided by Garcia/Johnson was appropriately dramatic/funny when need be. The monstrously cheerful shopkeeper Christopher rounds out the cast, and was probably my favorite character in the game. A little one eyed monster named William (Yes, "One-eyed Willy") is your checkpoint man, dropping a deuce every time you wake him up and saving your game. It's charming, in a Beetlejuice sort of way.
Combating the citizens of Hell is fun as...hell. The three weapons each have a special mode/feature that helps in specific situations, and as they evolve throughout the game they change from three similar acting firearms to three totally unique weapons of demon destruction. You can feel games like Vanquish and Resident Evil 5 in the controls of this game as you instantly dodge in any direction, and perform melee attacks against crates and enemies with Johnson. Garcia's got a great "blind side" attack for handling enemies behind him, and when you get in the thick of it working through rooms full of foes is a joy. Using the Light Shot and Hot Boner bomb shot is essential, I found, for stopping enemies in their tracks and cleansing them of darkness, and you'll find yourself defaulting to the Hot Boner (Garcia's pistol) for most of the game. The few puzzles in the game are easily solved, and the "Red Keycard, Red Door" system helps pad out the progression, lacking the finesse of a truly puzzling game (see Resident Evil). Ultimately it's about balancing combat with darkness wrangling, and when it works it's hot.
The setting is hell, and the graphics take you there. Littered around the scenery are the heads of lost souls, their bodies are used as support for the beams of the structures. There's blood everywhere as well as bones, garbage and other trash. The animations are as gruesome as the enemies themselves, and while each of Garcia's deaths seems to be a little comical in nature the path to his death is filled with blades to dodge and demons to kill. There are halls and pathways in the darkness that have you running through phantom dimensions, and each one is more twisted than the last. One great loop the game threw me for was a side-scrolling shooter segment, complete with story book graphics and music to match. It was a charming change of pace from the high-res slaughter-fest, and its strangeness just added to the appeal. I never got tired of looking at Shadows Of The Damned, that's for sure.
And the music! Akira Yamaoka outdid himself here. There's stylings of Silent Hill with the discordant boss music, laced with screams and wails. But I also could sense some No More Heroes in there. The loading screen music is charming (and I saw it a lot...I tended to die a bunch during the end of the game), and the in game soundtrack is on par with Yamaoka's best work. The prolific Steve Blum (Cowboy Bebop's Spike) provides the voice of Garcia, and the voice acting in the game is high quality. Even when you hear "Taste my big boner!" a hundred, thousand goddamn times during, thankfully, the only Big Boner segment in the game, it at least sounds good. The voice actress who does Paula gets points for creeping me out.
Now, unfortunately, here's where the ride that is Shadows Of The Damned starts to derail for me. The game only took me about 7 hours to get through its 5 acts. It just feels short. As you play you can find and buy red gems to upgrade your arsenal, but I hadn't fully upgraded anything at all by the time I beat the final boss. There's only three guns, but the guns evolve enough during the game to have three unique uses for several enemy types/forms/situations so I never really wanted more from them. Each upgrade had substantial effect but still...I didn't really feel like I'd made much progress on the upgrade tree, even after finding all the red gems I could and buying them every time I had the money. There were also some moderate graphical bugs such as screen tears or stuttering video Mostly minor complaints, though, as the game play itself was interesting and fun. The ride was great...it just ended so fast. Like a roller coaster.
My main gripe with the game, however, is the total and complete lack of online/competitive/record keeping features. I don't mean online coop or multiplayer, I just wanted a leaderboard at least. Maybe some challenge rooms? It was the one influence I think this game missed, from games like Resident Evil. There's just enough room in Shadows Of The Damned to fit in something that keeps track of your time compared to others playing the game, or your accuracy, or how many enemies you killed...but there's none of that. It's such a thin experience, without any utilization of the technology it's running on, and I could feel it. It reminded me a little of my feelings playing Portal 2, but at this point I think Portal 2 is more worth keeping at least. Shadows Of The Damned is solely single player adventure, and silly as it sounds, it suffers a little for it. And for those who care: the ending was fast, very fast...but worth sticking through. Still, when I'd finished the game I felt like I had absolutely no reason to play it again. That doesn't sit well for a $60 purchase.
Shadows Of The Damned is a wild ride. A well scripted, beautifully realized ride that ends all too soon. Suda51, Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamaoka came together and delivered, though, and that alone stands for something. Shadows Of The Damned is for those who love their story, love their high action, and love a little strange in their games. For a good time, call Garcia Hotspur and ask him about his Boner.