Shadows of the Damned wears what it is right on the sleeve of its slick leather jacket: it’s a demon killing game with lots of dark humor and some wicked combat. I don’t know what it is the team at Grasshopper Manufacture drinks or eats to make them think of such twisted visions and jokes, but what they’ve done in Shadows of the Damned is some of their best work. Devoid of any major gameplay problems outside of a few poorly implemented level segments, taking a trip to the Underworld with your demon buddy in search of your one true love is extremely fun and for that I think people who enjoy out of the box games or cult films like Evil Dead owe it to themselves to play Shadows of the Damned.
+ Grasshopper Manufacture + Shinji Mikami is a good combo since the core shooting mechanics of SOTD are fun and feel responsive.
+ I don’t think SOTD will be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like decapitated heads and an almost constant wave of dirty jokes then you’ll love what the story and writing has to offer.
+ The voice acting by actors Steven Blum and Greg Ellis is amazing and the soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka is an instant classic in my eyes.
+ The depiction of the Underworld and the design of the bosses offers a twisted yet often beautiful vision of utter madness.
- Some of the levels feel a bit too claustrophobic and static despite some of the amazing art design that’s offered.
- There are a couple of level segment which could’ve used some fine tuning since they’re less than fun to play.
There are some games that when you first go it and start playing you assume you already know everything that is to be expected from the game. Outside of plot developments and certain boss encounters I think it’s safe to say that when someone plays a game such as Metal Gear Solid they’re going to expect lots of stealth action, a heavy helping of military mumbo jumbo and perhaps some supernatural elements that are on the verge of being ridiculous. As a longtime fan of developer Grasshopper Manufacture and game designer Suda 51 I kind of had a general outline of what I was expecting from Shadows of the Damned. Over the course of the year I’ve seen quite a lot of elements from Shadows of the Damned which pointed to it having some familiar Grasshopper Manufacture trademarks but when I finally got my hands on the game I don’t think I was expecting the game to be as crazy as it is. If there was ever a video game that absolutely relished in how over-the-top it was and is destined to become as cult or iconic as some of the films it draws inspiration from it has to be Shadows of the Damned, which is a game built on being completely unexpected, fun, entertaining and is about as insane as you can be without being on an illicit substance.
Right from the moment it starts Shadows of the Damned is a game that puts you in a chair, straps you in and then proceeds to push you off a cliff onto a never ending roller coaster ride filled with absurd moments that would even shock the most ardent of Grasshopper Manufacture fans out there. With Shadows of the Damned being a game in which Suda 51 took on the role of Executive Director and left the core directing duties to GhM veteran Massimo Guarini I had the small feeling that the game would feel a bit tamer at times. I knew that GhM would never sell-out in a way and release a game that’s essentially a Japanese take on the 3rd person shooting genre with a few small things thrown in, but with EA serving as the publisher for the game I had a feeling that Grasshopper’s core style and knack for storytelling would be scaled back a bit if only to make the game appeal to a wider audience. Well I can thankfully confirm that Shadows of the Damned is 100% a Grasshopper Manufacture game and in some cases even goes beyond the realm of normalcy that was found in the No More Heroes franchise, which itself is saying a lot.
In a way Shadows of the Damned is very much a rollercoaster ride of sorts since it’s hard to stop and think about things instead of merely enjoying what’s happening and letting a wave of relaxation wash over you once the adventure is over. The game itself starts off in an almost no-frills sort of way by showing protagonist Garcia Hotspur finish off an already dying demon. Questions such as when does the game take place, how Garcia became a demon hunter and whether or not demons are known about in the human world are immediately pushed aside and honestly, with how much of an impact the opening sequence of the game is certain questions like those really don’t need to be addressed since the main goal is simple: save your girlfriend from a six-eyed demon lord named Fleming. Garcia of course needs to do whatever it takes to save his lovely girlfriend Paula and that means he’ll have to battle through the pits of the Underworld in order to reclaim his love.
The story for Shadows of the Damned stays very true to Grasshopper Manufacture’s previous games in two ways: it’s either going to be a love it or hate it scenario for the people who play it and secondly the game doesn’t care about keeping things level headed or normal by any means. We know that there’s a certain type of humor that GhM and Suda 51 is known for which at times can revolve around variations of toilet humor, jokes involving the size of a guy’s penis and pure black comedy that can include horrific yet funny acts of violence being committed. Within the first five minutes of the game it’s pretty safe to know what the tone of the game is as Fleming and Garcia engage in a debate over whose “weapon” is bigger (during this scene Fleming almost sensually strokes his massive rocket launcher) and a demon emerges from Paula’s back. So yeah, Shadows of the Damned is pretty damn crazy but the first five minutes doesn’t hold a candle to later sections which involve a demon peeing or Johnson (Garcia’s demonic ally who happens to be his primary weapon) commenting on Paula’s lingerie attire.
Garcia and Johnson encounter Paula in this cutscene.
There were times when I was honestly a bit shocked about what happened in Shadows of the Damned, but the core story itself is well written even if it’s a bit light at times on actual specifics or moving beyond it being the adventures of Garcia & Johnson as they witness the many deaths of Paula. Shadows of the Damned plays things a bit simpler in a narrative sense as there isn’t an immediate sub-layer of context as to the story of the game but there is still a certain self-awareness or obvious moments that are directly played for laughs, whether it’s an ode to Evil Dead (there’s an entire Evil Dead homage level) or Garcia reading a story that is a slightly twisted riff on the core themes of the Greek mythology tale of Icarus. As is always the case for GhM games the story is taken to another level by the voice acting which does an excellent job of selling some of the more ridiculous lines in the game. Johnson is already one of my favorite characters of all time as listening to actor Greg Ellis go into quips about demonic cousins or the state of the demon world is hilarious, both in the execution of the dialogue and the writing itself.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Shadows of the Damned is to date the best or at least most well rounded game Grasshopper Manufacture has made in respect to how it plays. Even those who admire GhM like I do know that at times certain elements in their games can be a bit frustrating or even feel broken to a degree but Shadows of the Damned basically feels like Resident Evil 4: Demon Hunter in Hell Edition. Such a statement may seem like it’s a knock towards the game, but it’s actually a compliment since I found it to be fun to blow away a demon head or slowly dismember it so I could go in for a brutal kill maneuver.
The influence or at least direction from Creative Producer Shinji Mikami is obvious in the game as Shadows of the Damned plays like a slightly faster Resident Evil 4. Shooting is handled the same way with L1 (on the PS3 version) bringing up your laser sight equipped gun and R1 taking care of business by firing out some punishment. Aiming in the game is pretty tight and I found it easy to take over targets once I got over the small curve that’s present in the game since the demons are far from being pushovers. I faced a lot of different enemies and bosses in Shadows of the Damned ranging from demons wearing helmets and complete body armor and I was surprised that they just didn’t plod towards me in an almost shooting gallery type way but would actually shift and jump to avoid fire or leap towards me. Even the most basic of enemies can dish out a good amount of damage to Garcia but after upgrading my weapons (both through stat upgrades and unlocking new mods after beating bosses) I had a fun yet more relaxed time of killing the many demonic hordes that stood between Garcia and his reunion with Paula. Shadows of the Damned isn’t too extravagant in the types of weapons that are offered in the game as it boils down to the basics of having a pistol, machine gun and a shotgun. But in typical GhM fashion these weapons are twisted a bit to a slightly more eccentric nature such as the Teether, Garcia’s machinegun like weapon which shoots demon teeth as bullets. There’s actually a whole angle in the game revolving around the Teether which I won’t spoil but almost everything in the game has a backstory or explanation to it which as usual is steeped in hilarity and being slightly unorthodox.
Shooting demons is pure fun in Shadows of the Damned.
It’s good that the aiming mechanics and general gunplay of Shadows of the Damned is polished and fun since the game is a pure shooter through and through. There are a few moments in the game where things switch up suddenly like Garcia having to stay in the light cast by a creature affectionately dubbed the Sushi Lamp or avoid the killing kiss of a deranged Paula as she chases him, a moment which was a low point for me from a design game perspective. Shadows of the Damned is mostly all about shooting demons in various ways and because of that it’s fun. But there one’s element I do feel like I need to bring up which is the mechanic between the light and the dark. Now since the game takes place in the Underworld, which oddly enough looks like a European town, things aren’t always what they appear to be and at times Garcia will find himself overpowered by the darkness which not only depletes his health but changes the look of the world. One minute I found myself walking through a nicely lit town but then all of a sudden everything was cast in a dark bluish hue as either a demonic hand or three-headed blood spewing mechanical device came out of the ground. The light and dark sections of the game only come up in a few cases in which Garcia needs to unlock a gate or in a few cases defeat a boss by damaging a weak point. I would’ve liked to seen a more interactive way in how Garcia could control or at least enter the dark world but the concept and mechanics offered in the game do lend another layer of rich detail to an already unique premise as it just creates a nice sense of atmosphere and at times absolute dread.
Since I mentioned how Garcia would sometimes need to use the dark world in order battle the bosses I guess I might as well fill y’all in more on those. Following the somewhat familiar trappings that the core shooting mechanics of the game are wrapped up in, Shadows of the Damned goes old-school as the boss battles require you to do one simple thing: shoot the big red spot. There are a few instances in which it’s required to do specific things in order to damage an enemy, but as far as battle strategy is concerned I only found myself having to equip one core weapon and then proceed to shoot the red spots on an enemy until it was finally down for the count or in some brutal cases actually gets decapitated. It may sound disappointing that there isn’t much else to the boss battles in Shadows of the Damned, but the battles featured in the game were still fun since they’re so diverse in their set piece design. One boss battle had me facing off against a demonic entity in goat form riding atop a horse like creature while another battle had me facing right off against one of the Sisters Grim, who indeed was wielding a scythe. The boss battles may be fairly old-school and simple in how it’s required to defeat an enemy (which oddly enough is mentioned in a self-referential quip by Johnson) but things never got too boring or by the numbers for me.
As much as I liked the world of Shadows of the Damned and the accompanying carnage and jokes that are present in it, I was a bit disappointed by how linear and closed off everything felt. Grasshopper Manufacture has mostly given us linear games in the past but there was just something a bit too claustrophobic about how Shadows of the Damned felt at times in how Garcia was either completely rigid and couldn’t move over certain objects or was always going on the path from point A to point B. During certain points in the game I was surprised at certain features or elements of the levels such as the inclusion of demon pube gates, but things at times felt like I was playing more in a small box of sorts than a large scale demon world with various nooks and crannies for me to explore. Certain levels are spiced up by the sudden inclusion of things that Garcia needs to do or avoid such as the previously mentioned crazy Paula sequence, but over time I found it to be clear that there wouldn’t be any sudden shifts or changes in scope as I was always in a confined locale with some demons that needed to be killed. My complaints about the linear or restrictive level design in Shadows of the Damned aren’t rooted in me wishing I could play GTA: Demon Hunter Edition but are just based on how inventive the world is yet it feels a bit static or as if it’s merely a small backdrop of sorts with no greater importance.
One thing that also makes Shadows of the Damned the most advanced game Grasshopper Manufacture has done so far is that the game is visually striking at times. I won’t get bogged down in debating how GhM was “restricted” by the power of the Wii when they were developing the two No More Heroes games, but with Shadows of the Damned I felt that it was obvious that what I was playing was exactly what the team at GhM wanted to achieve or as close as they could based on the budget that was available to them. Graphically Shadows of the Damned isn’t a complete stunner as its implementation of the Unreal 3 Engine does result in a few issues, the biggest of which is slow texture loading when a stage is first booted up. Even in the pits of the Underworld there’s nothing more terrifying than seeing a crop of textures slowly load on a character model in a ten second time span. But outside of graphical hiccups, Grasshopper Manufacture has really taken things to the next level as a studio since Shadows of the Damned is really beautiful at times. There’s never anything too crazy happening on screen such as Garcia battling twenty-five demons at once, but the design of Hell which is part European city with hints of modern touches with neon signs abound combined with forest sections really managed to stick out to me thanks to how GhM went about executing their vision. I could probably talk about how twisted some of the demon designs are, but I’ll just say that the desired effects of making someone shocked upon seeing a demon infused with a harmonica in his mouth take out his own heart were indeed met and for that I think Grasshopper Manufacture should be proud.
There are a great many things in Shadows of the Damned that I could discuss and examine but the one last thing I will touch upon is the music. With composer Akira Yamaoka at the helm I think people who are familiar with his work won’t be surprised to hear that the soundtrack for Shadows of the Damned is godly throughout the entirety of the game. In a way Shadows of the Damned is an old-school 1970s horror film in video game form and some of Akira’s compositions certainly give off that horror vibe or build upon some of the core traits that he established during his run in the Silent Hill franchise. Akira really doesn’t stick to one core theme or style of music for the entirety of the game as there were plenty of purely orchestral tracks in addition to those with a more Spanish flair to it or those that were entirely rock based since we all know that demon hunting is incredibly gnarly. I was amazed by the almost eccentric moments that Akira’s score managed to have and thoroughly enjoyed every single second of music that played in the game as it’s one of the best soundtracks to appear in a game this year.
Shadows of the Damned isn’t a perfect masterpiece of the game which will soon be placed on the pantheon of great titles for all to admire and appreciate. There are a few rough spots in the game like some weird animation glitches and level design that may not please everyone, but like some of the films Shadows of the Damned takes inspiration from, it’s not hard to look past these flaws and just appreciate the game for what it is: an over-the-top action that is morbid in almost every possible way but is still humorous and completely original. I think Shadows of the Damned will certainly please the many fans of Grasshopper Manufacture that are out there, but if you also enjoy the works of directors such as Robert Rodriguez and Paul Verhoeven then you’ll likely enjoy Shadows of the Damned since it puts a twisted new coat of paint on the all-too familiar 3rd person action genre. Best of all, how can you not enjoy or at least be interested in a game in which a giant demon pees into a fountain? That’s just the tip of the iceberg of absurd moments in Shadows of the Damned and that’s why it’s already one of my most memorable games of 2011.