Shadows of the Damned Review
Written : Tuesday, June 21, 2011
By: Dan Webb
If you have an affinity for over-the-top and in-your-face male characters who lead the way with testosterone and are armed with one hell of a potty mouth, then 2011 has you covered. Whether you’re talking the Duke from Duke Nukem Forever or the entirety of the Bulletstorm cast, it’s clear that there seems to be a bit of a revival this year. Next up to the plate, Shadow of the Damned’s male lead, Garcia Hotspur, or as he’d like to put it, “Garcia fucking Hotspur,” and his sidekick, Johnson, who are full of one-liners from start to finish, including “Motherfucking shit on a stick!!” and “Well, that killed my stiffy!” In fact, it’s not just the characters that have potty mouths, the rest of the game pretty much has more penis innuendo than Bedknobs and Broomsticks! That, believe it or not though, is part of the draw of Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil) and Suda 51’s (No More Heroes) latest title. It’s a title that actually gets carried more often than not by its characters, the world its set in and the script, more so than its gameplay.
Shadows of the Damned is a third-person action adventure title, probably more akin to a third-person shooter in actual fact, that sees you take control of Garcia Hotspur as he heads into hell to save his girlfriend, Paula, from the grips of the Lord of Demons, Fleming. Armed only with his wits and his amusing shape-shifting demon friend, Johnson – who acts as his companion, melee weapon and entire gun arsenal – Garcia must battle through mind games, puzzles, huge hulking bosses and darkness on his way to Fleming’s castle to rescue his kidnapped lover – who incidentally he met in a supermarket dumpster!! Through 4 relatively long acts and 1 super short act, Garcia must use various light puzzles to advance and splat more demon skull than one is used to. With an epic soundtrack, which ranges from Spanish guitar riffs to quirky off-beat tempos that really set it aside from any other Japanese developed title, decent visuals, a pretty engaging story and a great cast of characters, it’s here where Shadows of the Damned shines.
In essence, Shadows is a typically developed Japanese game, but with more of a Western edge to it. What I mean by that is simple. The premise and depiction of hell that Grasshopper has created is as barmy as anything you’d expect from a Japanese developer, but in direct contrast to other titles developed in the region. It’s a hell of a lot more accessible than your Devil May Crys and Ninja Gaidens for instance. In short, it’s a shooter with a bit of melee combat and some acrobatic side-rolling involved, but with only three guns, the tools are always at your disposal to deal with the action at hand.
"Back off, or I'll shove this up your..."
I say three guns, but in essence there's really only one, and that’s Johnson. However, from pretty early on, Johnson is upgraded so that you have three main guns at your disposal: a handgun, an assault rifle and a shotgun – each with completely barmy names like the Hotboner, the Teether and the Skullcushioner respectively. Throughout the game then, usually by defeating bosses, players can pick up and use blue crystals – I say can, but you have no choice really – to upgrade each of those guns, which either amps up their power or adds a handy alternative fire to them. That’s about as complex as it gets. Even the upgrade and economy system is fairly simple, with you getting white gems for killing fools which you can then spend on either ammo, alcohol – which is the game’s health pick-up – or on red gems. Red gems incidentally can be spent on upgrading the gun – its damage, its reload times and its capacity – or on upgrading Garcia’s health, his melee charge or even his Light Shot – an important tool that dispels darkness and is pivotal for pretty much all of the game’s puzzles.
From a gameplay perspective though, things aren’t quite as rosy as the game’s vision and its story delivery. Controlling like a Resident Evil clone – where you can strafe and fire though – Shadows of the Damned’s gun-toting gameplay starts on the same note and ends on the same note, rarely deviating from the formula within. Sure, there may be a few unique 2D scrolling levels in the middle of the fourth act that were a nice addition and welcome change of pace, but otherwise it’s a case of: remove the darkness – either by solving some puzzle that has you hitting a switch or removing their darkness cloak with the Light Shot – and then decimate the opposition. It’s decent enough to pick-up and play, but it’s about as deep as the shallow end of a Smurf’s swimming pool.
Like Resident Evil as well, the controls can be a little clunky at times, although unlike most Japanese developed games, even on the hardest difficulty, the action is rarely challenging… well, until the last boss that is. Even the big boss fights throughout have huge arrows – in the shape of red globules – on them telling the player where to shoot. It’s a level of hand-holding that’s never really come from a Japanese developer before. They do make a decent enough attempt to offer a reason for this, but the truth is that each boss fight is a matter of shooting at the red stuff and constantly rolling until you have a free shot. Hardly brain surgery. Throw in a few awkward and unforgiving checkpoints, and unskippable cutscenes that usually precede boss fights, and it’s clear that Shadows of the Damned has more than a few hang-ups.
"Do you smell something burning?"
As I just briefly touched upon, the only real sticking point for players playing on hard will be one of the final boss sequences, which is completely unforgiving and a lengthy and painful state of affairs. The problem isn’t that it’s difficult, it’s that it generally does seem fairly impossible to do – i.e. causing enough damage in one of the final boss’ last evolution stages to finish him off – and I found myself fighting the same boss for well over 6 hours, only dying 3 times. In the end I just gave up and conceded defeat as I was seemingly going around in circles, with nothing working. The worst thing is, if you get there and discover you can’t do it, there’s no switching the difficulty over to complete the game either as you can only do that at the start of a new game! It’s a massive design flaw if you ask us and one that is pretty unforgiveable for a video game developed in the 21st century.
While the gameplay might not be breaking new ground and can be a little clunky at times, it’s the game’s repetition and lack of longevity that truly hold the game back. Instead of mixing things up too much, Grasshopper falls into the age old of trick of lazy game development as well by dressing up the same standard enemies, but in armour to offer something new. Considering this is a single-player experience, with somewhere in the region of 10-12 hours of gameplay, that really isn’t good enough. The fact that the game has zero replayability too and nothing to keep you at the controller long after the credits have rolled, it’s hard to sit here and say that you must rush out and buy this title as soon as you can. It may have a charming little story, a good cast of characters and decent enough gameplay, but the truth of the matter is that there’s very little here other than that. It’s a play-in-one-sitting-and-return game if ever there was one – granted, it’s a long sitting!
"Have at thee foul creature!"
For a single-player charged game, Shadows of the Damned doesn’t really do much wrong from an achievement perspective, but what it does wrong is catastrophic and unforgiveable. Sure, there might be a few too many mission achievements, but there’s a few cool weapon achievements that evoke a certain sense of joy when you actually unlock them. The harder difficulty – considering it’s a Japanese game – is more than doable for most gamers of varying skill levels, although the last boss is a proverbial pain in the Johnson, but it loses a vast amount of points because the difficulty achievements aren’t stackable. Something that is unforgiveable for a system that has been around longer than Rastamouse. Because of that, you’re looking at a relatively lengthy 1,000 points and it must be said, making you replay the game 3 times is utterly disgusting and damn right lazy games development, which has obviously been done to artificially lengthen a relatively short experience.
With Shadows of the Damned though, Grasshopper nearly has the makings of a franchise that could have a decent future. It does lack replayability and longevity though, and with some repetitious gameplay mechanics in terms of shooter and puzzle action, it’s by no means a perfect start. In truth, if it wasn’t for the likeable cast of characters, engaging story and Grasshopper’s unique take on hell, Shadows of the Damned would almost certainly be a complete let-down. That being said though, it is an enjoyable romp while it lasts and although it doesn’t scream “buy me!!” from the outset, it is worth a run out just to sample the delights of this year’s unlikely duo – a guy named Garcia and his shape-shifting Johnson.
The acting can feel a little wooden at times, but Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack is nothing short of excellent. They were obviously aiming for an iconic soundtrack with a Tarantino edge and they achieved that quite easily.
There’s a decent amount of diversity in terms of environment, but it’s a bit of a one-trick pony, with most levels being so dark that it doesn’t really matter what they put there as you’ll likely miss it. It’s a pretty original depiction of hell though, so bonus points there.
Although it’s often marred by clunky player movement, Shadows of the Damned is a decent third-person shooter from a control perspective. Nothing more, nothing less.
A great little story and a solid cast of characters, but with buckets of repetition and no real replayability, Shadows of the Damned will be on the shelf gathering dust before you can say “Well, that killed my stiffy!”
Shadow’s achievement list places a little too much emphasis on story achievements and possibly not enough on the cool weapon kill achievements that are dotted throughout. It’s a very decent achievement list on the whole, but with only a single-player campaign to speak of, they obviously ran out of ideas. Oh, and then they screwed it all up by not stacking the achievements, which is minus at least 50 marks!
Shadows of the Damned is an enjoyable experience while it lasts, but with only an engaging story and likeable cast of characters really leading the charge, you’re going to feel short-changed when it comes to the rest of the game. With zero replayability and buckets of repetition, it’s likely that the less than stellar gameplay won’t be enough to tempt you back after the credits have rolled either. It’s definitely a renter, but whether there’s enough there to tempt you to part with your cash is highly questionable.