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[Review] Shadows of the Damned June 23, 2011

Posted by baconsamurai in Review.
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It’s impossible to look at Shadows of the Damned and ignore its pedigree, and when you have a game made by a dream-team of Japanese developers like Suda51 (No More Heroes, Killer7), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil, Vanquish), and music by Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill), why would you?

You play as a demon hunter, Garcia Hotspur. When Fleming, the lord of the dead, becomes fed up with you killing his minions, he personally whisks your girlfriend Paula away to Hell. Accompanied by a shapeshifting magical skull named Johnson, you head into the underworld to save your damsel and put a bullet between each of Fleming’s six eyes.

More after the jump.

The game is a third person shooter, similar to Resident Evil 4. Enemies are quite agile, charging, sidestepping, and often giving you a very small window to line up a shot. To aid this, Garcia can move whilst aiming and execute a very effective dodge roll.

On the weapon front, Garcia has Johnson, his floating skull sidekick who transforms into a pistol, a shotgun/grenade launcher, and a machine gun. Defeating bosses rewards you with blue gems which transforms these normal weapons into over-the-top variants. By the end of the game your grenade launcher shoots man-sized explosive skulls and your machine gun sprouts dozens of snaking barrels, looking like a Beholder from D&D. Each gun is crafted for differing situations, both in and out of combat, ensuring that they all get used in equal measure. You can upgrade their stats with red gems you find, and each upgrade is a noticeable improvement. Plus all of the guns have the coolest reload animations I can recall.

What sets this game apart is it’s unique take on a dark vs. light mechanic. Darkness is a thick, inky barrier reminiscent of a Game Cube from Reboot. Once inside you gradually lose health. The game puts you in situations where you are not only forced into darkness, but have to enter it willingly. Shooting from inside the black is the only way to destroy switches or damage certain bosses. It gives battles and puzzles a sense of urgency that is fantastic. One pulse-pounding boss battle in particular ended by plunging you into pure darkness and having Garcia finish it off before you die yourself.

Darkness also shields enemies from your bullets and must be dispelled before they can be killed, similar to Alan Wake. Conveniently, all of your weapons have a Light Shot that can remove this coating from enemies as well as light lamps, floating angler fish, or goat heads that will brighten your path.

The majority of enemies you fight will be standard zombies that you can dispatch with a headshot. Larger enemies are a bit more complex, acting like enemies from Zelda games. Some require you to blow off their armor with a bomb, stun them with a Light Shot to expose their weak point, and so on. The enemy variety isn’t huge and too often the way they’ll up the challenge is to have you fight two of them.

A special commendation has to go to the presentation. Hell in Shadows of the Damned is depicted quite differently than it usually is in games, which often go to the bible, Milton, or Dante for inspiration. Here Hell is a world that has been sifted through the collective oeuvres of Tom Waits and David Lynch. This is a place where the demons live and work in Old-European towns with cobblestone streets lined with pubs.

What separates it is the world’s distinctly non-Hell-like elements, most notably the color. Blood glows at maximum red, contrasting with the green light of a nearby vending machine, or the bright blue of a bioluminescent flower garden. It’s garish, yet interesting, reminiscent of the film Hobo With A Shotgun.

The sound design is exemplary, with the noise of a goat chewing cud a sign of safety or the Cajun mumblings of the angler fish. The phenomenal first boss, who breathes through an out-of-tune harmonica, is terrifying to hear, and even moreso when you can’t.

Suda51: "Hey, let's make a game about this guy!

Double entendres and jokes about male genitalia fly fast and frequent, with lewd gestures applied to nearly every action. With the exception of one level in Hell’s red light district, Garcia and Johnson’s excellent voice acting and great chemistry prevents even the most puerile banter from becoming cringeworthy.

The music by Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka, is his best to date. A combination of spanish guitar, heavy toms, and metal riffs that takes inspiration from Robert Rodriguez movies. The credit song with it’s electric guitar and vocals straight out of a James Bond theme deserves additional praise. All in all, the music is flawless throughout.

However, unlike the music, the game itself is inconsistent. Similar to Mikami’s previous outing, Vanquish, moments of brilliant, inspired game design are immediately followed by something slapdash. The excellent art direction and foreboding atmosphere of the first act gives way to generic dark forests and nondescript tunnels, and much of the sense of terror goes with it.

Pathos-rich storybooks can be found that tell the tales of the bosses you’ve just brutally murdered, giving them humanity. They’re fantastic, but an implied connection is never realized or explored. One recurring character is noticeably misused, with a story that lacks the tragedy of the others and a final confrontation relegated to a side-scrolling shooter parody.

Thankfully, the final chapter is a return to form, tonally, aesthetically, and gameplay wise, with a phenomenal endgame. In fact, if it wasn’t for the final moments, the wonderful ending would have ranked up with Shadow of the Colossus.

Like No More Heroes before it, tedium and repetition were balanced by the memorable boss fights, characters, and story. As a singular experience, it exceeded the sum of it’s parts, and becoming something extraordinary. Shadows of the Damned is no different. Despite the weak middle, its great characters, awesome guns, clever puzzles, and trippy aesthetic makes Paula a girl worth fighting for.

Shadows of the Damned was reviewed on the Playstation 3 and played to completion on normal difficulty.



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