More Boner Jokes than You Can Shake a Dick At
HIGH The interplay between Garcia and Johnson is often quite hilarious. I loved these characters, despite their inherent cheesiness. Oh, and the Evil Dead homage level.
LOW Avoiding a recurring enemy who instantly kills you when she touches you. The game's controls make that far more challenging than it should be at certain points.
WTF Seriously, this whole game is one giant WTF?!? moment.
The last time game creators Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil) got together, gamers were treated to Killer 7—one of the more bizarre and intriguing titles to appear on the Nintendo GameCube. While more a cult hit than a runaway success, Killer 7 opened to door for more of Suda 51's unique games to appear in America. After Killer 7 and the two No More Heroes games, many of us wondered if Suda would simply resort to making games that were weird for the sake of being weird.
When a creator develops a reputation for being different, oftentimes they'll go out of their way to live up to it. A truly visionary artist will be able to do that at will because it's part of who they are and how they see the world around them, but poseurs will eventually be outed as they cram any odd thing into their work in an attempt to keep it "different." Suda 51 is the real deal in this regard. Shadows of the Damned is filled with lots of weird gameplay ideas layered on top of the core third-person shooter mechanics (which are very reminiscent of Resident Evil 4 and 5), but they never feel tacked on. Sure, the addition of several side-scrolling 2D shmup stages is bizarre, but those levels are also a nice diversion. They feel organic and they breathe fresh air into what could have otherwise turned into a by-the-numbers shooter.
However, as an entire experience, Damned can be a bit vexing—it's sort of like playing Gears of War without the cover system if Gears had been made in 2001 and featured conventions from the 8-bit era. That might sound like a negative, but the reality is that Suda and Mikami have taken modern and ancient gaming mechanics and united them in an unholy matrimony that generally works. The game is bizarre, filled with raunchy humor, and mostly a blast to play.
Clearly, the game's greatest successes are the characters and the story. Players take control of Garcia Hotspur, a demon hunter who enters the bowels of Hell in order to rescue his lost love, Paula. Paula's been taken hostage by a mega-demon named Fleming, and it's up to Garcia and his disembodied talking skull head Johnson (insert countless dick jokes here…) to bring her back to the land of the living.
Garcia and Johnson are great characters—almost like a modern day Hope and Crosby (minus the musical numbers and with a lot more F-bombs) and the interaction between the two, while occasionally juvenile, gives the game laughs. Suda and Mikami realize that the constant barrage of cock jokes is silly and they run with it, winking and nudging the audience the whole way through. There are times where they still manage to push it too far (one level has Garcia shooting giant demons with a gigantic rifle held at crotch level while screaming about his "big boner," for example. Yes, it seems like a sort of twisted homage to Scarface's "say hello to my little friend," but the game runs the gag into the ground.), but overall it works. This isn't a serious game and the creators go to great lengths to remind the player of that at regular intervals.
Damned looks to other inspirations for many of its gameplay and design elements which makes playing it even more fun for those into pop culture. Spotting all the references is almost a game within itself. Johnson is reminiscent of Morte, the cynical talking skull in Planescape: Torment, for example. The shmup levels reminded me of one of the paper doll dream sequences in the hard to find PlayStation 2 action role-playing game Dual Hearts. Best of all is a level that's a straight homage to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films. I'll not lie—I geeked out when I got to it, hardcore. There are countless more nods to other things, but those are best left to the player discover.
Interestingly enough, the place where Damned seems to falter is the gameplay itself. For all the wackiness happening in the narrative and with the characters (seriously, listening to the voice actors read some of the story books they find is hilarious) it's surprising that the bulk of the actual gameplay is so pedestrian. Garcia and Johnson move through different areas of Hell, they encounter demons (and in later levels, some puzzles), Johnson turns into one of three kinds of guns, and they shoot said monsters. Rinse and repeat, only with an occasional boss battle thrown in to mix things up.
The main problem with this formula is that the shooting in Damned is somewhat unsatisfying. Having Shinji Mikami onboard means players are stuck with a Garcia who controls like he just hopped out of Resident Evil 4. Sure, Garcia can actually shoot and move, but maneuvering him around can still be a real chore in frantic combat moments. His arms move like they're stuck in molasses, which makes lining up shots on the demons hopping around far more frustrating than it should be.
This highlights my problem with most of Mikami's Resident Evil work—the games aren't challenging because they're well-designed. Instead, they're challenging simply because Mikami wants to handicap the player through artificial means, such as the controls. Damned isn't as bad as Resident Evil in this regard, but there were definitely places in the game's latter stages where Garcia's clunky control scheme made things harder than they should have been. Factor that in with boss fights that last too long and a camera too close to the character (making it all too easy for off-screen enemies to get in cheap hits) and Damned's gameplay starts to look like the weakest link and it is, in the grand scheme of things, but it's not a gamebreaker. It's really more of a minor annoyance, but it's frustrating because Shadows of the Damned could have been amazing if the gameplay were tweaked.
Instead, this is another Suda51 title that has "cult classic" written all over it. Two great characters, a bizarre story (trying to recount all the weirdness in this game would be a series of features in and of itself) and a really great score from Silent Hill's Akira Yamaoka make this game one that will appeal to Suda's fans, but also one that will leave a lot of people scratching their head. It's not perfect, but gamers looking for a title that features lots of quirky humor and some decent gameplay will definitely find both of those things lurking in these Shadows.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 7 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time) and 0 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, and strong language. Maybe the ESRB ran out of room for the content descriptors—because they forgot alcohol use. Needless to say, parents will be well advised to keep this title away from the little ones. It's crass and vulgar and I loved almost every minute of it, but it's definitely not for the kids.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Hearing impaired gamers will be able to read all of the game's dialogue through text—but they'll miss out on the great score and the hilarious voice acting. I doubt the game is even half as funny without the talents of the voice actors bringing these characters to life.