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PLATFORM: Xbox 360, PS3 (reviewed)
ESRB RATING: Mature
DEVELOPER: Grasshopper Manufacture
Shadows of the Damned. That bland title and cover art does nothing to tell you about the madness which lies within.
An action-horror game produced by the closest thing to rockstars in Japanese gaming (Suda51 of No More Heroes, Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil, and Akira Yamaoka of Silent Hill), it works out to be a Japanese Robert Rodriguez Grindhouse film, a take on a take on a take of a genre that somehow manages to work beautifully. Horror, humor, action, memorable characters and ingenious level design- this one’s got it all.
You play as the Latino demon-hunter Garcia Hotspur, a tattooed badass with a purple leather jacket and a hot girlfriend he found in a dumpster. Paula is the only great thing in his life and she’s been taken away from him by the lord of the underworld, a demon known as Fleming. The three-headed monster promises to kill his girlfriend over and over again and that there’s nothing that Hotspur can do about it, but you don’t tell a man something like that and not expect retribution.
Hotspur enlists the help of his floating skull/former demon companion Johnson and heads to hell to break out his one true love.
Shinji Mikami’s involvement means that this plays a lot like Resident Evil 4. It’s got the same over-the-shoulder camera and you walk around shooting the undead in the head and interacting with the environment in the usual way. Suda51’s involvement means that the world you explore and the characters within it are utterly insane.
Take for instance, your gun. It’s actually your undead pal Johnson, who can transform himself instantly into one of three types of guns (pistol/machinegun/shotgun) or a torch. Each weapon has a specific color so you always know what you’re packing, and the game encourages a bit of strategy with the weapons- you’ll frequently have to switch between them on the fly to take out various enemies. The names of the guns will either make you giggle or roll your eyes- The Boner, Skullcussioner, etc.
Since you’re traveling to the darkest layers of hell, you’ll need light to guide your way. Demons are afraid of the light, and each of your weapons can fire a “Light-shot” with the alt-fire that freezes them in place. You’ll need it for when the darkness comes, as well. There are many times when darkness will come pouring into the world, and while you can survive in it for a little while it will soon begin to eat away at you. The only way to survive is to either get out of the area or to banish the darkness by firing a light-shot at a mounted goat head that’s inevitably around. (This makes sense in the game. Somewhat.)
But never fear getting hurt by the darkness, because there’s plenty of liquor around! Yes, forget about alcoholism or liver damage- in hell, liquor heals you right up. Sake, Tequila and Absinthe all offer increasing degrees of health. You can find them around the environment or by purchasing them from vending machines with gems dropped from slain demons.
Those gems can also be stored up to sell to a merchant demon that you’ll run into every so often (“What are you buying?”) to exchange for health, ammo and red gems. Red gems are used to upgrade your stats and weapons, increasing damage, reload time and ammo capacity for the latter. There are also blue gems that you’ll find after boss battles that permanently upgrade your weapons into superior versions which usually have some sort of power-up attack.
The level design is incredibly satisfying and it’s easy to get around even though the game takes many twisting paths. Frequently you’ll be forced to find keys for locked doors, but these doors have screaming demon baby faces on them and they’ll only open up once you’ve found one of their favorite snacks, like eyes, brains, or… strawberries.
In case you can’t tell this game doesn’t take itself very seriously. The imagery is violent and bloody but the tone is quite tongue in cheek, even silly. There’s lots of double-entendres and dick jokes and the banter between the two characters is pretty humorous.
But what makes the game work is that you’re constantly faced with new challenges and experiences. Each level is unique and there doesn’t feel like there’s any wasted time in this game.
We’ve all seen hell portrayed in videogames before, but never like this. It’s alternately colorful and grisly, influenced heavily with Dia De Los Muertos style. The enemies are all quite varied and the character design excellent, as well.
While the game encourages exploration with those scattered gems, I found myself exploring the world just to see what the place looked like. There’s lots of little things that you’ll miss if you just charge through it, and lots of references to classic horror flicks.
Akira Yamoaoka knows his way around a spooky soundtrack but he gets to let loose with a whole new variety of sounds here. Expect a ton of Spanish guitar and Southern-flavored tunes.
Special note must be made of the story. At various parts of the game you’ll come across storybooks that tell the tales of the creatures that make up the bosses of the game. I can’t think of another action title that would pause to have the actors narrate a story to you, but that’s just what this one does. You don’t have to interact with them of course, but you’ll likely find yourself drawn into the tales. Or laughing when Hotspur struggles with the big words.
The game will take you around 8 hours to complete and there’s nothing much else beside that. Achievement whores take note- this isn’t one of those games that gives you the achievements/trophies for the lower difficulties when you beat it on a higher one, so you’re going to have to go through and beat this three times (easy, medium and hard) to get them all. Sadly, you won’t even be able to take your power-ups along with you on a new game plus either.
I’ve always enjoyed Suda51’s games but always felt they needed some grounding. He gets caught up too much in the concept and doesn’t seem to worry enough about how they actually play. The melding of his style and story-telling with the tried-and-true gameplay of Resident Evil 4 makes for a fun experience that’s imminently playable.
Unique games like this don’t get big budgets and pushed out by major publishers too often. Don’t pass this one up.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars