Fashionably Late: Shadows of the Damned

SotD 1

Just so you know: Shadows of the Damned marks the first M-rated title I’ve reviewed on Fashionably Late, and it makes the most of that rating. SotD isn’t an “oh, those aliens squirt a little too much blue blood when the space marine shoots them with his assault rifle” kind of “M”–it’s packed full of graphic violence, profanity, disturbing imagery, nudity, sexual humor and lots of alcohol (ab)use. It’s so over-the-top with its adult content that I’m simply not going to be able to describe the game to you without a fair amount (possibly) offensive content, so be warned.

I briefly talked about Suda51 in my last E3 writeup, but I don’t think my brief mention of the man and his work, and that of his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, quite conveyed the sheer insanity of their catalog of games. Therefore, to properly do them justice, I’ve provided a list of a few of their key games below, along with a brief summary of each one. Please note, all of the descriptions below are accurate, and in no way exaggerated:

  • Killer7: A wheelchair-bound assassin uses his seven split-personalities, including a gangster, a barefoot woman and a luchador, to fight an evil bio-terrorist and his minions on behalf of the U.S. government, all while receiving advice from a man in a red gimp suit suspended from the ceiling who speaks like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon.
  • No More Heroes: A nerd named Travis Touchdown buys a lightsaber off of eBay and fights in a death-match tournament to become the best assassin in the world…when he isn’t shopping for new outfits, training with his ghostly sensei, recovering hidden red balls for a drunk Russian, playing with his kitten, renting VHS tapes to learn wrestling moves, or saving his game by using the toilet.
  • Lollipop Chainsaw: A zombie-hunting cheerleader fights an evil goth mastermind and his army of musically-themed super-zombies with cheerleading moves, a sparkling, rainbow chainsaw and the still-living severed head of her boyfriend, who hangs from her belt like a fanny-pack.
  • Liberation Maiden: The President of Japan (who is a teenage girl) fights an invading empire seeking to plunder Japan’s natural resources from the back of a giant flying robot, all while receiving updates on her approval rating in real-time.

So when I tell you that Shadows of the Damned is about a Mexican demon-hunter named Garcia Hotspur who, aided by a perverted, flying British skull named Johnson (who can transform into guns and motorcycles), travels to Hell, heals his wounds by drinking absinthe and feeds brains to baby-faced door knockers, all to rescue his girlfriend from the Lord of the Underworld (named Fleming), you know that the preceding sentence was not a joke.

Oh so much graphic violence...

Oh so much graphic violence…

SotD kind of feels like a movie Robert Rodriguez might make if he teamed up with Guillermo Del Toro and the two of them spent the pre-production phase playing Super Mario Bros. and dropping mescaline. And comparing the game to an R-rated Mario is neither inaccurate nor a disservice.

The story revolves around the protagonist, the aforementioned Garcia Hotspur (whose middle name may or may not actually be “Fucking”– it’s hard to tell), a Mexican demon hunter who manages to kill so many demons that the Lord of the Underworld, a gargantuan six-eyed demon named Fleming, kidnaps Garcia’s girlfriend Paula and drags her down to hell, where he plans to torture, maim and kill her for all eternity as retribution for Garcia’s interference.

Garcia (who at one point actually does borrow Rodriguez’s “I’m a MexiCAN, not a MexiCAN’T” line) is having none of it, and travels to Hell with his partner, the reformed demon Johnson, as his guide, fighting his way through legions of demons to defeat Fleming and save the woman he loves. The plot seems like a pretty straight-forward retelling of the “knight saves princess from dragon” story, but it’s actually more of a subversion, as the game builds up to a nice and well-earned twist at the end that I won’t spoil for you here. The game’s ending didn’t blow my mind, but it did leave me thinking, “OK, well-played.”

The characters themselves aren’t very fleshed-out, since most of the game’s running time is devoted to Garcia and Johnson’s trek through the underworld. Nevertheless, they certainly are memorable, in large part thanks to some dynamite voice acting and funny writing. Garcia and Johnson’s buddy-cop-esque relationship forms the cornerstone of the game, and it works fantastically.

Step aside, Murtaugh and Riggs!

Step aside, Murtaugh and Riggs!

Garcia is a pretty typical Suda51 protagonist; he’s an awesome, tough, over-the-top and occasionally comical action hero, but is given moments of genuine pathos where the fate of Paula is concerned. He’s helped a lot by an excellent vocal performance from Steve Blum, whom most people will know as Spike from Cowboy Bebop, but I remember most fondly as Jamie from the too-good-for-this-cruel-world series Megas XLR. It’s kind of odd to realize that’s the same guy putting on a heavy Mexican accent, but he does it well and the character definitely isn’t an offensive stereotype, so it doesn’t really bother me.

Johnson, on the other hand, is almost a carbon copy of Bob from The Dresden Files…which is fine by me, because Bob is freaking hilarious. Johnson’s a little less lecherous than Bob, but he has the same dry British wit and the same know-it-all function in the plot as he guides Garcia through the underworld and its bizarre twists and turns.

Johnson has a leg up (so to speak–he’s just a talking skull, after all) in that beyond simply dispensing advice, Johnson acts as Garcia’s partner in battle, transforming into a torch, various guns, and even a motorcycle. As Garcia puts it, Johnson is the right tool for every job, which cements his position as one of my favorite sidekicks in video game history.

The villains of the piece don’t get much characterization, but they’re so ridiculous they’re memorable regardless; from the foul-mouthed flying demon Stinky Crow (whose only line of dialogue is screeching “FUCK YOU!” at the top of his lungs) to opera singer Justine to Fleming himself; they all stand out as worthy, memorable antagonists through style and presentation alone.

The only real problem member of the cast is Paula herself, who is the definition of objectified in this game. She’s reduced to a plaything for the demons (being graphically murdered on screen more times than I care to count), and a trophy for Garcia to rescue, though it’s clear Garcia genuinely does love her.

Did I mention Paula dies a lot? 'Cause she does.

Did I mention Paula dies a lot? ‘Cause she does.

Still, I have to think that Grasshopper knew exactly what they were doing with their portrayal of Paula, given that they flipped the gender roles in their next game, Lollipop Chainsaw, by having protagonist Juliet using her helpless boyfriend Nick as a literal object for solving puzzles. It feels more like Grasshopper is deliberately playing with tropes here, rather than playing into them.

This notion is cemented later on in SotD when Paula becomes homicidally furious at Garcia, both for his failure to save her from being butchered over and over and for putting her in such a horrific position in the first place. As such, it almost feels like a deconstruction and commentary on gender relations in video games…once you look past the weirdness, psychological horror and lewd jokes, anyway.

Shadows of the Damned is a really interesting game from a design standpoint, in that it’s the brainchild of three prominent developers with their own unique styles. On the one hand, you’ve got Suda51, but on the other hand, you have Shinji Mikami, best known for his work on the Resident Evil games, and on a third, mutant hand, you’ve got Akira Yamaoka (most famous for his work on Silent Hill) doing the sound design.

So here you have a developer known for zany action games working with two of the biggest icons of horror gaming on a single project. You’d expect the result to be a disjointed mess, but oddly enough, SotD may be the most cohesive, polished title Suda and Grasshopper Manufacture have produced.

"Polished" here being a relative term.

“Polished” here being a relative term.

The core gameplay borrows very heavily from one of Mikami’s most beloved games, Resident Evil 4, copying its third-person over-the-shoulder camera view and shooting mechanics very closely. Like RE4, SotD has the player moving Garcia with the left analog stick, moving the camera and aiming with the right stick, readying his gun with one shoulder trigger and firing with another. It even uses the sprint button, dodge roll and melee mechanics popularized by RE4.

Now, I’ve gone on record as saying I do not like the Resident Evil series, for a variety of reasons. And yet, even though the controls are virtually identical, I like the control scheme so much better in SotD than I do in its predecessor. I think it works much better here; SotD isn’t nearly as stingy with ammunition as RE4 (the only times I ever ran out were during a few protracted boss fights) and the aiming is much more accurate (it helps that Johnson projects a laser sight in all of his gun forms).

Combat in SotD is based almost entirely on gunplay; Garcia does have a melee attack where he can use Johnson (in his torch form) to bash enemies if they get too close, but it does no real damage. Demons need to be dispatched using Johnson’s gun forms, either by riddling them with ammunition (which comes in the form of demon bones, teeth and skulls, rather than bullets), dropping them to the ground by shooting their limbs off and then finishing them off with a stomp attack, or by shooting them in the head. The melee attack is only used for pushing enemies back if they get too close (it’s surprisingly difficult to shoot the demons at point-blank range), or to rid them of a protective coating of Darkness.

This stuff? Better than body armor.

This stuff? Better than body armor.

Similar to Allen Wake and a few other games, SotD has a Light and Darkness mechanic, where demons will sometimes be coated in the Darkness of the Underworld. Demons coated in Darkness are invincible, and their protective shield must be stripped before they can be damaged. This is accomplished in one of two ways, either by hitting the enemies with Johnson, or by shooting them with a Light Shot from Johnson’s gun forms.

There are also times when an area will be flooded with Darkness, which not only makes the demons invincible, but also will begin to drain Garcia’s life after a short time. Sometimes Garcia simply has to run through a Darkness-filled corridor before it kills him, but other times he’ll have to dispel the Darkness by using his Light Shot to shoot a mounted goat head (per Johnson, goats are a natural source of Light).

Of course, demons don’t like Light very much even when they’re not coated in Darkness; a Light Shot will stun them temporarily for easy dispatch (some enemies can only be killed this way), and demons will often store Light in conveniently placed, highly unstable barrels, which will explode and severely damage nearby demons when shot. The Light Shot can also activate lanterns to improve visibility, and prompt land-bound angler fish to guide Garcia through darkened areas.

Again, I am so not kidding.

Again, I am so not kidding.

As previously mentioned, Garcia only has Johnson and his own wits at his disposal to fight the hordes of the underworld, but luckily, that’s all he needs. Johnson has three gun forms he can take, a pistol that fires demon bones (called, appropriately enough, the Boner), a shotgun-like form that fires demon skulls, and a machine gun form that fires demon teeth. The guns and their respective boxes of ammo are color coded (red for pistol, green for shotgun and blue for machine gun), allowing the player to easily tell what gun they have equipped and what ammo just dropped in a hectic firefight. It’s a bit “gamey,” but it works well.

Johnson’s gun forms can be upgraded as the game goes on by acquiring blue gems from boss demons, with each upgrade unlocking new functions and increasing firepower (the Boner upgrades to a Hot Boner, and subsequently, a Big Boner), and the guns’ parameters, as well as Garcia’s health, can be upgraded with red gems (“Performance enhancers! Very illegal!”) found in the environment or purchased from the game’s half-demon merchant, Christopher, using the game’s currency of white gems. Christopher also sells ammunition and drinks, the health recovery items of the game, though you can also find booze in the environment or purchase it from vending machines.

SotD settles into a pretty comfortable rhythm of moving from fight to fight while solving any puzzles that get in the way, though it’ll occasionally throw the player a curve in the form of a side-scrolling shooter level, turret level (shooting at giant demons with the aforementioned Big Boner), or demon bowling or pachinko, which are pretty typical of Suda51 titles.

Grasshopper tends to have an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to game design, where if they have a cool idea for a level or a sequence, they’ll stick it in regardless of how well it meshes with the game overall. Sometimes this can lead to a disjointed (if fun) experience, but in SotD it feels very cohesive and fits well in the game’s oddball vision of Hell.

It may be Hell, but at least you have the chance to work on your bowling technique.

It may be Hell, but at least you have the chance to work on your bowling technique.

This is still a game about Hell, though, so it’s not all a barrel of laughs. In between the zany non-sequiturs, dirty jokes and references to movies like Evil Dead and Ghostbusters, there’s some genuinely unsettling imagery and horror to be found, usually in the form of something gruesome happening to Paula, who is repeatedly killed off in ways that wouldn’t be out of place in a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The violence, gore, and dark, cloying atmosphere serve to make SotD as effective at horror as it is at humor.

From a visual standpoint the game is dark, gothic, and makes effective use of the light and shadow motifs. The character and monster designs are all visually interesting and well-rendered. It’s worth mentioning that the game was made using Unreal Engine 3, which is the kind of thing that ordinarily makes me roll my eyes–UE3 was a plague on the last console generation, giving us a ton of games full of texture pop-in, dodgy framerates, physics glitches and screen-tearing. But Shadows of the Damned lacks most of the hallmarks of a UE3 game; in fact, I dare say it’s probably the best-looking UE3 title I’ve seen on the PS3. So I really have to give Grasshopper props for using the engine well when so many other studios didn’t.

I’ve already touched on the voice acting, but the rest of the sound design is equally impressive. The score by Akira Yamaoka is haunting and evocative, blending a wide range of styles and genres that seem like they shouldn’t belong together but somehow fit the game perfectly. The sound effects are top notch, and the whole arrangement works wonderfully on a surround sound system, enabling you to hear demons sneaking up from behind or objects like goats or baby locks needed for solving puzzles. It’s extremely immersive and really helps tie the game together.

Though it's not recommended as a feeding "how to" for new parents.

Though it’s not recommended as a feeding “how to” for new parents.

In summary, Shadows of the Damned is a truly unique game. In a crowded field of same-y shooters and zombie games, it brings some unique, polished gameplay, fun and horrifying writing and a truly memorable game world to the table. I can honestly say I’ve never played anything quite like it, and that’s not something I get the chance to say very often (unless I’m reviewing a game about dolphins).

Well, October’s not even halfway over yet, and I’ve already gone through Hell. I guess next I’ll have to go somewhere even worse. Join me next time as I take a trip to a little resort town on Toluca Lake…

Fashionably Late: Back to the Future: The Game

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Video games based on licenses from other media have long had a reputation for being extremely bad, and that reputation is definitely not undeserved. I remember many a frustrating weekend as a child where, for my weekly rental from the video store, I succumbed to my naiveté and picked out a game based on my favorite TV show or movie du jour, only to find myself stuck playing a subpar piece of crap for the next two days.

These games were typically made by toy companies who bought the rights to make a game the way they would buy the rights to make action figures, then handed the project off to a no-name developer, gave them a strict deadline and told them to have it ready to release on that date, whatever it took. In the case of movie-based games, that deadline often coincided with the release of the film in question, which meant that developers typically had less than a year to make something playable.

OK, "playable" might be a bit of a stretch...

OK, “playable” might be a bit of a stretch…

These titles weren’t all bad, mind you; there were exceptions. Most of the games based on Disney licenses were pretty solid, being developed first by Capcom (of Mega Man and Street Fighter fame), and later by Virgin Interactive. Konami made a few really good games based on Warner Bros. cartoons like Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Looney Tunes, and some great Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games.

Anything Star Wars or Indiana Jones-related was developed by LucasArts, so it was bound to be good. But for the most part, if a game was based on a TV show or movie, and it had any other publisher or developer’s logo on the box, it was in your best interest to stay far, far away.

These days licensed games have been making something of a comeback. Thankfully, this time around, parent companies seem to have realized that making a good game takes time–often as much time as making a movie, if not more–resulting in longer development times.

The projects themselves tend to be going to much more competent developers, as well. And with the advent of smartphone games, companies looking to use a game as advertisement for a movie are much more likely to hire a developer to make a cheap mobile title, cloning another successful game, than they are to crowd the console and PC market with low-quality material.

Additionally, now there are companies who are buying the licenses to old films and making strong games for the fans of these enduring franchises. Granted, some of these are still ill-advised cash-ins (the recent Rambo and Aliens games come to mind), but most are labors of love, developed by fans of the source material for fans of the source material, often featuring voice talent from the original cast or even original writers contributing to the story.

Just think of this the next time you fire up Borderlands...

Just think of this the next time you fire up Borderlands…

Telltale Games’ Back to the Future: The Game thankfully falls into the latter category. When the Back to the Future films were originally released, they received very poor treatment on the video game front; if you want more details on those abominations, James Rolfe (as his Angry Video Game Nerd character) released a video covering them in far greater detail than I could here.

But a few years ago, Telltale announced that they were partnering with Universal to adapt some of their classic movie properties into games, and one of these titles was Back to the Future. This was honestly some of the most exciting video game news I’d heard that year.

Telltale, for those who don’t know, is a company that’s sort of been acting as a spiritual successor to LucasArts’ old adventure game division. They’ve made new installments to both the Sam and Max and Monkey Island series, made a hilarious game based on the long-dormant Homestar Runner web cartoon, and recently they’ve been working on more serious fare with The Walking Dead (based on the awesome comic book, not the mediocre TV show) and Fables.

They are the company for graphic adventure games, or at the very least they’re neck-and-neck with Tim Schafer’s Double Fine, so they were a great choice to make this game.

As excited as I was to play this title (I bought the season pass as soon as it was released), I ended up getting side-tracked from it for a few years, mostly, I think, due to the episodic nature of its release. Telltale has this habit of releasing its games in downloadable form, through a series of episodes. All of the previous Telltale titles I played, I bought and played all the episodes at once. Back to the Future was the first one I started following from its release, and I quickly discovered that this format only served to allow me to be distracted by other games in between releases.

And that’s how it took me almost three years to play through one of my most anticipated games of 2010; from here on in, I think I’ll just stick to waiting on Telltale titles until all the episodes are released, then shotgunning them at one go. Hell, it works for Netflix, why mess with a good thing?

BttF 4

I suppose I could just take the DeLorean ahead a few months…

The story begins on a rather depressing note 7 months after the end of Back to the Future Part III. Doc Brown hasn’t been seen in Hill Valley since that time, and the bank is selling off his estate to cover his debts.

Marty, who is desperately trying to convince people that Doc is still alive, is surprised when another DeLorean time machine, identical to the destroyed original, arrives outside Doc’s house with Einstein (Doc’s dog) in tow. Inside the DeLorean, Marty finds a recorded message from Doc, saying that he’s stuck somewhere in the past, and that the new DeLorean’s auto-retrieval function sent it to seek out Marty for a rescue.

Marty must travel back to 1931, where Doc has been mistaken for the arsonist who burned down a speakeasy, and enlist Doc’s 1931 counterpart to help break Doc out of jail and save him from lethal reprisal at the hands of Biff’s gangster father, Kid Tannen. However, this series of events alters the timeline, forcing Marty and Doc to fix the damage they’ve done in order to prevent a horrible future and the destruction of Hill Valley itself.

And yes, young Doc is every bit as funny as you think he is.

And yes, young Doc is every bit as funny as you think he is.

It’s a fantastic story that feels right at home with the original trilogy (no doubt thanks to the involvement of trilogy screenwriter Bob Gale) and plays with the alternate timeline elements I love so much in Part II. The new characters introduced by the game feel like they belong with the returning ones, and the game is packed with the all the humor, witty writing and Easter eggs you’d expect from a Telltale game.

The gameplay is that of a classic graphic adventure title. Players control Marty, move him through the environment, and click on objects to examine them, collect them, and solve puzzles with them, or to talk to other characters.

To advance the plot, the player must solve puzzles, which usually involves some combination of talking to the right characters, using the right combination of items and working with simple logic. Most of the puzzles make enough sense that an experienced player can solve them easily, but a few of them are more tricky and could easily obstruct game progress.

Trust me, it's more exciting than it sounds.

Trust me, it’s more exciting than it sounds.

Fortunately, Telltale built in a hint system, which progressively gives more information on how to solve the current puzzle each time it’s used, before finally telling the player the answer if they’re truly stumped. Of course, a few of the puzzles are difficult not because the solution is hard to guess at, but because it’s hard to implement, requiring a series of specific actions in a row or requiring fairly precise timing to pull off, so the hint system is far from being a “win button.”

The controls, while generally simple and solid, do occasionally cause problems. A few puzzles in particular are difficult to solve on a console version of the game (I played it on my PS3), because of the game’s tendency to try to correct for the imprecision of using an analog stick (rather than a mouse) by having the selector automatically target items in the environment as Marty moves past them.

This auto-selection can result in you accidentally clicking an object you didn’t mean to click on, which presents a problem in some puzzles where the goal is to click a particular object at a particular time. Fortunately, there aren’t very many of these puzzles throughout the game, so the frustration level is pretty minimal, but it is still a minor issue that needs to be addressed.

Next I’ll talk about the graphics and sound design, but before that, I need to get something off my chest; I love Telltale’s games, but I really loathe the Telltale Tool engine they use to make them. I have never played a single game from Telltale that was without issues. Their games are, on balance, very simple both graphically and in terms of design, but you wouldn’t know that from the way the Telltale Tool struggles with them.

Framerates are wildly inconsistent regardless of the platform, which can cause cheap deaths in a few of their titles, and some of their games are very crash-prone; I still haven’t finished their Monkey Island game because it’s so prone to crashing on my PS3. Back to the Future is one of their more stable titles, but it still suffers from graphical hiccups and lag.

Someday, Guybrush...someday. *Sigh*

Someday, Guybrush…someday. *Sigh*

All that being said, I like the visual design of the game. Rather than try to make the game photorealistic (I shudder to imagine the uncanny valley versions of Marty and Doc), the game uses a caricature-like style to render its characters, and the environments are similarly colorful and cartoony. The graphics are simple, but they work, and aside from the aforementioned framerate issues, they’re quite pleasing to the eye. Nothing to write home about, but perfectly serviceable.

The sound design, on the other hand, is excellent. The soundtrack features several pieces from the films, including Alan Silvestri’s orchestral theme and “Back in Time” by Huey Lewis and the News, as well as some original compositions that, while not quite up to Silvestri’s standard of excellence, fit in unobtrusively with the rest of the score. The sound effects are likewise very good, and feature all the effects you’ll remember from the movies.

But perhaps the best aspect is the voice acting. The voice acting in Telltale’s games is always excellent, and while they had to bring in a number of sound-alikes to voice some of the returning characters, they did manage to get some key talent to reprise their original roles.

The biggest of these is Christopher Lloyd, returning to voice Doc Brown, and I’ve got to say, hearing Lloyd play Doc again makes the entire game worthwhile for me, and I looked forward to every interaction I had with Doc as a result of it. Claudia Wells, the original actress who played Jennifer Parker, also reprises her role, and does an excellent job of it.

Though she is a bit, uh, different this time around...

Though she is a bit, uh, different this time around…

Regrettably, Michael J. Fox apparently wasn’t available to reprise the role of Marty when production began on the game, but Telltale found an absolutely amazing sound-alike in A.J. LoCasio. He’s a dead ringer for how Fox sounded at that age, and it’s incredibly easy to forget that it’s not Fox voicing the character. But they were able to bring Fox in during the final episode to make a couple of fun voice cameos that I won’t spoil for you here; suffice it to say that if you are a fan of the films, you’re in for a real treat.

And really, that’s the best way to summarize this review; if you’re a fan of the Back to the Future trilogy, then this game was tailor-made for you. For all its flaws, there’s so much heart, wit and love for the source material on display that you just can’t stay mad at this game, even at its most annoying moments.

Developers take note; if you’re going to make a game based on a beloved film property, this is the way you should do it. My only real complaint is that, after the game’s (slight) cliffhanger ending, there is no firm word of a Season 2 yet. Maybe once Telltale is done with The Walking Dead or Fables, we might hear something. But still, if this is all we get, I think I’m satisfied.

Well, Halloween is fast approaching, and in the spirit of the season, I’m playing through a horror game. Join me next time for my own road movie through Hell…