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…

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