Shadows of the Damned is an example of an underdog that couldn't quite make it. The project was full of ambition and innovation with the creative minds of Suda 51 of No More Heroes and Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil in charge of the development. Unfortunately that creativity was subdued by expectations of the industry. There are moments in the game where it feels like ideas were never fully realized, or that time constraints prevented the necessary tweaking to perfect the game. It comes across as unfinished in some respects. But does that prevent the game from being something worth playing? The fact that this has become something of a cult classic indicates otherwise.
Garcia F*ing Hotspur, as he sometimes refers to himself, is a tattooed, hardcore, demon hunter with hardly a background to share. The game wastes no time getting to the drama with the attack, murder, and abduction of Garcia’s girlfriend Paula. At the hand of Fleming, the lord of demons, Paula is taken down to hell to experience the torture of death over and over like a Promethean insult to Garcia.
And thus, that is the motivation for Garcia to go to hell and defeat the Lord of Demons. Much like the classic Splatterhouse, Garcia is a on a hunt to find and rescue his girlfriend from demons and kill as many in the process. There really isn’t much to the main arc of the story other than that. There is a fair amount of symbolism and metaphors written into the work, but very little of it comes to fruition and ends up being more than vague speculation on something more. Really, it’s the clever writing and side stories that Garcia and his helpful demon slaying weapon, Johnson, encounter that really make the story stand out as one of the most clever and funny games of this generation.
Johnson is a former demon, stripped of his flesh and bones to just a skull that can transform into multitude of weapons Garcia uses and as well as a nifty heavy metal motorcycle one of the best late title screen sequences you'll see. Given a stylish and charming English accent to provide an intellectual foil to Garcia’s quick-tempered desire for demon hunting, Johnson provides plentiful exposition to the underworld as a setting, the inhabitants of it, and the various historical stories within.
And that’s really where the story shines. Garcia and Johnson’s “back and forth” is so entertaining and pleasant, that it makes it easy to look past the rather stale/cliché tale of following Garcia after his doomed beloved. With moments like the “Stinky Crow” fairy tale where Garcia is compelled to read a fairy tale about a deranged young boy with a desire to fly, it’s hard not to laugh at his obvious struggle with the English language in reading aloud, along with his disbelief in the very tale that he's reading. Don't be mistaken by the level of maturity involved in the content. It's all very juvenile by nature. But the dialogue, comebacks, and creative use of metaphors help make the juvenile humor extremely clever.
Meanwhile, the characterization of the villain and girlfriend tends to fall flat in many cases. Fleming comes across as a disconnected villain who shows up only at the beginning and end and holds no real opinions or interest in Garcia’s plight throughout the game. Some might say that this is due to his confident nature and is intended to feel so secure in his victory that he need not concern himself with Garcia slaughtering thousands of his undead minions that wander the streets of hell. But there is little indication as to his power beyond stories told by Johnson. Frankly that is nothing more than simple exposition with no proof to back up the declarations of strength Fleming supposedly has. Since everything we learn of him is told in legend or as a history lesson, there doesn't seem to be any definitive reason to fear Fleming.
And wouldn't you know it, when you do finally face him, the experience is flat and anticlimactic. With a brief climb to the top of his castle while he laughs and taunts Garcia, to build up some sort of tension, followed by a very derivative boss battle (perhaps the easiest one of the game), he left me expecting something more. He was built up as a powerhouse, second to none in malevolence, that had taken over the underworld with an iron grip, yet he's the easiest and most boring bosses to fight. There wasn't even any good music behind the battle to keep you excited.
Paula, on the other hand, is built up in a different way by small stories Garcia brings up during his journey. She comes across as an interesting and passionate romantic with a dark past that is never fully disclosed. The stories about her and what she represents are intriguing and clever in a way that builds Garcia’s character much more than hers, but it still makes her a character players should be interested to learn more about. However, she is little more than the taunt to Hotspur throughout the game, constantly dying over and over, screaming in pain. And by the very end, she is still nothing more than a loud, screaming tease to the hero and wasted potential to the player.
Have you played a Resident Evil game since RE4 came out? Then you’re likely to feel very familiar with the controls and gameplay style. With Shinji Mikami of theResident Evil series at the forefront of the game's credits, it won't take long before it feels very familiar to the horror games you've played before. The camera is poised over Garcia’s shoulder and you aim by holding down a shoulder button and pulling the trigger as the laser lines up with the enemy.
The enemy behavior is very similar to Resident Evil as well. Enemies quickly rush up close, pause to give players the opportunity to fire their weapons, then attack. Garcia has a little dodge to get him out of harm’s way and stuns the enemies as he bumps into them. He also has a melee attack that, if fully charged, will kill most enemies instantly. This quickly becomes the most useful and efficient method of killing Fleming’s minions.
Garcia’s weapons are pretty straight forward. He has a revolver, a machine gun, and a shotgun. Each weapon gets upgrades further along in the game and essentially transforms into a more powerful form. One gains a grenade launching ability, one gets a homing missile ability, and one gets a devastating mine-laying ability. These upgrades, while conceptually interesting, rarely provide much satisfaction or interest to the gunplay. However, there was always a time and place for the use of each upgrade, be it during combat or puzzle-solving.
There are other upgrades that the guns get beyond simply their transformations as well. Reload speed, damage, and capacity can be upgraded with red gems that can be found in little secret spots around the world. These gems can also be used to upgrade Garcia's health, as well as the speed at which he can deal a one-hit melee attack. There aren’t enough red gems to completely max out all his abilities, so it’s best to be prudent in the choice of upgrade.
Finally, there is one particular ability Garcia has that the game makes sure players are aware of as the most important skill till the very end. The “Light Shot” is a concentrated burst of light that stuns enemies and lights his path. Enemies that are armored with darkness must be hit by the light of Johnson via either this Light Shot or melee attack before they can be slain.
The real importance of the ability is in lighting the path. In Hell, the darkness is so intense that it can suck the life out of Garcia and empower his enemies. So by using the Light Shot, he can create beacons of light that keep the darkness and his foes at bay. It is a mechanic that gets a few little additions throughout the game like particular objects that can only be hit while enveloped in darkness or using the darkness to your advantage to kill particular enemies. But the mechanic never truly changes and is used up to the final battle. Any more pertaining to the mechanics are best explained in playing the game itself.
The gameplay, while exciting and intense in all its moments of chaos, does become stale after several chapters. As great as Resident Evil 4 was, the core gameplay of running around and taking aim was never enough to carry the whole experience. Shadows of the Damned does its best to stay new and interesting with each chapter by providing new abilities, upgrades, and even some unique puzzle-solving to change things up. But by the end, the recurring formula in the combat will start to wear thin.
That's not all that is reused over and over. The enemies are recycled from the very beginning. Swarms and swarms of the same generic enemies come at you in each level without ever showing any intelligent growth as opponents beyond a few wearing metal masks, preventing headshots. Even the more difficult enemies are easy to outsmart and defeat using the same simple strategies, making the game relatively easy, if not repetitive. The only time death seemed likely, was due to an instant kill mechanic or some poorly done portion of the game that was far removed from the normal gameplay style that had previously been established.
Speaking of which, there are a few moments in the game where the style of gameplay suddenly shifts. These moments are infrequent and meant to breathe some life into the game, but end up detracting from the overall experience with their lack of polish. The regular gameplay, though repetitive and derivative, still has the Shinji Mikami shine of quality that doesn’t feel poorly executed. It ends up being easy, but never does it feel like the game is no longer within the player's control; it didn't feel like the game was cheating the player out of an experience.
However, the select moments that are meant to keep players interested with some new mechanics end up feeling like the precision has been lost for the sake of ambition. The section that involves Garcia acting as a one man turret along with the section that involves 2-D shooting indicate some ideas that were never completely executed as intended.
Being a turret was not fun. While turret segments are often used in games to change up the action, it usually involves the player being in a better position (strategically speaking) than the enemies. This usually makes the turret experience a cake walk with the fun being in annihilating enemy hordes with little risk. Here, it ends up being a stressful experience of spinning around for the big lumbering targets, while players are forced to hear Garcia utter the same taunts over and over and pray not to have to do it again.
The 2-dimentional segments, on the other hand, weren't stressful, they were just frustrating. Despite it being extremely generous by 2D shooter standards, it was so ill-conceived that it served as little more than a detour on the main story's path. At first it seems like a clever use of spice in a blended drink, but it soon becomes clear that what's been added is nothing more than a heavy stone that may very well damage the blender as well as ruin the drink. The controls during this time feel awkward and there are many moments where enemies sprout from all over, sucking life away in an instant. This is not new to shooters, but usually there is an "extra life" system or method of escape available to players. In this instance, it is just a trying experience to simply make it through tedious mazes without getting caught on geometry or enemies that spawn more quickly than the background can move.
Be it time constraints, or the brilliantly grand ideas common to Suda 51’s style, these moments never feel complete and end up being the worst part of the game. Perhaps Mikami was no longer on the project by the point these sections hit the workshop, or perhaps a tight schedule prevented these segments from being properly tested and tightened prior to the final release. It is here where the ambition of a project fails. The desire to inject something completely different into the gameplay mid-way through is commendable, but the lack of polish prevents that ambition from being truly valuable.
While this all sounds rather harsh, these moments do not condemn the game to failure. There is still plenty of praise to be said for the game's positive traits as well as the designers creative desires to keep the game fresh.
This is the side of Shadows of the Damned that both excels brilliantly and stumbles miserably. On one hand, the music is superbly composed by Silent Hill's own, Akira Yamaoka to match the expertly crafted bizarre punk/metal version of Hell straight out of a Clive Barker novel. On the other hand, much of the atmosphere is lost behind the deafening sound effects that are meant to instill fear but only instill a growing irritation. And though the game looks good when it's fully rendered and realized, the frame rate has chugged on occasion along with some of the worst texture popping of the Unreal engine that make the game look like it's running on outdated software.
The music is superb. There are the traditional industrial sounds that are common in Yamaoka's songs, along with small injections of Spanish guitar to go along with Hotspur's style. The music can go from atmospheric and ominous, to spontaneously flashy and sexy in an instant. All of this is mixed with subtle and overt heavy metal to go with the rocker aesthetic.
It's a shame that so much of that music and atmosphere is covered up by the shrieks and howls of Paula and the various enemies in the game. Whether they're attacking or just sitting around the fire telling ghost stories, these demons do not shut up. They growl and scream so frequently that so much of the tension that would be found in moments of silence in games like Silent Hill or Resident Evil is lost. Even the inanimate objects like doors and lanterns make so much noise that you'll swear you're on your own journey through Hell.
If you try to ignore the noise and just focus on the look of the game, it has a very intriguing style. The hard rock look, though ridiculous at first glance, works to this game's favor. The style here is distinctive and the developers never back down from it. This is an example of where ambition works in the game's favor. It's clear there were some themes the designers wanted to put into the look and feel of this game (some mature in nature) and most of it works very well. Booze is the medkit of the hero in hell, the guns use bones and teeth instead of bullets, Johnson is a floating talking phallic reference, and the levels themselves are dark modern takes on classic horror moments. There are certainly some slight and not-so-subtle references to Evil Dead along with Night of the Living Dead lingering throughout the game. Style is something this game captured brilliantly.
It is then too bad when the game fails to load all the textures that create the fine atmosphere. The load time between levels is pretty long, but even upon entering the level, much of the detail is still not ready to be displayed. It's laughable and pathetic seeing this happen considering how much of the experience of a survival-horror game should be in immersion. A fair amount of that is lost when the dimly lit, gritty stone walls of the catacombs looks like fake vomit and sludge with a mysterious sheen from a light source that shouldn't exist. This is a rather minor detail when it comes to the experience, but nonetheless a blemish on the overall presentation.
Shadows of the Damned had lukewarm sales thanks to lackluster marketing and a significant lack of interest from the media until it had already started to fade into obscurity. It's truly unfair and sad that so many bad-mouthed and shot down this game prior to its release only to praise it endlessly even though it was dead on arrival. Some of the very same naysayers demanded to know why no one had bothered to buy it.
It's a shame because there were some decisions made in terms of the game's design that make it stand out as a unique experience. Do all of these choices work? No. But that doesn't mean this ambitious title deserves to be forgotten. There were some parts that could really grind on the nerves, including the ending, but it is still worth playing if only to see the ambition and innovation of some well-respected game designers. If you want B-movie horror like Resident Evil that is actually intended to be cheesy and fun, give Shadows of the Damned a shot.