Shadows of the Damned is an important game. Sure, it features fantastically tight gameplay, an eccentric and entertaining series of key characters, and a soundtrack you’d be more than happy to buy on iTunes for ten or more dollars, but there’s something a lot more important going on here. What this game represents is the near-perfect collaboration of two men to whom Japanese gaming owes a reasonable debt.
The first man is Goichi Suda (more famously known as Suda 51), the eccentric and arguably visionary game designer who brought us Killer7, and Wii cult hit, No More Heroes. Followers of his work, and he has a few, will tell you that the ace in the Suda pack is a wildly vivid, exciting imagination. The more honest of those followers, however, will also admit that this creativity often comes at the detriment of solid, or just downright enjoyable gameplay. For every fantastic idea that creeps into Suda 51′s rainbow-colored brain, there’s an element of functional game design screaming out from the distance with muffled pleas for consideration. All too often that voice is stifled, and tapers to a whisper.
Step to the forefront, then, the second half of Shadows‘ dynamic duo, Shinji Mikami. Not quite as famed a name in quasi-casual gaming circles as Suda 51 may be (perhaps because his name isn’t quite as alpha-numerical), Mikami is no slouch, having been the driving creative force behind just about every Resident Evil game since the series debuted in ’96. What the godfather of survival horror brings to the feast, in his many years of experience directing triple-A titles, is a technical ying to Suda’s creative yang. Mikami becomes the megaphone thrown towards that whispered voice in the back of Suda’s brain, projecting at great velocity the kind of veteran guidance that shapes Suda’s brain farts into neat sprays of designer cologne.
I’ll happily shine over the symbiotic relationship these two masterminds share in Shadows for the rest of the article, but that would be missing the case and point here: the game itself. Shadows of the Damned stars Garcia (Fucking) Hotspur, a Latin demon slayer with more body art than Tommy Lee. His girl is kidnapped by the lord of hell, and made to experience death on repeat. Hotspur’s mission is to set her free from this grim cycle of suffering by fighting his way through hell and sticking it to the high ruler of down below. This journey is broken up into acts, each act representing some sort of world, or phase of hell. These sections are consistently different, and you’re unlikely to find any two that seem cut from the same stencil, with the game throwing up anything from puzzle stages, to tower defence, even side-scrolling shoot ‘em ups are represented here. It becomes crystal clear within an hour’s play that the team behind Shadows absolutely adored this project, each act being a true labour of love.
These stages revel in their depravity, and the game has no interest in apologizing for the imagery it displays. For instance, I had to double-take on a string of babies overhead, each one hanging from a noose. Fully animated, they kick out arms and legs as you pass them by. It took more scrupulous inspection to determine that they were in fact dolls, not infants, but the impact that visual has still carried an abundant measure of weight. Remember, people: this is hell. Damnation and hellfire are not the only points of interest throughout your stay, you’re going to encounter some gruesome things, half of which will revolve around your girlfriend as she’s torn in two, exploded, decapitated (multiple times), and feasted upon.
For all Suda 51′s demands to horrify and unsettle, at no point do we reach a level of excess. From the very beginning,Shadows paints a pretty clear picture of its intent. This could very easily have been a horror title, were it not for the tone of protagonist Garcia, and his glowing, bejeweled sidekick, Johnson. It wants to be sick, twisted fun. Humour plays a large part in this adventure, and while it’s abundantly crass and juvenile, the funnies deliver with such a loveably cheeky wink and nod that you can’t help but raise a wry smile. If Duke Nukem Forever’s poor and uncomfortable forray into potty humour (rape jokes? seriously?) cast a doubt over whether that content has had its day, Shadows makes us believe once again – our collective inner-13-year old breathes a relieved sigh.
One thing thankfully deceptive in its maturity is the gameplay, as Mikami steps to the forefront of this process and applies a tighter version of the controls used in Resident Evil 4. It’s a control scheme that seems specifically crafted for interaction with multiple enemies at once, giving you a button dedicated to a 180-degree turn, and an evasive roll that grants you escape from the very tightest of hellish (sorry!) situations. The latter offers something of an invincibility hack, actually, as enemies cannot make contact with you mid-roll, no matter how close to them you may be. I can see this being a justified grumble from the more hardcore crowd, but I personally found it a God send – it levels out overwhelming battles and affords you opportunities to restore health or reload weaponary.
I’ve gushed, but Shadows is not a flawless game. There’s the rare issue of screen trearing, or collision detection which could render you stuck in an invisible gap, unable to progress. This is not a gamebreaker, mind you, and happens once or twice, if ever. What’s important about Shadows is that it has very reasonable aims, and it hits them with the kind of style and attention to detail that you wont find in even the finest triple-A titles this year. It wants to be the kind of game you can pick up whatever mood you’re in, and just have a blast with. It wants to access that dumb fuckin’ kid in you, the one that existed before you started watching comedies by Christopher Guest or reading Chekhov, and let you know that it’s alright for that kid to breath every so often. Who’d have thought it’d be the darkly depths of hell teaching us all to lighten up, eh, pandejo!