Shadows of the Damned: Grindhouse Gaming

I’m just going to jump right into this for a second, because something happened in this game that I think needs to be recounted in full.  There is a moment when you’re facing some tougher enemies, and some heavier artillery is required.  You’re skull-demon sidekick Johnson (who, it should be mentioned, transforms into a gun called “The Boner”), calls up a phone sex line wherein the barrel of his gun extends about 5 feet and he becomes “The Big Boner”.  Garcia holds the gun square between his legs and fires it by thrusting his hips and shouting things like “Mmm, feels good!” or “You like it!” or, my personal favorite, “Taste my big boner!”

There, now that that’s out of the way, here’s Shadows of the Damned.

On a cobblestone street to Hell!

A Road Trip Waaaay South of the Border
Once getting past the startlingly unoriginal title, Shadows of the Damned tells the story of Mexican demon hunter Garcia Fucking (and I do think that’s his actual middle name, with it being capitalized in the subtitles and everything) Hotspur, on a quest to rescue his girlfriend Paula who has been kidnapped by the demon lord Fleming.  Aiding Garcia in his quest is the aforementioned reformed demon Johnson, a floating skull who lends a hand by transforming between a torch, a gun, and a motorcycle, and it is on this bike that would make Ghost Rider jealous that Garcia charges off into the Underworld on, braving all kinds of bizarre horrors and nightmarish creatures to win his beloved back.  It’s all very metal, very grindhouse, and yet very retro.

Slayer of Demon Pandejos
After suffering through Catherine, the characters in Shadows of the Damned were so enjoyable to play.  The dynamic between Garcia (made all the more wonderful by Steve Blum’s growling, exaggerated Mexican accent) and Johnson (made all the more wonderful by Greg Ellis’ cheeky British accent) is fantastic, and while I’m sure either of them on their own would become annoying, the banter they have together makes for a hilarious and enjoyable double act.

The hammer (Boner) is his penis

It’s a very buddy cop kind of set up, and I felt it worked wonderfully.  And the machismo is just off the charts.  The whole game can basically be boiled down to one big pissing contest between Garcia and, well, everyone else.  You’re first encounter with Fleming is predominantly about whose ‘equipment’ is bigger.

Fleming himself was a bit lackluster, but you don’t really need to know much more about him than he is an evil bastard and he has your girlfriend.  Oh, and he apparently has a soft spot for opera.  Also lacking was Paula.  Or rather, she was just downright annoying.  But again, I chalked that up to the sort of retro flair this game seems to have been going for, as I can’t think of a single princess in any game pre-2000 that I didn’t want to just just leave to her fate, the whiny hapless bitch.  Even the side characters, including a redneck half-demon and a briefly seen fellow demon hunter found their way into my heart through their exaggerated personas.  But in all honesty, the characters who stood out the most for me was the bosses.  Again, they adopt the sort of retro gaming approach, having little to no tie-in with the actual story (aka, you’re only fighting them because you’re at the end of the level).  But you get to learn each of the damned souls tale through a series of children’s story books found throughout the game.  It’s a small little touch but it’s one I just loved.

Wait… There’s a Side-Scrolling 2D Segment?
Yes.  Yes there is, and though it’s likely there because suddenly the budget wasn’t as big as it once had seemed, everything about it from the design to the music to the sound effects is wonderful.

Or, as Johnson refers to it, a 'paper chase'!

As far as gameplay goes otherwise, Shadows of the Damned is relatively easy.  It’s a third person over-the-shoulder shooter reminiscent of Resident Evil 4 but made all the more manageable with the ability to move while aiming and dodge anytime a zombie is trying to kick you like a ninja.  It also mixes it up with some rather clever puzzle challenges and something I thought video games had long since abandoned; key hunting.  However, as the keys are massive glowing strawberries you then proceed to shove into the mouths of baby-faced doors, I really didn’t mind.

Gameplay never really got stale and there was at least one new idea introduced in each level to keep it interesting.  Where I thought it did kind of fall off was in the weapon upgrade system.  You’re able to increase your weapons damage, capacity, or reload time using red gems (yes, diamonds are the currency in Hell… no, don’t try to make sense of it, just go with it), but I never found this to ever make a substantial difference.  All I ever really wanted to do was improve my weapons accuracy, or give it a lock-on feature, or a scope, or anything along those lines.  Oh sure you’re machine gun does eventually get homing bullets, but at that point it’s just cheating.

The Three Amigos
It impossible to talk about this game without mentioning the talent that brought it together; three of the biggest names in horror games.  Shadows of the Damned comes to you from the minds of Suda51 (director of killer7 and the No More Heroes series), Shinji Mikami (creator of Resident Evil) and Akira Yamaoka (sound designer and composer for the Silent Hill series).  That seems to be the way the game was pitched, on those names alone, and for the most part, it worked out.  Everyone brought at least bits of their own unique flair to the project, and it really did make for a game that was as funny as it was fun to play.

But despite all this, it doesn’t seem to be the award winning, box office breaking team-up it should have been.  In comparison to Resident Evil 4, where relaxing during a cut scene resulted in you getting your head lobbed off by a crazed man wielding a chainsaw, Shadows of the Damned is almost insultingly easy.  Akira’s music, while well suited to the unsettling and haunting environments of Silent Hill, seem to fall flat in certain places, most notably during boss fights.  And then there’s Suda.  For a long while, I was actually questioning whether Suda had any influence on the game at all.

Alright, that segment was pretty trippy.

The box declares it to be a “Suda51 Trip”, and while there are some wonderfully WTF? moments, Shadows of the Damned is far from the kind of trip I’ve come to associate with Suda.  Play killer7, play No More Heroes.  Hell, play Michigan.  Shadows of the Damned is probably the most grounded Suda has ever been.  Although, I am talking about a game in which gates are blocked by glowing, impenetrable curtains of ‘demon pubes’, so I guess you can take that for what it’s worth.

TL;DR?

The Good:
-Smooth controls
-Various styles of gameplay
-Great dialogue and voice acting
-Likable characters
-Tongue-in-cheek humor that varies between crude and clever, subtle and self-explanatory
-Retro flair
-Differing and well designed environments
-An imaginative world
-The best loading screen ever

The Bad:
-Ineffective weapon upgrade system
-No in-game motorcycle riding
-Underwhelming given the people involved
-Typical Suda51 ending (ie, random and disappointing)

Oh how I wish that move was actually in the game

The Bottom Line:
It’s style and humor certainly isn’t for everyone, so I would recommend renting it before deciding to pick it up or not.  Though it is a little on the short side, so if you’re looking to save your money (for Arkham City and Skyrim), then you might be able to experience the whole Boner blasting, demon baby feeding, living goat-head chandelier shooting ride in a rent.

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