Shadows of the Damned is ‘a survival horror’ game developed by Japanese studio Grasshopper Manufacture, known for it’s visionary founder Suda51 and the games Killer7 and No More Heroes. The cover art (US) touts the game as ‘A Suda51 Trip’ and as my first Suda51 experience, I was treated to a unique game with a few flaws.
It’s hard to even begin to talk about Shadows of the Damned without first touching on the uniqueness of the direction of the game. Now, I’m no stranger to a unique experience, and knowing Grasshopper is a development studio in Japan, expected some of the uniqueness to come from western/eastern cultural differences, but Shadows really surprised me in that it is unique because of it’s direction and ideas that aren’t grounded in one specific culture. From a huge friendly demon with a southern drawl to a floating eyeball that drops a number two for a checkpoint to a half-man, half-goat who rides a horse that farts dark matter, it’s just an extremely unique experience and this is one of the best aspects of the game. Basically, the game follows a demon hunter named Garcia Hotspur in his quest to rescue his love interest Paula after she is kidnapped by Fleming (a sort of king of the demons). Garcia has a sidekick named Johnson, a fire-y floating skull capable of transforming into objects such as a motorcycle, a torch, and even Garcia’s own weapons.
The writing in Shadows is pretty darn good. Shadows has no reservations when it comes to sexual innuendo and/or dirty jokes but the game acknowledges this and almost mocks itself, turning some of the dialogue into cheesy references and jokes you see coming but still are pulled off by decent enough voice actors. Once in awhile though expect that line to be crossed and the game to deliver a joke or line that falls flat on it’s face. The enjoyable writing and commentary provided throughout the game almost always invoke a chuckle though it tapers off towards the end and makes the game feel dull in the final levels.
Even though the game is described as a survival horror game, I found it to be much closer to a third-person action shooter. The game is never really that scary and the only reason you ever would run out of ammo is due to the large number of shots it takes to bring down certain enemies, and by that time you’ve already realized there is ammo all over the place so pushing forward isn’t much of a mental strain that games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill create by limiting ammo and items. Shadows plays similar to Resident Evil 4 in that it’s an over-the-shoulder shooter and even has some of the same moves like the quick 180-degree turn around and the melee slam. While the controls are relatively solid, it just isn’t all there and sometimes you will find yourself running against walls when trying to turn or being hit by enemies when just trying to move around. Imagine a smooth improvement over Resident Evil 4 but falling short of the polish found in the Gears of War games.
Of course, what good would a demon hunter be without weapons? Garcia is presented with three primary weapons throughout his journey: the Boner (a pistol), the Skullblaster (a shotgun/grenade launcher), and the Teethgrinder (a machine gun/assault rifle). In the game, these weapons are actually formed by Johnson, Garcia’s sidekick. As you defeat level bosses the game rewards you with blue gems which are inserted into Johnson’s skull (automatically) and upgrade your weapons. Other than the story, the game drives the player forward by providing an interactive weapon upgrade system where the player spends red gems which can be found around the levels or bought in the store on upgrading things like weapon damage, reload speed, and capacity as well as non-weapon upgrades like Garcia’s health meter. It’s a pretty simple system and with the number of slots you’ll have a hard time maxing out everything (if even possible) so in theory you’ll need to pick your upgrades carefully. However, while I played the game on Normal (the game starts with Easy, Normal, and Hard modes) the game wasn’t very challenging at all and I only died once or twice in the entire play through so upgrading your weapons really doesn’t matter until the very end of the game, but by that time you’re already so powerful and have gained enough skill that it doesn’t matter then either.
Shadows runs on the Unreal 3 engine so everything that applies to just about every Unreal 3 engine based game applies here. The graphics are still gorgeous and some of the shader effects are really nice but you’ll still experience things like entering an area and see the game render an object while slowly transforming it from a very low-res texture to a high-res, bump/parallax mapped texture. It’s not a major issue, especially for Unreal 3 tech fans like me, but it still brings you back into realizing you’re playing a game.
Alternatively, the game features a few levels where instead of a traditional 3D over-the-shoulder shooter you play through a 2D side-scrolling shooter (think R-Type) in a Vaudeville-esque style where everything looks like it’s made of tacked together cardboard (similarly, the between level load screens feature this style as well). These levels try to break up the monotony of the way the rest of Shadows looks, but it’s just too unlike the rest of the game to be taken seriously. The first time you enter one of these levels is refreshing but by the end you can’t wait until you return to 3D so by the second and third instances of these shooter levels you’re basically slamming a shoot button waiting to get back to the regular game.
In the end, Shadows of the Damned is a very unique game that is hindered by some linear design. The game is absolutely worth a play through but I wouldn’t recommend purchasing it unless you really feel like supporting Grasshopper (which maybe you should as finding a truely unique game in today’s market is rare). In total the game probably took me only 4-5 hours to play through and that included 80% of the achievements so repeat play-through’s are only going to be getting those achievements as nothing else in the story or game is really going to change that much. Also consider the fact that beating the game on Normal won’t give you the achievements for Easy mode and you cannot skip in-game cutscenes, meaning you’ll be forced to watch the same game 3 full times (maybe it’s a bonus the game only lasts a few hours?).
- Extremely unique and original
- Laughably interesting mature dialogue and situations
- Fun (if basic) shooting gameplay
- Very short
- Lack of polish in controls
- Potentially useless weapon customization