Sunday, June 26, 2011

REVIEW - Shadows of the Damned.

Bam!

Let's ignore that Massimo Guarini has been credited as the director. If his work has any unique flavor, I have failed to detect it - besides, Shadows of the Damned was sold to us as the singularity-producing collision of legendary directors Shinji Mikami (God Hand, Resident Evil 4) and Suda 51 (No More Heroes, Killer 7). Rounding out this dream team of Japanese development is Akira Yamaoka, the composer who worked on pretty much every Silent Hill title. This game should be no less than a staggering explosion of visual style, flawless gameplay and utter craziness.

Shadows of the Damned is - unlike some of Mikami's previous works - no revolution in the gameplay department. Unlike much of Goichi Suda's games, it's not a master's thesis on visual flair and self-indulgence - what it is is a capable, zany, creative and straightforward romp through the underworld.

The game's constant use of genitalia-related puns may suggest it's a juvenile game for immature gamers, but it's a well-designed, fun and often clever title. Countless games feature protagonists who go to Hell and back in the name of their lady fair - Shadows is just a bit more literal about it.

You are Garcia Fucking Hotspur, hunter of demons. Your sidekick is Johnson, the reformed demon. The baddest of baddies stole your girl and took her to Hell, so naturally (led by your Johnson), you follow in hot pursuit. Oh hoh hoh. How droll.

Alright, I'm onside. Let's see what you've got, Suda-Mikami-Yamaoka-Guarini.


Shadows shares a lot in common with this month's other kinda'-pulpy release, Alice: Madness Returns. Both have a clear horror bent, both are visually striking but merely acceptable, in terms of pushing polygons, and both have gameplay that essentially could have been accomplished back on the PS2.

Unlike Alice, Shadows pulls well ahead in the gameplay department. Mikami's finely-honed gunplay (which he's perfected in titles like Resident Evil 4 and Vanquish) is front and center, here - nailing headshots is always met by a reasonable degree of skill and a satisfying level of challenge, but things are spruced up with Suda's trademarked ridiculousness. Occasionally your headshots will be accompanied by an unobtrusive slow-mo view of the bullet impacting a demon's face, to be followed by firework jets of crimson as the body takes a step and a half before falling.

Every now and again, it also brings to mind Mikami's other masterwork of gameplay, God Hand. Context-sensitive melee always feels vicious and impactful, and it's just as fun to mash square when stomping the life out of a crawling foe here as it was when you pummeled fetishists back on the PS2.


Weapon upgrades and selection is pared back and well-designed. While you only have three guns, each tools at your disposal is effective, satisfying and necessary. Your sidekick-demon Johnson is your handy-dandy source of exposition, as well as your weapon - he instantly transforms from a torch/club into a pistol, machine gun or shotgun, and the game certainly doesn't fail to inject as much double-entendres as possible into that equation.

Take your standard pistol, for example. It fires the bones of the dead, collected in chests throughout the underworld. Suitably - given its ammunition - it's simply called The Boner. After upgrading the weapon so it fires a superheated explosive substance (used for cracking enemy armor and carving out paths), it is obviously referred to thereafter as The Hotboner.

Progression is well-layered, with no tactic or mechanic outstaying its welcome before a new one is introduced - and the title comfortably points you in the right direction when you're given a new ability. For example, when you come to a nearly-broken wall that impedes your progress, Johnson suggests that in order to overcome the obstacle you fill its crack with your Hotboner.

Naturally.


In terms of presentation, there's a lot to love, here. The game is entirely linear, but between levels we're treated to a Ghouls N' Ghosts-style 2D map of the underworld, and a paper-cutout version of Garcia walking across it.

I love how, after a death and during the load, we see the paper-cutout Garcia pick himself up off the ground, throw a determined fist into the air and carry on. Lord help me, I even kinda' love the tiny, winged, cyclopic demon One Eyed Willy, who is always so terrified by your approach that he craps himself and takes to the sky - the flaming turd he leaves behind is a signal that you've just passed an autosave checkpoint. If you don't love Christopher, who serves as the underworld's store, I can only suggest you suffer from an irreparable flaw.

Shadows offers a creative yet familiar take on the underworld. Gothic architecture cut with cool blue, rich greens and bloody red abounds - but it's also full of interesting, imaginative detail and world-building that demands your attention. After a few hours of blowing your way through hordes of the screaming damned, I love that the game offers an optional, lazy pause as Garcia or Johnson reads the story of a fallen demon or legendary huntress.


The game is rich in flavor and uncensored creativity. This is clearly a title made by folks having fun - and this easygoing, let's-just-have-a-good-time attitude is the same one that lead me by the nose through the campaign.

Thanks to the fits-like-a-glove gameplay, I was always enjoying myself - often challenged but never frustrated. Thanks to its zany, anything-goes take on the land of the dead, I found myself constantly amused by flares of creativity and winking nods to horror genre (there's an Evil Dead homage, for example) and gleeful abandon of imagination.

Given that Shadows of the Damned is clearly a fun, original-feeling, indulgent, creative and comfortable game, you may - at this point - have the impression that it's worth an immediate purchase.

...I wouldn't go that far.


The game is, for starters, short. There's nothing wrong with games being short, so long as they totally blow my socks off - but, as covered above, Shadows is merely a good, fun, interesting game. It never really amazed me, and it lasts about eight hours.

At the same time - no biggie. It's a lean, well-crafted game, which is better than having it go on way longer than it has to. After having beaten it, though, I feel no great need to revisit it any time soon. There is no New Game+, there are no hidden unlockables - it's a decent, entertaining, fun-while-it-lasts experience - but the game gives you no reason to double-dip.

While I was largely (almost entirely) entertained by Shadows, I must admit I also found some of it a bit distasteful. I defended Duke Nukem Forever for taking a comedy tack in its treatment of women, and and being just as cruel to men - but the fact that every skinned, tortured, hanging body you come across in Hell is female is, frankly, disturbing.


Shadows of the Damned is a fun, original-yet-familiar, creative game that misses very few steps along its short path. Its simple, linear, classic structure feels just as natural as its finely-tuned shooting mechanics, and its interesting details and sense of style is unique enough to make it stand out.

It's an excellent rental - a game I certainly recommend investing your time in - but you'd likely be better served by waiting until it comes down in price. What's here is entertaining and generally above-par - there's just not enough of it to legitimize a sixty dollar price tag, and it's not impressive enough across the board to make it an event.

Heheh. Johnson.


THE GOOD
-Garcia Fucking Hotspur is a Mexi-can, not a Mexi-can't
-an original, funny, creative riff on Hell
-your lady fair actually becomes a very interesting, mysterious character by the end
-visually striking
-great music
-finely-tuned third-person shooting is satisfying and comfortable
-the combination of the shooting and (very simple) melee is well designed
-tons of entertaining little touches
-does a great job of slowly building its narrative
-Christopher
-always fun, never frustrating
-you can fill cracks with your Hotboner
-more dick puns than you can shake a Johnson at

THE BAD
-merely capable, in terms of graphics
-at eight hours it feels a bit lean
-little replay value, beyond the fun of it
-I find the fact that Hell only concerns itself with mutilating and torturing women a bit off-putting

THE VERDICT
Definitely check out Shadows of the Damned - but I wouldn't fault you for doing so on a budget.

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