Suda 51 is not your normal game designer. Just looking at his history, from Killer 7 to No More Heroes, should tell you that he doesn’t go in for formulaic looks, cliched settings, or stories that take themselves too seriously. They’re all about style, pinching the player to wake them up from their reverie of stock excitements, and then splashing cold WTF all over their world when they least expect it.
That’s what makes his games so much fun to play. At the same time, it’s also clear that they’re not for everybody. Being different doesn’t necessarily mean ‘being commercially popular’. Yet to EA’s credit, they’ve daringly decided to bank on his unique take on gaming with Shadows of the Damned.
Shadows crams you into the boots of Garcia Hotspur, a Mexican demon hunter, who carries a talking, transforming skull sidekick named Johnson. Enter the femme of his dreams, Paula, who is kidnapped by a powerful demon lord named Fleming who dares Garcia to come after her.
So it’s off into a bizarre, third-person underworld of graveyards, scary shacks settled within haunted woods, hidden caves, and medieval streets lined with fascist posters proclaiming the unrivaled (because you can only vote for one party) magnanimity of Fleming.
Johnson can transform himself into many different weapons, each requiring ammo which can either be found or bought from the occasional vending machine. Puzzles, such as blasting wall-mounted goat heads with a light shot to illuminate health-draining zones to destroying the faces of a darkness-spewing fountain are also found everywhere. Doors that can only be opened when Garcia has the right key, which can range from strawberries to brains, block his way.
Fortunately, Garcia is not afraid of getting his trigger finger dirty and Shadows plays a lot like Capcom’s Resident Evil 5. If you’re coming off of that, you’ll be well practiced to handle blasting the undead hordes in this game. Aiming can take a little getting used to, though at least he can move while he lines up his shots.
Red gems, which can be bought with ‘teeth’ found or dropped by enemies, contribute to an upgrade system focusing on things such as Garcia’s health to improving the power of Johnson’s individual gun modes. There are a lot of upgrade steps for many of these options, though there are also plenty of red gems – and teeth – for the taking if you’re the exploring type.
Eventually, Garcia is going to run into tough, powerful demons that have a particular hate-on for him and may have been hinted at through one of several twisted fairy tale books scattered throughout the game. Battling these bad guys were great fun especially when their favored size was skyscraper titanic.
Shadows’ flamboyant style also extends to not only the art but the gameplay. Shadows isn’t the best looking game out there and some areas can look downright ugly – and not because they were designed that way. Washed out textures, too-brightly lit surfaces, and invisible walls pepper each level, though its easy to see that the imaginative drive of Grasshopper Manufacture’s artists impress every area with their own unique look and challenges turning a sordid underworld into a funky, almost snarky, rendition of Hades.
Several stages are set up like side-scrolling shooters with Garcia and Johnson lightly cracking the 4th wall by wondering at what is going on. There’s bowling with explosives and plenty of grindhouse gore soaking many of the scenes…and bludgeoned bosses. Progress in a level is shown as a 2D animation of a kind with Garcia’s marionette’d motions walking along a representation of the level to the next area.
The game also earns its Mature rating from the heavy innuendo thrown at the player with at nearly every scene along with a little nudity, suggested or otherwise. The good news is that in walking the fine line between clever and tasteless, Shadows manages to slamdance squarely on the smart side of things without making it feel as if you had descended back into high school, though not all of the dialogue is as polished. Some jokes wear out their welcome well before the halfway point of the game is reached and then beat themselves senseless in the other half.
As fun as Garcia’s quest for his personal Persephone is, it’s not without its own curses. Not being able to climb back down a ladder was just weird to see here. We’ve seen that with Capcom’s Resident Evil 4, yet for some reason, that curse has followed Garcia years later into his own game done by someone else.
Then there are the doors that close permanently shut behind him, even though there’s no real reason to block off many of the rooms that you’ve visited before making a relatively linear game even moreso with one way portals. And while shooting through one or two 2D side scrolling setups tickled the shmup fan inside of me, they got pretty old later on. Then there are the checkpoints that force you through the obligatory in-game cinematic before getting to the actual festivities.
The game comes in at around eight hours of play depending on your chosen difficulty level and whether you take the time to weedle out every hidden red gem or teeth cache. After finishing the game and getting a promise for a potential sequel, there’s really not much else to look forward to unless you want try and cap all of the Achievements.
For those that could care less about gamerscore, there’s little else to celebrate. No New Game + mode, costumes, leaderboards…nothing at all. There not even an art gallery with production sketches or renders. Just difficulty levels to pick from and a new game to start off with. It’s as arcade as you can get which might not settle well with players looking for at least a few extras at the end. A game like this almost screams for a challenge mode of some kind, such as surviving hordes of demons, a boss rush, or something to give players more to look forward to in stretching the experience further.
That makes a game as stylish and as fun as Shadows something of a puzzling contradiction for what it doesn’t have and for what it brings to the table. It’s a solid action adventure every bit as bizarre as anything else from Suda 51’s fevered imagination. There’s no question of that. To some, it might be worth the full sticker price if only for that.
Yet at the same time, it lets itself down by not packing a few more things into its overnight bag which might not play well with others. Shadows is a game packed with mature excitement, thrills, and plenty of action. And it can also leave you to wonder if it was all worth its weight in teeth.
Shadows of the Damned
Electronic Arts / Grasshopper Manufacture
Xbox 360 / PS3 (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature