What might you get when you put three of Japan's finest contemporary game developers in a room? Suda 51 (killer7, No More Heroes), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil 4), and Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill Composer) recently got together with EA to create a new IP known as Shadows of the Damned. This third person horror action game stars Garcia (F'n) Hotspur, a successful demon hunter from Mexico. So successful in fact, that Fleming, an ancient demon, takes Paula, Garcia's girlfriend into Hell with him to lure Garcia in.
Garcia takes the bait, and along with his friendly demon buddy Johnson, jumps right into the darkness to save Paula from the clutches of Fleming. A combination of Alan Wake and Resident Evil 4, with a nagging use of sexual jokes and innuendo for humor, Shadows of the Damned is, despite some minor quibbles, a hell of a game.
What the Hell?
Shadows is played from an over-the-shoulder third person perspective, not unlike Resident Evil 4, right down to the laser sight. Gameplay is more action than survival, and light and dark are a constant and significant gameplay mechanic that effects combat and puzzles. Act Four takes some creative liberties with how you play, but for the most part Shadows plays like most third person shooters, which is not a bad thing.
Controlling Garcia as he journeys through Suda 51's vision of Hell is fun and mostly responsive -- I'll elaborate on the latter part shortly. Controls and other game elements are introduced to you fluidly and as necessary. Rather than some obscure character or narrator voice, Shadows just uses graphics to show you the ropes, which isn't unique, but I like that the devs did it this way. You can refer to the Johnsonpedia in the pause menu if you need to look up info on controls, the environment, or weapons.
The controls are well laid out, with L1 for Aim, R1 to shoot, X for 180 turn, R1 (without pressing L1) to sprint, and the d-pad buttons to change weapons, i.e., to change between Johnson's different forms. By holding Triangle, you can see what health items you have in stock (Hot Sake, Tequila, and Absinthe). By holding Triangle and pressing a d-pad direction, you can choose which drink you want to consume. You can dive roll with X plus the left stick, look with the right stick, and melee attack with Circle. Square is used to reload and interact with the environment.
Anyway, it wasn't long before I tweaked the aiming speed down a bit on the X axis. By default, I found the aiming to be a little too touchy, especially in going for headshots, the most damaging shot. After tweaking that, aiming was much more comfortable. The only other control issue I had is one that I just learned to deal with; in switching weapons and switching between health items, I found there to be a delay, especially in the heat of battle, that I had to account for. For a while, I thought reloading was a little finicky but I decided that my issue was not waiting for the complete reloading animation to complete sometimes, which cancels the reload sequence. Furthermore, if a weapon needs reloading, just picking up ammo does not reload, you must do it manually. These are just a couple of very minor things I wanted to mention.
Shadows is split into five Acts, each with at least three, up to six, Chapters. It took me about ten hours to play through on Medium difficulty. Garcia's progression is a linear one, in other words, he is gunning straight for Fleming's castle, which is very deep in hell and guarded by hordes of demons. The variety of enemies is pretty cool -- standard zombie like demons are mixed with other that have range attacks and there are several brute demons as well. Some demons run at you with melee attacks, such as blades, others shoot you from afar with electricity. Other demons are also armored, covered in a dark energy that you have to break before they can sustain damage.
Darkness can only be combated with light, whether from Johnson (your friend and weapon), or from the environment. Johnson has a Lightshot (R2) that can ignite lamps, certain bugs, and goat head's that are mounted on walls (don't ask -- this place is weird). You can also use Lightshots to shoot directly at a foe. This is similar to Alan Wake's flashlight, except Garcia's light is in shots, instead of a continuous stream.
Besides demons, the environment provides additional challenges at times. Darkness can spew out from certain demonic hands, for example. Whenever Garcia is in darkness, he is in pain, and within seconds, you will start to take damage. Most of these areas can be flooded with light, once you find the source, but some require you to simply run through as quickly as you can. As you can imagine, certain boss fights -- all of which are at least visually impressive -- employ this light/dark mechanic to keep you on
The default Lightshot is decent, but fortunately it is also upgradeable. Shadows features what the developers at EA called Macro and Micro upgrades. The Macro ones are given to you at specific intervals in the game, namely, when you beat a boss and pick up the Blue Gem that is left behind. These upgrades make a major change to Johnson's capabilities, such as giving his 'assault rifle' mode, known as the Teether, a new form. Specifically, one barrel becomes five, and then after another scripted upgrade The Teether can auto target multiple enemies. The Monocussioner, which is like a shotgun,
can blast four skulls at once, after one upgrade, and then after that, you can launch a grenade although the aiming for these grenades is very flaky. The Hotboner, the default and my favorite Johnson form, is like a revolver. It receives an explosive upgrade about halfway through the game that is vital for opening certain structural barriers and for removing armor off of certain, visually-obvious demons.
In addition to the Macro upgrades, there are also eighty micro upgrades that you can unlock by finding (or buying) Red Gems. Any time you have a Red Gem, you can press Select to open the upgrade screen. Garcia's maximum health can be upgraded, as can the Hotboner, Teether, Monocussioner, Lightshot, and Torch. Upgrade types include damage, reload speed, and capacity. Each weapon is very useful, and Red Gems are not all that common (I only managed to round up about forty-three by the time I completed
the game), so deciding how to spend your Gems takes some thought.
The third type of gem is the White Gem, which many demons drop when they perish. These are used at vending machines to buy alcohol (health items) and can also be spent when you encounter Christopher. Christopher is a creepy looking half human, half demon whose voice and personality are polar opposite of his appearance. He is a merchant that pops up in the most convenient places on your journey to Fleming's castle. He loves White Gems -- eats them, literally -- and in return can sell you drinks, Red Gems, and ammo.
Each level, or chapter, within Shadows is all about getting closer to Fleming. One thing that impressed me a lot was how Shadows kept introducing new gameplay elements, even if minor, from act to act, almost chapter to chapter. It kept the experience fresh all the way to the end. Act Four featured the greatest amount of these gameplay changes, including three chapters that are played like a 2D SHMUP. The gameplay and controls are the same, but you're playing, literally, from a 2D perspective as you control a floating Garcia from left to right. Part of me respected the creative and bold decision to include major segments of the game in this form, but these levels are more annoying than the rest of the game, too. Fortunately, there are only three chapters like this so it doesn't become a problem.
My biggest issue with Shadows is actually not something specific about the gameplay, although the final boss fight was annoying, but instead it's the over the top sexual and raunchy content. It's fine for a game not to take itself seriously, but I think it's a shame when the developers decide to go this route (think along the lines of Duke Nukem Forever and Bulletstorm). I was literally embarrassed to play some segments of this game in front of others, it's that immature. But, I imagine Grasshopper decided to center their game around this type of content to help balance the otherwise very dark and grotesque atmosphere. However, there are more commendable ways to do this. Think about God Hand, or Deadly Premonition -- those games, especially the latter, had some very dark subject material, but the developers decided to balance that with a quirky, very interesting main character. And it totally worked. My point being, I think Shadows could have been a stronger, more satisfying game had the developers not resorted to sexual innuendos and humor, none of which garnered more than a faint smirk from me anyway at best.
That issue aside, Shadows of the Damned is undeniably fun. While the level design is pretty linear and, for the most part, very basic, the variety of enemies, the light/dark mechanic, the balanced difficulty, the upgrade system, etc., made it a treat to play through. The boss fights, too, were creative and engaging, although again that last one gets grating. As I mentioned before, Grasshopper kept dropping in new
gameplay mechanics and elements every now and then just to keep the experience fresh and fun; it worked nicely.
From a presentation standpoint, Shadows does very well for itself. It was built on Unreal technology, and therefore has a fairly familiar look to it. The art is appropriately visceral, although some of the blood effects were a little too anime at times (high volume and pressure). There are some framerate drops at times to be aware of, but nothing critical. Effects are good, and the voiceovers are great -- the main characters sound very good, very believable, and also unique. Music was handled by Akira Yamaoka, of Silent Hill fame. There is a variety of genres in this soundtrack to fit the various locales and moods Garcia enters. Expect a mix of subtle, upbeat, and weird tracks that come together to make a very competent score that fits the bizarre mood of the game extremely well.
Shadows does not feature a multiplayer mode, which is perfectly acceptable, although I have to wonder how cool it would have been if they included some kind of co-op with the Colonel character you meet during Act 3? Short of that, some kind of New Game Plus support would have been great; it would be fun to restart the game on the hardest difficulty with the weapons and upgrades from a previous play-through, but alas, that is not included here.
To the summary...