Shadows of the Damned
US: 21 Jun 2011
One of the most classic gaming tropes is that of the Princess being in “Another Castle”. This has been the case since Donkey Kong, where a successful traversal of a level would inevitably result in the titular Kong merely sweeping up Pauline (not yet Peach) and dragging her up to the next level. You never, ever, got the girl. Then, of course, there is the namesake of the trope, Super Mario Brothers. Mario battles his way through each level, faces down Bowser, rushes into that final chamber, and is greeted by Toad, who informs him that, yes, once again the Princess is in another castle.
In this sense, Shadows of the Damned is very traditional in its premise. Garcia Hotspur (or more accurately, Garcia Fucking Hotspur) battles his way through the various levels in order to rescue Paula, his blonde bombshell of a girlfriend, from demons. As Garcia progresses through a level, Garcia gets closer and closer to his goal, catching glimpses of Paula until finally . . . she dies.
Again. And so, Hotspur pushes on to the next level.
Paula does a lot of dying in Shadows of the Damned, and these deaths are uniformly unpleasant. She is hanged, eviscerated, dismembered, and then—just for good measure—worn by a demon as a second skin. Whenever this happens, Garcia brushes himself off, swears loudly, and continues on to the next level. What Paula thinks about this whole situation is not explored until the very end, which is something which we won’t go into here, as others have already done so (also, as a review it would be in fairly poor taste to spoil some of the moments that the game has in store).
Paula, in a rare moment of not being killed horribly.
So let’s back up. Shadows of the Damned is a very good game. All the problems that generally accompany a Suda51 game, be they somewhat wonky controls or curious glitches or bland environments (though I would argue, and persuasively too, I think, that Killer 7‘s style is exquisite and No More Heroes’ bland environments are bland for a reason), with the same wonderful control scheme that came with Resident Evil 4. This is, of course, because Shinji Mikami was a part of this particular Suda51 excursion (the game pretentiously refers to the game as “A Suda51 Trip”) and both his eye for smooth controls and his particular artistic aesthetic (lots of blood and shambling horrors) are on full display here. This is to the game’s benefit, as the subject matter (demon hunter goes to hell to rescue his girlfriend) seems to invite the sort of horrors Mikami has been putting into games since Resident Evil. Is it any surprise then, that the default enemies are essentially blue zombies? Of course not.
The difference, of course, is that in the Resident Evil series, zombies are frightening. In Shadows of the Damned, however, these blue zombies are cannon fodder, little more than boxes of health and ammunition that you open by shooting in the head. Occasionally a group will prove difficult (especially when that group happens to wander out of the Darkness, a mechanic which both harms Garcia’s health and makes monsters invulnerable to weapons until hit by a light shot), but for the most part, the enemies and even the boss monsters are not terribly difficult.
I guess that technically they are green zombies after you get the Darkness off of them.
I would venture further and say that the game, as a whole, is not that difficult—but I, at least, like a game that can be blazed through every now and again. In addition, Shadows of the Damned has enough character to it to make the time spent with it worthwhile, namely a juvenile sense of humor that focuses almost entirely around the fact that Garcia’s weapon of choice is a transforming demon skull named Johnson whose primary form is called the Boner.
My only gripe with Shadows of the Damned is that it feels so little like the sort of game that I (at least) have come to expect from Suda 51. I’m not talking about the punk aesthetic (although this is an awfully polished game for a Suda 51 game), but so many of the more bizarre trappings of Suda’s games have been left somewhat by the wayside. There is a talking skull, yes, but he is there to explain all the bizarre shit you see in the world. Sure, you feed demon doors strawberries (“Let me know if I have to fuck a horse to open a door,” Hotspur growls snarkily), but then Johnson has to explain why strawberries are so popular among demons. Contrast this with Killer 7, where a disembodied teenage girl shows up with rings in her mouth, and her appearance is never explained. Any weirdness comes complete with an explanation from Johnson—and while the explanations are witty and Hotspur’s reactions to the explanations are funny too—I’d expected Suda to merely put the strange surroundings in front of the player with a shrug and a “it’s hell, what did you expect?” The art style is also a departure for Suda, lacking any of the stylization of his other work—something which on the one hand, I can completely understand, while on the other hand, I really have come to enjoy and even expect. To see Shadows of the Damned looking so much like a million other games out there was somewhat disappointing.
That said, Shadows of the Damned is a fun game. It may be too easy for some, and it is short, but it is worth playing. Paula’s side of the story—of being kidnapped by demons and dragged into hell—is certainly an interesting idea which the game plays with (rather brilliantly in the end), and it is really in the game’s climax that Shadows of the Damned feels most like a game by Suda 51. Unfortunately, the team up of Suda and Mikami does not produce a product that outshines either developer’s previous work, but it does produce an enjoyable game—one that, were it not for the release of Bastion, would be my favorite game of the year thus far.