A patchwork, not a hybrid, Shadows Of The Damned is an awkward mixture of elements from the oeuvres of its high-profile creators. As executive director and writer, Suda 51 brings along many of the motifs that have typified his quirky, outlandish productions. From wisecracking protagonist Garcia Hotspur to blood-spurting finishers and a fetish for strawberries, it’s easy to mistake Shadows Of The Damned for his latest solo effort rather than his first major collaboration. Creative producer Shinji Mikami’s influence is less overt, evident most obviously in a control scheme, camera and weapon upgrade system carried over from Resident Evil 4.
The threadbare plot – Hotspur’s girlfriend is dragged to hell by the Lord Of Demons, and he goes after her – sets up the action. Divided into bite-sized acts, the game thunders along at a cracking pace but the monotony of repetition sets in fast. Regardless of the frequency and variety of boss battles, and minor distractions like 2D side-scrolling sections, the gameplay is too basic and the tasks too simple to motivate you to plumb hell’s depths for seven hours.
There are two firing modes: light shots for enemies veiled by shadow to stun them into vulnerability, and standard shots for everything else. Darkened areas need illuminating, either by shooting wall-mounted goat heads (we did mention Suda 51’s involvement, right?) or activating giant fireworks, before you can comfortably take care of the walking damned. The work of Suda and Mikami has never demanded competitive AI, but the nature of the game’s demonic foes calls for something more advanced and, sadly, it doesn’t deliver. The creatures roaming this underworld are athletic and aggressive, but their pathfinding and attacks are haphazard and embarrassing.
It’s a problem made worse by the fact that precision headshots are a worthwhile pursuit – granting you a quick exit when you most need it – but near-impossible as foes stumble, lurch and spin around on the spot. A lock-on or some auto-aim would be a huge help, especially against some of the super-sized villains of the deep, but it’s just one of the design team’s oversights. Boss battles are often epic in scale but rarely call for anything other than point-and-shoot target skills. Keeping such set-pieces simple is, however, a commendable design decision that suits the restrictive over-the-shoulder camera.
Your arsenal is eccentric but limited. The skull-themed stand-ins for pistol, shotgun and machine-gun are modified as the game progresses, introducing explosive upgrades that take too much effort to conveniently utilise. Charging up your Skullcussioner, for example, to fire off a grenade-style skull-bomb, takes too long and its targeting is too imprecise to be effective. As you upgrade certain guns, such as the machine-gun-style Teether, they’re transformed from believable to ridiculous. There’s a novelty value to their over-the-top looks, but they can severely obstruct your view when backed into a corner.
If the weapons suffer for their grand designs, the environments suffer for their consistent banality. Though Hotspur’s journey takes him from towns and forests to catacombs, none of the locales are memorable. Each is drenched in the same red and yellow hue, giving hell the look of an episode of CSI (complete with limbs strewn all over the place). Only one environment truly stands out: the neon streets of the red light district. It’s just a shame this section of the game is so off-putting in its sexualisation and juvenility. Shadows Of The Damned is mired by innuendo and crude humour throughout. The game’s damsel in distress, Paula, is an underwear-clad object regularly ogled by the camera and demeaned by the script.
Sexism may be a familiar aspect of Suda’s work, but in No More Heroes, for example, there are strong helpings of charm and personality – along with some existential commentary – to take the edge off. Scaling the giant, naked upper torso of Paula to reach an exit is a preposterous scene, neither funny nor meaningful. It also summons one of the game’s biggest demons: none of it has any point. It feels slapdash rather than premeditated, as if the creative minds behind it were unchained beyond reason, allowed to throw in idea after idea without regard for the resultant experience. A gung-ho marine with 30 seconds of screen time? Sure! A turret section in which your weapon calls a sex line to enlarge itself? Go for it!
Underpinning the game’s idea gauntlet, however, is a solid set of mechanics that should have been capitalised on and refined further. At its best the action can feel like a trigger-happy Resident Evil 4, and the fluid death animations appear to have been lifted wholesale from those of Killer 7’s Heaven Smiles. Headshots lead to a dynamic, Stranglehold-style bullet-cam, and some of the creature design is frightfully effective. With such potential, it’s a shock to find no incentive for return play. There’s no option to return to your favourite moments upon completion, and the lack of a high-score mode is a missed opportunity.
When two industry heavyweights put their heads together, the hope is that they’ll deliver something that plays to the strengths of both individuals’ expertise. Shadows Of The Damned actually does the opposite, accentuating Suda’s often over-indulgent scriptwriting and accelerating Mikami’s brand of horror into a hyper-gothic, shock-free world of bright lights. With a little more restraint and focus on the core experience, Shadows Of The Damned could have been the action thrill ride Garcia Hotspur thinks it is. Instead the game – like Hotspur himself – is all talk.