There’s always a certain danger when already-established artists band together on a super-project. Jaded music lovers can no doubt list countless mis-aligned examples of this off the top of their heads, but those on the more optimistic side will always have faith in the potential of what could be. Shadows of the Damned is aiming for exactly that ‘what if’ scenario – in this by case taking Suda 51 (Killer 7, No More Heroes), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil, God Hand), and recent Grasshopper acquisition Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill & Bemani series). With Suda bringing the style, Mikami bringing the mechanics, and Yamaoka bringing the atmosphere, surely Damned has a better chance than most to live up to the hype?
Game: Shadows of the Damned
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Available on: PlayStation and Xbox 360 (review format)
The game sees you in the role of one Garcia Hotspur; a tattooed, purple jacket clad, foul-mouthed demon hunter. One evening you return home to find your abode intruded upon, with your lady love Paula whisked away by the lord of all demons in front of your own eyes. Whilst Garcia’s true desire is to rescue Paula or to just slay lots of demons is questionable; motives aside however, you give pursuit and shortly find yourself in the demon realm with no intent of leaving without your betrothed. With you is your trusty aide Johnson; a skull, and former resident of the demon world. As well as providing information and light comic relief through his quips and commentary, he is essential in his role as a cranial swiss army knife; turning into a variety of different weapons, vehicles, and tools to assist you on your way.
Whilst not entirely complimentary, perhaps the nicest thing that can be said about the game’s visual design is that it remains functional throughout. Whilst some areas are fantastically designed – colourful, clever and memorable – for every one such area there’s a multitude of considerably less thrilling counterparts – typically drab, grey, and dark. Whilst this is never detrimental to play, it’s unfortunate that some areas simply aren’t as enjoyable as others. Technically speaking, the Unreal engine brings with it the usual complaints of texture pop-in, and when run above the native 720p there is some screen tear, although this is easily avoided through system configuration if this is something that makes or breaks your gaming experience.
When you take into account that he’s merely responsible for the soundtrack, some may be surprised to see how prominently Akira Yamaoka is associated with the game, but rest assured that this credit is far beyond deserved. Every moment – be it quirky, scary, tense, funny, or tongue-in-cheek – is perfectly scored, and the soundtrack is a true delight throughout, and deserving of the highest praise. Some tracks are used multiple times throughout but even this does not grate, given how sublimely matched the action on screen is paired to what’s coming from your speakers. Even Grasshopper’s punk rock ethos is catered to brilliantly, with a collaboration track between Yamaoka and British punk legends The Damned on the title track. Regular Yamaoka listeners will be pleased to hear the return of another more regular collaborator, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, providing vocals for the excellent main theme.
Given Suda’s hallmark creations it’s unsurprising, but a lot of the hype for the title has focused on how “crazy” it is. In reality, in Damned this impression is largely derivative of over-calculated weirdness and a plethora of (admittedly, often quite amusing) dick jokes. The game’s primary defining mechanic is hardly “crazy” either, where shadows sap at Garcia’s life, and finding a light source is often key to survival. With third person shooters being two-a-penny it’s important to do something differently, and whilst not quite as weird as some would like to portray, Damned does do enough to stand out, even if only by a little.
Whilst often moving around with the slapstick grace and predictability you’d expect from the Chuckle brothers, the enemies serve their purpose solidly. For every clumsy pattern you spy, a counterpart dodge and attack should already be planned out in your head, and in making mistakes you can expect to be punished. Intelligent AI this is may not be, but playing the game inefficiently will still see you struggling, and having to spend your precious upgrade money (or teeth, in this case) on replenishing your ammo or health to keep you going. Boss encounters are much the same too, and despite bearing some interesting designs, their attack patterns often signpost weaknesses a bit too obviously, with giant, glowing, red weak spots giving the game up a bit too easily.
Given the linearity of the quest, any replays you choose to undertake are fresh from the beginning of the game, with no ‘new game +’ or the like to bring over your pre-gained weapons and abilities. Red gems – “performance enhancers” to keep in with the toilet-humour theme – are the sole driver behind a second crack at the quest and a full set of achievement points, for those so inclined. Three difficulties are all that’s available, and any trace of online leaderboards and the like are absent too, giving players little added incentive to revisit the game again aside from the obvious enjoyment factor.
Whilst some Suda fans may be disappointed by the lack of in just how traditionally Shadows of the Damned plays – and simply is – there’s plenty of reason to celebrate its strengths in spite of this. For one, having a solid action game engine underlying it all makes it far more appealing to a wider audience than a lot of Grasshopper’s previous efforts. For two, did you hear it has some great dick jokes?