The game industry moves quickly. Shadows of the Damned has only been out for a month, and it’s already considered a commercial failure. With fan-favorite names like Suda51 and Shinji Mikami attached — as well as a grindhouse horror theme that’s clearly intended to appeal to Westerners — EA probably expected a million-seller by now, but the game hasn’t come close to even hitting 100K. Chances are you didn’t buy Shadows, and I can’t blame you; in retrospect, I wouldn’t spend $60 on it, either.
Grasshopper Manufacture’s quirky game is fun while it lasts, but it was clearly rushed out of development to meet a release date. Even if the game had felt complete, it was conceptually misguided from the start. Shadows of the Damned feels like a movie — not because of its numerous unskippable cutscenes (which tend to be short), but because it’s so focused on guiding players through a linear story instead of letting players explore, discover, and overcome challenges on their own. I’m not suggesting this game should have been a bloated sandbox epic. I’m saying Shadows should have let me discover the path through each level by myself. The main character’s demonic companion constantly delivers blatant exposition and told me how to defeat opponents and which doors to open. Add Shadows to the list of modern games that were designed so that anyone could win with a bare minimum of effort; that’s not what I look for in a top-dollar title.
That being said, the pacing and the atmosphere are really well done. The abundantly-tattooed Mexican demon hunter “Garcia Hotspur” is out to rescue his girl from the clutches of Hell’s overlord, and the game stays firmly focused on that goal. Who cares if it’s cliché? It’s compelling, and Shadows of the Damned keeps it interesting. But before I talk about the good parts, I need to get the weight of the worst off my chest, because this particular badness is just so damn heavy.
In the first level, we’re introduced to the final boss as he kidnaps Garcia’s woman, but we’re also introduced to a female singer who serves as a recurring nemesis. She pops up throughout the game to taunt Garcia, she’s advertised on posters scattered throughout Hell, and there’s even a book you can read that tells her backstory.
The actual battle against the singing lady feels like a massive SCREW YOU from the game’s designers to the players. In the next-to-last level, Shadows of the Damned’s developers decided to suddenly add crappy sidescrolling shooter stages to their third-person action game. When I say that, I don’t mean that sidescrolling shooters are crappy. I freaking LOVE sidescrolling shooters. I mean that this is a crappy shooter, the kind of thing that makes me yearn for Gaiares on the Genesis, or hell, even the original Gradius on NES. For the first two shooter stages, I just endured the tedium. But after I suffered through the third shooter stage and had the “ultimate” showdown with Miss Songstress in the context of a slow-ass, badly-animated, poorly-scored, shithole of a shooter instead of the FREAKING AWESOME BOSS FIGHTS that had occurred in previous levels against less important opponents, I snapped. I’d been looking forward to this fight for 80 percent of the game, wondering how they would incorporate music as a weapon. She never even sang.
Not since meeting the fabled fire phoenixes of Thunder Force III have I felt so disappointed by an enemy encounter.
I’ve seen these stages excused as “Suda51 always does weird stuff in his games”, but here’s the thing — the mini-games in No More Heroes 2 were fun. The trance mode in Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked was exciting. I didn’t expect Shadows of the Damned to include slow-paced, badly-colored, adrenaline-killing shooter stages, nor did I expect the penultimate boss fight to be wasted in such a manner. There was no reason for me to expect such things. It’s bad game design, and both Suda51 and Shinji Mikami have proven they’re better than that. I was so mad that I didn’t just see red, I saw Suda51′s face spinning around inside my head, laughing at me for actually believing in a madman.
After internet-raging for a bit, someone pointed out to me that maybe the developers weren’t trying to be insulting. Maybe they were just rushed to get the game out the door. Based on the last level — which is fun, but extremely short for a trip through a purportedly massive castle — I believe that. “Being rushed” still isn’t a good excuse for deep-sixing the game’s momentum, but it does take the edge off the sting.
I wouldn’t have gotten mad if the rest of Shadows hadn’t been so cool. Even with all the hand-holding, I really wanted to see everything that Hell had to offer. The city of the dead is grimy, gory, and often spooky. Garcia turns corners and a shape scurries through the darkness — too distant and swift to shoot with his HOT BONER handgun, but close enough to warrant caution. The soundtrack is punctuated by unnerving, unusual effects (such as the sound of potato chips being eaten) that made me feel as though I were always being watched, even in visibly empty streets. Corpses hang from trees . . . and every now and then, they twitch. As I walked beneath the trees, I kept turning around — which can be done with a single button press — to make sure none of those ghastlies had cut themselves loose to follow me.
Enemies were fed to me in Kung Fu’s “here are the tall zombies, now here are the crawling zombies” patterns, but the variety of attacks and weaponry helped the action avoid redundance. Find a safe spot to stand (because Garcia can’t run-’n-gun) and riddle the ghouls with machinegun fire, or take them down from up close with a shotun blast. Blow the legs off a foe and then press X to stomp their head. Stun enemies with Garcia’s torch, or charge up RAGING POWER and smash them apart with flaming light! The underworld’s inhabitants will sometimes seek refuge in the darkness — this grants them a shield of invincibility that can only be dispelled with a “light shot”, which requires pressing a different button. Shadows of the Damned may not be particularly tough, but it does demand attention and quick action during battles. It all works pretty well, unless you’re unfortunate enough to aim at something the game doesn’t want you aiming at. If that happens, then the game forces Garcia to aim downwards — even if you’re intentionally trying to point the gunsight at a spot you know the boss will cross.
Most of the boss battles are spectacular events, full of cruel demonic taunts and explosive lightshows that blaze through the murky scenery. Many of these fights require stepping into the Darkness — sections of Hell where the very air is poison to Garcia’s body — to target weak points that are otherwise invisible. During these intense battles, I saw glimpses of the fervor I expect from Mikami’s action games. Unfortunately, Shadows of the Damned doesn’t reward players for exceptional performance . . . it doesn’t even grade our style. There’s no incentive to avoid drinking health-revitalizing alcohol (which is far too abundant) or conserve ammunition (which is easy to replenish). Like I said before, Shadows of the Damned is meant to be a trip that anyone can complete — it exists to tell the story of Garcia Hotspur’s battle against the legions of Hell. The game doesn’t exist to challenge us.
But at least its story-driven approach ends with one awesome cinematic.