Shadows of the Damned

There’s something about survival horror games that I just don’t quite get. Maybe its the pathos of the whole thing. Survival horror titles seem to throw morbidity in along with the monsters, making sure that everyone is having a damned desolate time. Maybe it's a characteristic of the genre, but I’ve never really found survival horror particularly fun.

Thankfully, Suda51’s latest title, Shadows of the Damned, is happy to ignore genre conventions. Instead, it takes the survival horror mechanic, beats it around the head and neck, and presents us with a fresh perspective on an old format. And that's really, really, revitalising - which is an ironic result for a title that is so obsessed with death.

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Shadows of the Damned is developed by Grasshopper Manufacture, and is a collaboration between Goichi Suda (commonly known as Suda51) and Shinji Mikami (of Resident Evil fame). With the audial stylings of Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill) thrown into the mix, these three survival horror trendsetters have put their heads together and come up a product that is fresh, irreverent and mostly fun to play.

Shadows of the Damned follows the story of Garcia Hotspur, a Mexican demon hunter who's really got it in for monsters. To get back at him for being such a proficient demon demolisher, the underworld’s big boss, fearsomely named “Fleming”, decides to kidnap Garcia’s girlfriend Paula. Being the headstrong guy that he is, Garcia immediately sets out after Fleming in order to get his girl back. Its as if Total Overdose was chained to Constantine and the entire contraption was thrown into Dante’s Inferno. The whole “get your loved one back from the underworld” is a story staple so old the Greek’s can lay claim to it, but throw in a zany Mexican, and suddenly its a whole new ball game.

Garcia must fight his way through hordes of demons and solve the underworlds confusing puzzles if he ever wants a chance at winning back Paula, so you can expect there to be a lot of interesting action. The gameplay of Shadows of the Damned is an interesting mix of several various formats. Shinji Mikami’s influence is clearly here with the classic pistol and shotgun zombie throw-down - complete with tough bosses - at the core of the title’s gameplay. Looking at this aspect of the title in isolation, there is nothing particularly amazing about the core combat mechanic. On the whole its designed proficiently and there is enough variety in its presentation to keep you from getting bored; aim a head shot well, and you might be rewarded with a slow mo kill; let demons get to close to you and your going to need to button mash your way out of it. This is stuff we like, but its also stuff we’ve seen done better before.

But thankfully there is more to Shadows of the Damned than just a demon turkey-shoot. Alongside the combat are some innovative puzzle elements and environmental challenges. Grasshopper Manufacturer have taken the hellish complexity of the underworld to heart, and have unshackled its presentation from the traditional fire and brimstone that we are traditionally presented with. In its place is a world presented with a sense of manic, even psychotic, absurdity. These play themselves out in a series of eclectic puzzles, where lateral thinking is required. After a while these do lose some of their novelty, but the ideas are there, and that matters. Additionally, entire levels can be subsumed by the “Darkness” - an evil cloud that sucks life from Garcia. Its inclusion adds depth to levels that would otherwise be rote. It all makes for some engaging gaming.

Unfortunately, there are still some constrictions that detract from the titles combat and puzzle solving. Shadows of the Damned is still a linear experience, with objectives needing to be completed in a particular order, and with its environments presented in a series of passageways and courtyards. Grasshopper Manufacture can be forgiven for this; there are technical and narrative problems that crop up when you try to make survival horrors more ‘open’. But the trudge through level after level, without much variation in style, does give room for pause.

But thankfully Shadows of the Damned has an ace up its sleeve. Serious thought has gone into the atmosphere of the title. While what you might be actually playing is a familiar, but engaging mechanic, the world that Grasshopper Manufacture has created does a masterful job of keeping you entertained. The characterisation is very well done, from Garcia, to Fleming, to Garcia’s demonic sidekick Johnson. All are voiced acted well, and the writing is uniformly excellent, as is the score. Although at times the dialogue does have a phallic preoccupation with thrusting, size and girth, which is as amusing as it is infantile.

The underworld itself plays an important role in communicating the game to you. Small details, such as posters calling on demons to “vote for Fleming” (why would they need to? He’s the underworld’s “dick-tator”) serve as irreverent reminders of the titles cheeky charm. Garcia’s machismo, and Johnson’s wit, provide many moments of fun. The unconventional use of incongruous items, such as strawberries or sake, is intelligent, and cleverly underscores the title’s demonic madness. Early on in the game, as more of the underworld is exposed to us, Garcia quips ”I’m not even going to ask how that makes sense”. As gamers play on, they will see it's a wise position to take.

This playful sense of fun is supported by the title's visual aesthetic. It is both gritty and black-humoured, adding further weight to the title’s not-taking-itself-too-seriously feel. The only let down is with the game’s animations. The cutscenes display wooden facial movements, which is a bit of a pain when the conversations are so good, and physical animations are stilted, which chips away at the combat experience.

But Shadows of the Damned is the sum of all its parts, both good and bad. And the result is an engaging and refreshing survival horror, if that's what it truly can be called. Its got solid combat and challenging puzzles, all wrapped up in excellent atmosphere. It might not do everything well, and some of its flaws are obvious, but as a complete package its an entertaining experience. As gamers we can often get caught up in a multimillion dollar industry that takes itself very seriously. Its easy to forget that we game because it is fundamentally fun. Shadows of the Damned hasn’t forgotten, and it shows. Thankfully, that's still all it takes to be worth it.

"A refreshing new look at a genre staple"
- Shadows of the Damned
Follow Own it? Rating: R16   Difficulty: Medium   Learning Curve: 15 Min


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Comments Comments (1)

Posted by Chris Redfield
On Wednesday 6 Jul 2011 2:13 AM
"there are technical and narrative problems that crop up when you try to make survival horrors more ‘open’."

I always thought the early REs and Silent Hills were quite open. Since you gotta kind explore all over the place and sh*t and open more and more areas as you progress. Not openworld like GTA or RPG stylings, but still kinda open.

Does this game actually have much survival to it? Or is it more action-y? What's the ammo/health item situation like?