If you ever liked underrated and crazy Japanese games, you might heard of a man named Suda 51 from Grasshopper, recently known for the No More Heroes franchise. Usually with his games, he delivers an unorthodox style that can be described as insane and twisted, but the gameplay aspect does lack a bit. If you combine that style of presentation, atmosphere, and storytelling with Resident Evil 4-like gunplay that was pioneered by Shinji Mikami, you get a game called Shadows of the Damned. Even though the gameplay premise might be familiar, it is a road trip worth taking from beginning to end, but it definitely has its bumps and bruises along the way.
The protagonist of Shadows of the Damned is a demon hunter named Garcia Hotspur as his lady Paula gets kidnapped by the lord of demons, Fleming. The goal is pretty much simple after that as it is up to Garcia to rescue her at the Underworld with his talking skull sidekick, Johnson, at his side. If I had compare how the story progresses, it takes a similar approach to the 2D Mario games oddly enough as Fleming holds Paula hostage at his castle. In other words, it is a Mario game, but you're in hell shooting demons and to me, that is a good take on a classic formula that still works today. Garcia and Johnson make a fantastic duo together as the banter between the two is hilarious most of the time with the game's great use of crude humor. The crude humor does not as seem as forced compared to some other games as if you can understand and deal with the jokes about private parts the game throws at you, then you'll have a blast trucking your way through the game's five acts.
If you ever played the recent Resident Evil games, you will feel right at home with Shadows of the Damned's core gunplay as it does not play like any other modern third-person shooter. The aiming can take some time to get used to at the beginning, but things will be fine as you keep progressing. Besides being a talking skull, Johnson can transform to multiple guns and also be used as a stick for melee attacks, but they're not as powerful as the guns are the stars of the show. There isn't really a variety of guns in the game as you have your conventional pistol, which is actually called the boner, a shotgun, and a machine gun, but they have multiple functions that are unlocked as you move along in the game. There is an upgrade system in which you have to collect red gems by finding them within the levels or buying them from the merchant Christopher to increase your health, your guns' damage input, reload speed, etc. Besides the gunplay, the other core gameplay mechanic in Shadows of the Damned is how it handles light and darkness. At numerous sections throughout the game, you will encounter darkness as being there for long will result in a loss of health or even death if you can't find fire at a mechanism that turns on the light. Examples of that range from a goat head, a pore, or setting up fireworks. Playing through these sections of darkness reminds me of another Nintendo game, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, but Grasshopper handles this mechanic better by throwing different situations at you to dispose the darkness. Even enemies will be in their dark form as you have to light them up before you can damage them at all. Specific enemies also have to killed in the darkness, so you have to be play carefully in these sections. There are also great boss fights against bigger enemies even though they consist of finding a way to shoot their red weak spot numerous times to defeat them. Both of the core gameplay mechanics work exceptionally well, but there are some questionable moments in the game in which I'll talk about next.
Besides going from one kill room to another, Grasshopper throws in some diversity giving players different things to do such as puzzles, instant death situations, turret sections, and even a change in dimension gameplay-wise. The puzzles are not that bad as they're not there to challenge your brain as most of them consist of finding a strawberry or a brain to unlock the next door or making a path within a big room that lets you keep going. Then there are the little situations that will throw players for a loop as some of them seem cool on paper, but they can be frustrating at the end of the day more than halfway into the game. Other than those frustrating parts, Shadows of the Damned is a short and easy game to blast through in seven to nine hours on average. There are difficulty options at the start of the game as the default normal difficulty is pretty easy since you will rarely die especially with the generous checkpoint system, it is better to start on Legion Hunter, the game's version of hard for a more challenging trip. There is definitely a lack of replay value as there are no other modes besides the main game, no level select, and even a no new game plus option, so this is something Grasshopper dropped the ball on.
The sense of tone and atmosphere has been nailed exceptionally well in Shadows of the Damned as Suda 51's take on the underworld looks great. You are always wandering what is the next for Garcia and Johnson whether it is another enemy encounter with darkness thrown in, a boss fight, or just the two interacting with the posters scattered throughout the game. Even the little details such as background or past stories about the characters and even the bosses are fascinatingly hilarious to listen to. There are some technical issues from the camera mishandling certain situations such as close enemy encounters, texture pop-in, after loading from a checkpoint, and other things not happening the way it should of (impossible to find any light mechanisms within darkness at times, which can lead to death). The game's sound is also amazing from the voice acting that can be cheesy at times even though I enjoyed it and specifically the soundtrack done by Akira Yamaoka of Silent Hill fame. His tracks scattered throughout the game are just phenomenal corresponding the mood and atmosphere to the point it is a contender for best soundtrack for a game this year.
Despite some faults, Shadows of the Damned is one hell of a road trip worth playing through. The mix of Suda 51's stylish presentation and Mikami's Resident Evil 4-like gameplay equals pure brilliance. It is easy to love the ragtag duo of Garcia Hotspur and Johnson as they're just great characters to play as. I also enjoyed the crude humor a lot you don't see this style of humor handled effectively in most of today's games. Even though there are some design decisions that made me feel a little frustrated, it is still a fairly easy game to blast through in a few hours. The lack of extra content beyond the main game is disappointing as it may not be worth the full price tag, but if you're a Suda 51 fan, down to laugh, and love insane Japanese games, Shadows of the Damned is definitely worth your time and money as it is definitely my sleeper hit of the year so far.
Score = 8.5/10
- As expected with a Suda 51 game, great sense of style and atmosphere
- Great use of crude humor throughout this road trip
- One of the best gaming soundtracks this year
- The duo of Garcia and Johnson are such a blast play as
- Core gameplay mechanics from the gunplay and the light/darkness work exceptionally well
- Questionable design decisions especially at the second half of the game
- Technical issues from a bad camera at times to texture pop-in
- Definitely a short game, but it still feels like a road trip (seven to nine hours on normal for most folks)
- Lack of extra content (no level select, bonus modes, no new game plus)