Shadows of the Damned Review
Shadows of the Damned is fiery and relentless, much like its protagonist, the determined Garcia Hotspur. A demon hunter whose cockiness reminds one of Dante, Hotspur is on a quest to reclaim his precious Paula from the powerful and downright insulting demon lord. The game is nicely designed (if a little too cramped), the attitude and style will generate a guilty smile of satisfaction, and the overall feel is functional, but just shy of refined. It’s one of those games that thrives on shock value, but still manages to back up horrendous imagery with engaging gameplay. Despite some technical problems, Grasshopper’s project is undeniably fun.
The graphics are actually the game’s low point, even if they are appropriately horrifying throughout. The artistic flair really is fantastic and in fact, some of the best you’ll see this generation; at almost every turn, there’s another “holy sh**” moment. It just exists within a somewhat out-of-focus shell that lacks clarity and sharpness. In this way, one could argue that we have top-notch concepts and ideas slightly hampered by a presentation that lacks refinement. Still, the special effects and all-encompassing freaky atmosphere are more than enough to compensate, and the design is exactly what you would expect from an all-star development team.
The sound fares a lot better thanks to solid voice acting and a stirring soundtrack that, while a bit repetitive, fits the action beautifully. The effects are another big highlight, as the sickening impact of your ammunition – yeah, it sounds like a splatter – and enthusiastic cries of Hotspur cement an exceedingly dark, invigorating journey. The balance is just about right, too, although the effects will override the music during particularly intense encounters with numerous foes. Also, you do have to accept that some of the characters are intentionally cheesy in nature; the game has a serious tone but there’s always some tongue-in-cheek going on. It’s important to remember that.
Shadows utilizes a third-person action perspective so when you first start playing, it feels like a speedy Resident Evil. Of course, you can move while aiming (unlike RE5) and the general speed of the adventure is almost twice as fast; the lesser enemies will still sort of lumber after you, but they’ll suddenly explode in a frenzy of activity when they get close. You’re always running and you can roll-dodge, smack foes that get too close, and even hit the X button to pull a quick 180. This is effective when surrounded, but as the X button is also used to roll and you’re constantly moving, I didn’t find that 180 turn to be significantly helpful.
All in all, the game moves and controls well but I’d like to get the drawbacks out of the way first. Although the camera usually manages to keep up with the action, it sits a little too close for my taste, and isn’t always perfect. Secondly, you quickly switch between weapons with the d-pad, but I could never seem to do it on the fly as fast as I wanted, and that got annoying at times. Then there’s the problem I mentioned above; the often cramped spaces that greatly limit your scope of movement. I kept wishing the alleys and streets I explored would open up just a little. This does enhance the fear and anxiety factor, though.
There were also a few times where I wasn’t entirely sure what to do, but it’s unlikely you’ll get stuck for long. From the start, this is a nicely paced adventure that keeps you on your toes and continues to bombard you with terrifying imagery. This isn’t the more subtle, creepy, spine-tingling feeling one gets from a game like F.E.A.R. 3; this is an in-your-face, bloody, nasty, absurdly visceral romp. It never lets up for long and many of the boss fights are awesome; the sick design and the interesting way of dealing with the damaging darkness makes for some memorable encounters. There’s a certain darkness that can envelop you in this demon hell and you can only withstand it for so long. If you’re in it for too long, you’ll start losing health.
But sometimes there are human hearts to find that will extend your endurance and furthermore, the darkness may be required. For instance, there’s one boss battle against a huge horse and rider. Each boss has a weak spot or multiple weak spots – designated by red bubble-like areas – and the rider’s weak point was on his back. But it was blue, which is impervious to your bullets. You have to nail him when he runs into a cone of darkness, where the spot becomes red. Then, the horse falls on its side and you can shoot the red weak spot on its belly. This is just one example of how the developers use this darkness gameplay mechanic. I think it’s a little over-used but it’s still cool.
You will find ammunition boxes in the environment but provided you aren’t too erratic with your shots, you shouldn’t have a problem with your supply. That being said, the game absolutely rewards the fast and accurate; if you try to take your time and carefully line up every shot, you have a good chance of being overwhelmed. Or, at the very least, you’ll waste a lot of ammo and become quite frustrated in the process. The advancement system, which utilizes red gems for the upgrading of your weapons, works well, the story isn’t fantastic but it’s endlessly entertaining, the imagery and artistry is extremely effective, and your adventure is nicely paced.
Shadows of the Damned has a bloody, almost combustible aura about it. The aging Unreal engine and relatively unpolished visual palette doesn’t do the artistry justice; that imagination and creativity is just begging to be exposed with a sharper, more accomplished presentation. The controls are just a touch shy of being 100% stable, the environments are often too tight, and unfortunately, the game froze on me a couple times (the transition between gameplay and cinema is anything but smooth). But the end result is very positive; Shadows is just a blast. The design, style, attitude, and bearing of the game is great; it’s loaded with a certain swagger that is to be expected from Shinji Mikami and Suda 51. There’s even a fair amount of genuine comedy...your gun's name is "Johnson," after all.
If you’re looking for something a little different that isn’t perfect but exudes a definite gory charm, give it a try.
The Good: Great overall audio and decent voiceovers. Fantastic artistic and creative appeal. Great enemy and boss design. Good pacing. Rewarding adventure that never lets up for an instant.
The Bad: Unrefined graphics. Control and camera can be a tad quirky. Too many cramped areas.
The Ugly: “Okay, that was gross.”
6/25/2011 Ben Dutka