Review: Shadows of the Damned (360/PS3)

“Three is the magic number”, the hippies used to say, and in many respects this is true of Shadows of the Damned. Grasshopper Manufacture’s recent action horror title is the product of the combined pedigree of Goichi “Suda51″ Suda (Killer7No More Heroes), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil 4God Hand) and Akira Yamaoka (SnatcherSilent Hill 2).

When three individuals with such strong artistic visions come together, there’s always the danger that the final product can be less than the sum of its parts. One only has to look at the world of popular music and see the long and rather wretched line of heavyweight collaborations that fail to live up to billing. Fortunately, I’m pleased to say that this veritable supergroup of developers manages, on the most part, to deliver; each one’s contribution is unmistakably their own, yet everything fits together to form a cohesive end product.

Suda 51’s videogames-as-punk-rock aesthetic is borne out through the main protagonist, Garcia Hotspur, a hard as nails, leather clad demon hunter, and even more prominently by the puerile humour, ghost-train horror narrative and irreverent script, which has an Evil Dead goofiness to it rather than any psychological horror aspirations. It’s a rescue the girl caper as Garcia heads off into a deranged underworld accompanied by Johnson, a floating skull with an upper-class English accent, to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend from the malevolent demon-lord, Fleming. As Garcia and Johnson make their way through this warped reimagining of hell, they must battle a plethora of demons. Fortunately Johnson has the ability to change into a variety of weapons that can be used to stem the never-ending tide of hellish denizens.

The combat is where Mikami’s influence and the game’s Resident Evil 4 DNA are plain to see, with Shadows of the Damned sharing Resi 4’s over the shoulder view point and control scheme. Unfortunately, it lacks its esteemed predecessor’s polish, with the controls at times being needlessly awkward and frustrating. Occasional control issues aside, it’s still a lot of fun. Pulling off headshots is particularly satisfying; slowing the action down and zooming the camera in on the visceral consequences of your sharp-shooting. Other hints at the game’s lineage include Christopher, the yokel demon salesman who recalls Resi 4’s fondly remembered Merchant. His intermittent appearances offer brief respite and a chance to upgrade Johnson’s firepower.

The pulping of demons is broken up with the occasional puzzle and basic strategic play. The latter is focussed predominantly on Johnson’s light shot ability, which can momentarily freeze players and also comes in handy when the game throws “The Darkness” into the mix. This crepuscular mechanic drains Garcia’s health and can only be stopped by using the light-shot to shoot the golden goat heads scattered around the landscape. Although the use of The Darkness and infrequent puzzle elements add nothing groundbreaking, they add a nice variation to the gameplay.

The minute-to-minute action is broken up further by several sections that involve manoeuvring a paper cut-out of Garcia through rudimentary 2D landscapes. From a gameplay perspective they will not show your average gamer anything new, but they are executed with the playful charm that permeates the game. Also shaking things up are the obligatory boss battles the player will face. This is where the game arguably most disappoints. As whilst being memorable from a visual perspective, they lack wit and invention in challenging the player to defeat them. The key to defeating the majority being a simple case of shooting garishly obvious weak spots – a little passé in 2011.

To this reviewer, the true hero of Shadows of the Damned is Akira Yamaoka. His soundtrack is simply stunning, showing off his knack for flitting between styles with a dizzying proficiency. Whilst it doesn’t hit the lofty heights of his haunting Silent Hill 2 soundtrack –still in my mind the greatest video game soundtrack of all time – Yamaoka manages to conjure forth chilly electronica, raucous punk-rock and playful latino guitar riffs, all masterfully capturing the essence of the game and the characters which inhabit it.

It’s the game’s lack of anything particularly fresh or groundbreaking, and at times awkward controls, which stopsShadows of the Damned being a truly great title. The personnel involved in creating this title undoubtedly give the game a distinct charm and personality. However, it also raises gamers’ expectations. Having produced some of the most influential games of the last ten years, I don’t think it would be amiss to want and indeed expect the developers to raise the bar higher. It would of course be unfair to dismiss the game purely because it’s not the next great evolutionary step in the art of video game development. Ultimately, Shadows of the Damned is a fresh IP that’s an enjoyably entertaining roller –coaster ride, featuring a memorable protagonist and supporting cast. If you can forgive the rough edges, this is a game well worth further investigation.

Oh, and what a soundtrack.

This piece originally appeared over at http://game-bit.net/

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