Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review: Shadows of the Damned

Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3

Reviewed on: Xbox 360

Rating: M

Price: $59.99

Release date: June 21, 2011

I have to commend Electronic Arts for financing such a gamble. They have a notorious track record for killing small development studios. The top talent usually gets carted off to another project and the remainders get gutted for whatever cash EA can find. That's the nature of the beast, I guess. New games based on an original concept rarely see big publisher backing the way Grasshopper Manufacture did. Goichi Suda, better known by his fans as Suda51, has a knack for making "arty" games that fascinate, but not necessarily sell well. However, he makes games that combine fantastic narrative, immersive aesthetic, and memorable characters. Shadows of the Damned is no exception. Suda51 wasn't alone in this venture, either. Accompanying him is Shinji Mikami, the creator of the Resident Evil series of horror games. If that wasn't enough star power, the audio was directed by Akira Yamaoka, composer for the Silent Hill soundtracks. This is top tier talent, and all three have years of game development experience following them wherever they go. Believe me, it shows.
From the more than slightly crude humor to the ambient sounds in the dark realms to the impressive creative design, you can tell where each of the three worked their magic. I've never been a fan of industrial music, if you want to call it that. However, Akira Yamaoka's use of metal clanging overlaid by guitar and orchestra accent the beautiful and repugnant sceneries. The Latin flair shows in the music. Given where Akira-san has been in the past, this was very new territory for him. What impressed me was how this game sounded nothing like what he did in Silent Hill. I have to commend his command of composition. Changing styles is not easy. I would know, I'm a singer.
The story is entertaining, and only slightly cheesy. The main character, Garcia Hotspur, is a demon hunter with a Hispanic flair and a foul tongue. When his girlfriend, Paula, is captured and dragged off to hell, he dives in after her. Fleming, the demon who kidnapped Paula, takes quite a bit of delight in harassing Garcia at every turn in the road. Fleming's minions made themselves look like Paula to deceive and hurt Garcia, and some of these moments really mess with your head. His primary weapon is a flaming demon skull named Johnson, who transforms into whatever Mr. G needs. Suda's trademark lewd humor shows brightest here, with weapon names like "big boner" and "the dentist." G's banter with Johnson also provides much of the comic relief for the game. The only real beef I have with the voice work is that Johnson's voice actor seems a little out of place in the environment. The game goes for a Hispanic or old world Spain feel. Giving Johnson a Welsh accent doesn't particularly seem to fit in my opinion. There is a fourth wall break early on in the game, and numerous cultural references scattered throughout the game. Some of these feel like they were directed at American gamers, not just Japan. It's not really social commentary, but some scenes will get you thinking. As far as gameplay is concerned, this game plays like many of the third person shooters that we've seen over the last few years. The tutorial at the beginning of the game will give you the run down and have you slaying minions of the damned in to time flat. The weapons are varied and amusing, albeit crass at times. Just about everything in this game is a euphemism or innuendo of some sort. This is trademark Suda51 work.
For as much as I eagerly anticipated this game, I went into it expecting … well … not much. Given some of the other high profile flops over the past couple of months, I was very skeptical about how well this game would play out. Suda51 has a great track record for making great games as art pieces, but something along the way usually dilutes the experience. I was stoked to see Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamaoka teaming up with him, but very concerned with how well the three of them would work together. Shadows may have just redeemed Suda51. To be honest, I have a hard time finding some terrible heart wrenching flaw in this game. It's really hard to hate it. Even the puzzle sections, which have been the bane of many a shooter, aren't really all that annoying. Sure, the scenes where you have to run from Paula will get on your nerves every now and again, but they're short sequences and there's enough other stuff in between to keep you wanting to continue. The shadow puppet scenes are a bit tedious and dull, but I've always had a penchant for bullet hell shooters. I just wish there was more to those levels than being blatant filler for a chapter or so. Another thing that bugs me is that I have a hard time classifying this as a horror game. Sure, it has its creepy moments, but the copious amounts of ammunition and recovery liquor (yes, you read that right) leave you playing more of a run-and-gun style game than a don't-play-this-with-the-lights-out style game. That said, I think a better classification for this game would be shooter with horror elements. Even with all the praise people are showering on it, I don't think it's perfect. There were several moments that I had to put down the controller and go do something else for a while. It wasn't even that creepy. I'm sure there are people out there that will soil their trousers when they play this game. For me, it just doesn't scratch that horror itch for me. I see horror games filling the role of genuinely creepy and get under your skin when you play them. But that's another rant for another time. I'll end this review with a quote from Planet of the Apes:
Damn you all indeed.

1 comment:

Icarus and the Eclipse said...

Nice read. Shadows of the Damned is a great small game. It isn't without some flaws, especially concerning some polishing elements: some long load times between levels, no cutscene skipping and the occasional bug. The last two boss battles are also a bit bland but well there have been other bigger games with such problems in terms of mediocre final bosses - glad do see you take after your previous tittle dead space 2.

I agree with you about the game beeing somewhat creepy but not true horror, but the demon world is unsettling and well thought out - like a darker resident evil 4 village with screaming goat heads.

I had fun with this game, it could have been a true great game, but instead it will be a sort of cult classic, whose tongue and cheek approach and rebell balls to the wall demeanor, will akin it to the grindhouse films it is inspired by.