Shadows of the Damned Hands-On Preview

Goat heads, brain-eating baby faces, and a blood- and bandaged-covered behemoth with a harmonica stuck in its throat await us in our first trip to hell in this action horror game.


Violence, gore, style, and a morbid sense of humour permeate Shadows of the Damned, which is exactly what you'd expect from a game boasting the talents of famed Japanese developers Suda51 (No More Heroes, Killer 7) and Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil, Vanquish). This action horror title is part punk attitude, part grind-house action film, and part tragic romance, and we finally managed to get some hands-on time with the game at a recent EA GDC event.

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The word "grind house" wasn't thrown in haphazardly in the previous sentence. Both Mikami and Suda51 cite the films of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez as key influences on Shadows of the Damned and in particular cite the double feature Grindhouse as an inspiration. Therefore, the hallmarks of the genre--violence, bizarre characters and situations, and more profanity than you can shake a meat cleaver at--were all present in our first play-through of the game, which encompassed just over a level and a half of gameplay in Shadows of the Damned's second act.

Shadows of the Damned's main character is the intriguingly named Garcia Hotspur, who travels to the depths of hell itself in an attempt to retrieve kidnapped girlfriend Paula from the demon Fleming. You'll play the game from a third-person perspective, with the game featuring a light/dark dynamic in an attempt to distinguish itself from run-of-the-mill third-person shooters. Darkness is death for Garcia in Shadows of the Damned, with any extended forays into unlit areas of the game causing Garcia's health bar to slowly diminish. On the flip side, darkness is a boon for the various hellacious beasties in Shadows of the Damned, meaning that Garcia will have to manipulate the environment and use appropriate weapons to level the playing field.

Enemies in dark environments or those "coated" with darkness are invulnerable to damage, move faster, and are generally meaner all around in this game. Luckily, Garcia is equipped with a light gun, which you'll need to use initially to shoot off the darkness coating enemies before attacking them with other projectile weapons. The weapons we used during our hands-on were typical pistol, shotgun, and assault rifle variants, but what set them apart was that the weapons were actually a living demon named Johnson, who can morph into the various guns on demand. Johnson will be Garcia's constant companion in Shadows of the Damned, much like Navi was to Link in The Ocarina of Time, except much more foul-mouthed (and able to transform into deadly, flesh-tearing weapons).

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Our hands-on time took place in levels that looked like the streets of a quaint European village, albeit filled with monsters and hell spawn instead of baguettes and berets. At the start of the level, Garcia found himself in a large courtyard, which was soon enveloped in a thick, gloopy cloud of darkness. A gigantic hand then appeared from the ground, dropping off several zombie-like enemies. To even stand a chance against these zombies, Garcia first needed to dispel the darkness, which you can do by finding goat head statues somewhere in the environment. Shooting these goat heads will repel the dark from the surrounding area, and while the head in this level was easy to spot, EA reps showing off the game said that goats in later levels will be well hidden in order to ramp up the tension as players desperately try to find them.

Dispelling the surrounding darkness wasn’t quite enough to make the zombies vulnerable, however. We first needed to shoot off their own personal darkness cloak with the light gun using the right shoulder button, before finishing the job with shotgun blasts fired using the right trigger (aiming is done via the left trigger). The zombies themselves exhibited quite different behaviour without the darkness--with the darkness, they were very aggressive, but without it, they were slow and shambling.

After navigating some tight alleyways and battling through some more enemies, we found ourselves in another enclosed courtyard where the game's light puzzle elements came into play. The courtyard was once again engulfed in thick darkness, and it was clear the source this time was a gigantic hand spewing forth dark matter from a large gash on its palm. The problem was that access to the balcony the hand was on was blocked by a gate, the gatekeeper of which was a small, cherubic baby's head, who asked for a snack--a human brain, in this case--before the gate would open. The brain itself was located behind another gate, one that was held closed by a barrier that appeared only when completely engulfed in the spreading darkness. The challenge was to wait for the darkness to surround the second gate, whilst avoiding the invincible enemies swarming Garcia. Once we shot the lock off the second gate, we clambered up a small incline, grabbed a brain, and fed it to the first gate's baby head. It was then a simple matter of climbing up to the hand and stabbing it to stop the spreading dark.

After this puzzle, we found ourselves in a large open area surrounded by balconies. A mini boss fight took place here: a large, mean-looking demon with circular blades attached to his forearms attacked Garcia. This boss's weak spot was a large glass container on his back--apparently larger demons in the world of Shadows of the Damned need a constant source of human blood and will usually carry this on a vessel somewhere on their body. The boss was a quick mover, but stunning him with a light gun before shooting his exposed back with normal weapons proved to be extremely effective.

With the boss dealt with, we moved on to the next level, which was essentially a cinematic sequence leading up to a boss fight. Garcia was wandering about a market looking for Paula and soon found the poor lady's dismembered head lying on a table. Garcia forlornly picked it up, but the head's eyes quickly flew open, causing Garcia to drop it. Paula's headless corpse slowly moved, grabbing the head and reattaching it. She then moved to Garcia, stroking his hair gently. Garcia's demon sidekick Johnson screamed that it was a trap, and of course, it was. The demon Paula convulsed and then literally split apart in the middle, revealing a huge, blood-soaked demon armed with large metal bars strapped to his arms. Every time this monster moved, a harmonica could be heard, and an EA rep stated that this particular boss had swallowed the small instrument (apparently all bosses in the game will have unique backstories, and we're particularly interested to hear about this one's). The gameplay demo then ended with the large boss charging his way to Garcia.

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Shadows of the Damned certainly looks like it will have more than its share of gore and fun, but we also liked the wicked sense of humour that seemed to permeate the game. Johnson was quite a funny sidekick, and some of the incidental details that we learned about hell (such as the fact that strawberries are, apparently, actually made from blood and are a practical joke the demon world plays on humans) were a nice touch. We'll have more on this promising action horror title in the lead up to its release on June 7 this year.

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