Shadows of the Damned is a bizarre and fun ride through hell.

User Rating: 8 | Shadows of the Damned X360

In the opening moments of Shadows of the Damned, we learn that Garcia Hotspur is a bona fide demon hunter and all around badass. He is covered with arcane tattoos, has a smoking hot girlfriend, and a demon companion named Johnson, a floating skull that can transform into a pistol so subtly called the Boner. Before long, Garcia’s girlfriend, Paula, is killed and brought to hell by the lord of the underworld, as vengeance for all the demons he’s killed, but this is only after an exchange between the two that is loaded with more sexual innuendos than an Austin Powers trailer.

Sound weird enough? It gets weirder. In your mission to find and save your lady love, you’ll journey through a variety of macabre environments, and sometimes you’ll be overwhelmed by demonic darkness. This will slowly drain your life away if you stay in for too long. The way to get rid of it? Hit a bleating goat head on a nearby wall with a blast of light. This isn’t until you feed a strawberry to a demon door, which has the face of a baby, if the mother was Lilith and the father was Mic Jagger. All the while, you listen to Garcia and Johnson tell dick jokes to each other.

More dick jokes than you could ever imagine.

In case you couldn’t tell, the game never takes itself very seriously. This is in spite of the fact that environments are, more often than not, covered in blood, littered with corpses and infested with demons. The graphics of the game, against the odds, manage to enhance the tone. The enemy designs are uniformly strong, as are the environments. You’ll pass through a variety of areas, including a market, catacombs, a forest that pays more than a little homage to the Evil Dead, and more. Each area has a distinctive feel to it, really selling the hellish part of the atmosphere. The boss designs, in particular, are incredibly gruesome, but awesome.

This strength extends to the sound. Guns feel powerful thanks to appropriate sounds for each, and suitably meaty noises when a demon gets hit. The voice acting is also quite good, especially for the main characters Garcia and Johnson. It’s quite hammy at times, but that’s kind of the point. The true standout, though, is Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack. Best known for his work in the majority of the Silent Hill games, he once again proves that he is an absolute master of his craft and knows how to mix things up effectively. The variety here is almost staggering, fitting every situation in the game. One moment, you could be listening to the upbeat and calm music that plays on the loading screen. It almost sounds like something you’d hear in a waiting room at a doctor’s office. Then, the next, you could be swarmed by demons and listening to an industrial track loaded with screams of the dead. It’s truly impressive.

The basic premise of the game, though, is familiar to just about any gamer. Save the girl from the bad guy. The game does its best to flip that on its head with its whacky dialogue and offbeat sense of humor, but the gameplay is, essentially, a fairly standard horror third person shooter. Essentially, Dead Space. You view everything from an over the shoulder perspective, aiming with the left trigger and using a laser sight to line up your targets. Along the way, you’ll pick up two more guns, a machine gun and a shotgun, essentially, and blast your way to victory.

The mechanics are solid enough. Murdering demons is quite fun, thanks to a real time dismemberment system. You can shoot just about everything on the basic enemies off, which can be helpful in situations where there’s a lot of them. Using each weapon is also quite fun, since each one feels like it offers a distinct advantage over the others. The pistol is the most accurate, great for lining up headshots and critical hits. The machine gun is great for dealing with crowds, and the shotgun is great for taking down tough single enemies. Combat as a whole is quite fun.

Levels are quite linear for the most part. There is the occasional side area to explore, or upgrade to find, but you’re more or less running in a straight line most of the time. However, there are attempts to break up the basic combat. For instance, multiple times throughout the game, you’re tasked with eliminating the demonic darkness from an area in order to move on. It starts out simple in the beginning, but the idea grows increasingly more complex as the game goes on. By the end, you’ll need to time your movement according to firework launchers, which can temporarily stop the darkness, shoot switches you can only see in the darkness, and find the goat head. It gets more and more intriguing to see what new environmental puzzle is waiting.

Some levels, though, are entirely different from the rest of the game. For instance, in one, you must ascend a tower to avoid an ever increasing wave of darkness, manually hitting switches and killing enemies. In another, you must defend an area from titans with… Well, I won’t spoil that, but I will say that the Boner getting larger is involved. Another few levels near the end of the game pay their due to old school 2D shoot em ups. These attempts to mix it up are welcome, but some of them just aren’t fun. In the aforementioned turret sequence, the weapon you use is slow to recover from each shot, and all it takes is one of the enemies to reach you to send you to the game over screen. You must restart at the beginning of the current sequence you’re on. It’s more frustrating than fun, and that’s how the majority of these diversions feel. It’s nice that the developers put some variety in, but I always found myself wishing for more of the simple but fun combat.

The attempts at variety that do work, though, are the boss fights. Often times, you’ll read a story book that details who these creatures used to be and how they died (and more often than not it’s quite humorous). When you reach them, they are usually epic. Whether it’s a giant minotaur or a huge bird, they are always fun. They also summon feelings of older games, where pattern memorization was required to win. Each boss has a distinct attack pattern, one that must be learned, because they can hit hard. Their weak spots are highlighted by glowing orbs, so finding them is never a problem. It’s learning when to attack. Each one is well put together and fun.

There are some questionable design choices, in spite of all this. Aside from the aforementioned frustration from the many attempts at variety, there is a complete and utter lack of New Game+. Any form of it, whether it’s starting over from the beginning, or being able to select a level to replay, would have gone miles to add more life to the game. It’s fairly short- it took me less than ten hours to beat- and upgrading everything is quite fun. I had 41/ 80 total upgrades, according to the game by the time I beat it. There is simply no way to go back and complete that; the only way to do that is to totally start from scratch. It’s rather disappointing. Finally, the story never really evolves beyond “get the girl.” Granted, many events in the game are gruesome and bizarre, but the actual plot is incredibly straightforward.

All that being said, this is still worth playing. It has a terrific visual design, solid voice acting, an incredible soundtrack by a master composer, and fun gameplay. Hell, despite the fact that the plot is incredibly basic, the characters are all entertaining as hell. The banter between Garcia and Johnson is immature as hell, but there’s a sense of friendship, brotherhood that gives it more charm than it has any right to have. The origin story of a boss that constantly yells “F YOU!” to Garcia and another character is absolutely hysterical when you put two and two together. Plus, the game’s just too goddamn weird for anyone with a passing interest not to check out. The price isn’t too bad these days, either, so anyone interested in the game itself, or fans of the three big minds who worked on it (Shinji Mikami, of Resident Evil fame, Suda 51, of Killer 7 and No More Heroes fame and Akira Yamoaka, of Silent Hill fame) should absolutely check it out. It’s a hell of a fun ride through hell, despite its flaws.