Shadows of the Damned Review
Next to the first-person shooter, third-person shooters have become a common sub-shooter genre. From a gameplay perspective, they offer a slight variation with copious arsenals and the ability to easily take cover from return fire.
While games such as Kill.Switch on the PS2 and Xbox may have been some of the first to experiment with this idea, Resident Evil 4, Gears of War and Uncharted have brought the genre to the spotlight and have added their own unique twists. Yet, despite the initial advance, the number of innovations and radical variations from the norm have been lacking in this genre since then.
Shadows of the Damned is not a game that brings radical innovation. It plays very much like many other third-person shooters with its linear pathways to its emphasis on well-placed shots. Yet, while the gameplay may be vanilla, the presentation and story are anything but.
SotD begins with the player in control of Garcia Hotspur, a demon hunter spending an evening with his girlfriend Paula. But Fleming, the lord of all demons, kidnaps Paula, forcing her to undergo one painful death and resurrection after the other until Garcia comes to rescue her.
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From here, Garcia and his sidekick, Johnson -- who functions as both Garcia’s motorcycle and transforming fire arm -- journey to the center of hell to slay the demon lord and rescue Paula.
While the story may begin stereotypically, it turns into something much more with Garcia venturing deeper into hell’s bowels and facing more twisted enemies and bosses. One of the big story reveals happens midway through, and the player has a renewed motivation to continue. This is one of the game’s biggest strengths: It is constantly playing with the player’s expectations. Once you think you have the formula figured out, a new revelation changes everything. Once you think the game has hit a dark and grisly tone, Garcia and Johnson trade wisecracks and lighten the mood. It is a game that revels in being violent and profane. And yet it's a story that never takes itself too seriously, and as a result, draws the player in, shocks him, and draws him in yet again.
The gameplay follows the tried-and-true third-person shooter formula of guiding the player down a linear path until the next enemy encounter or boss battle. Despite the variety and size of hell, the game is surprisingly linear with both rubble and invisible walls keeping players away from certain areas. Shooting is performed from an over-the-shoulder perspective and the ability to aim your weapon strategically at certain body parts. The weapons system involves your standard pistol, assault rifle, and shotgun. The difference lies in Johnson, as he serves as a Swiss army knife of weaponry, instantly morphing into one of three weapons depending on the enemy and situation. Johnson can also be upgraded by defeating bosses to earn new abilities and by collecting red gems hidden in the environments. Each weapon also has a secondary fire function, most often used to fire a “light shot” to damage otherwise invincible enemies. By the end of the game, your weaponry will almost be too powerful with regular enemies becoming nuisances rather than obstacles. Still, the controls make shooting, dodging, and aiming a breeze.
There are certain areas of the game where some light puzzle solving and side-scrolling come into play. The puzzles rarely go beyond finding the colored switch/shooting the colored switch/manipulating the environment formulas, but they still provide many opportunities to break up the shooting gameplay and give players a break from the constant barrage of enemies. Even some boss encounters require the use of puzzle solving to some extent. While the puzzles aren't hard, they are a lot of fun to execute.
The 2-D shooter bits were not quite as fun, though, and instead seem to emphasize the tedium and monotony of games from this genre. Despite the neat graphic style (a cross between a shadow puppet show and an Edward Gorey drawing), the gameplay is boring and too simplified to be considered fun. I found myself groaning out of boredom whenever I came across one of these sections.
The engaging story and the solid gameplay are completed with some amazing looking level design. The interior of hell resembles shanty towns or run-down neighborhoods. As you progress, you’ll be gunning down demons in neon-lit cities and dark dungeons. While the game may not impress graphically, the art direction is top notch and easily the best seen in this generation of third-person shooters. The game does an excellent job mixing up locations and, despite its linear nature, giving the player new areas on a constant basis. The audio, composed by Akira Yamaoka of Silent Hill, also plays a significant role. Yamaoka managed to create a soundtrack that has equal parts dread and horror mixed with guitar and punk rock riffs. It’s a soundtrack that’s as disjointed and all over the place as the game itself.
Shadows of the Damned may not be the most technically excellent third-person title on the market nor the most original, but it is by far the most fun and brimming with more personality than any other. Only its short length (5 to 6 hours), average graphics, and sometimes subpar gameplay hold it back from true greatness. It's still a game worth picking up if you missed it the first time. Grasshopper Manufacture, Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami continue their trend of ordinary gameplay presented in the most extraordinary way.