I'm a sports guy through and through. If it's based on a professional sport, I'll probably play it. I've even been begging overseas game developers to NTSC up the cricket games for years. Needless to say, I tend not to stray much.
But once in a while, there are games that pique my curiousity based on other interests. LA Noire drew me in because I enjoy gangster films and the 50s in general (the same reason I was drawn to Mafia II.) The Dead Rising games and my enjoyment of campy horror films were a great relationship, and it is for a similar reason that I was drawn to Shadows of the Damned. Originally dismissing it as "Just another shooter game," I took a closer look when it was released. Its living film concept intrigued me, and when XBA towers came calling for a reviewer, I asked to bring it on, especially when I heard music game legend Akira Yamaoka was responsible for the score. Yamaoka, whose musical talents grace everything from Silent Hill to Dance Dance Revolution, is one of the best when it comes to scoring a mood. He could score a birthday party cake cutting and make it sound like the creepiest thing since the Robert Munsch book "Love you Forever". Game Developer Suda51 is no slouch either, working on everything from the No More Heroes series to the Fire Pro Wrestling one. Hopefully this All-Star calibration leads to an All-Star video game right?
The game quickly reels you into its achievement web ala The Simpsons Game. Press start and you're given an achievement, instantly binding itself to your profile. You're then whisked into a series of cinematics as you're introduced to protagonist Garcia Hotspur, looking like a cross between Antonio Banderas with the tattoos of UFC Fighter Alessio Sakara. Following a cutscene, you're whisked into a hotel room where the story begins. Undeads have claimed Garcia's love Paula, and he has to get her back. Following a 10 minute shootout, you are introduced to Fleming, the game's main antagonist, and you find out your gun is a wisecracking skull companion named Johnson. The all-knowing, all-transforming Johnson will be your companion as you enter the underworld to get Paula back. That shootout was simply the opening credits welcoming you into the Shadows of the Damned.
The game then puts you smack dab in the middle of the Underworld chasing Undeads, learning the values of light-up goats, and fighting strange looking beasts and strange looking monsters. There's a bit of inspiration drawn from Silent Hill besides the music of Yamaoka. You'll see some similar looking monsters and similar looking themes. The game often stops to see if you can apply what you've learned, or if you can figure your way out of jams without the help of Johnson. He will, however, step in if you can't figure it out, and will give you hints. Think of him as a less obnoxious and less overbearing Navi.
As the in-shape yet not well armored protagonist, you will begin to see the effects of undead abuse. As you are hit more, you will notice the screen border turn and close in of the color red until you have died, or until you rejuvenate your life. This is accomplished by drinking bottles of sake or any other alcohol found in random spots throughout the game, in bars, or through vending machines. Upgrades to your weapons and your character are accomplished by finding red gems buried throughout various levels throughout the game. Levels are vast and will take upwards of a half hour to an hour to beat on average, giving the game a solid overall playing time.
Stand around and take a quick look at your surroundings. The graphics in this game are very well done. Unlike other games of this time (behind the back view shooters) where the graphics are a tad lacking, fuzzy or blocky, the graphics here are pretty clean, pretty detailed and well textured. The loading time is very palatable for a change, as it does take 35-45 seconds to load a stage, but there's no massive loading in between, and when you see the size of the levels you may be surprised. You cannot, however, skip past the cut-scenes, and some of it may be because it's loading other parts of the level (ala American Wasteland and Operation Flashpoint: Red River) but you still get a fairly large area in between for not much loading time.
Controls are very easy to manage, though they can provide some challenges because of how much mileage the two action buttons get. The A button, for example, does 180 turns, 180 aim turns and dodges amongst a couple other things. You have to bash the A button in conjunction with directions or other buttons for each thing to work, however, it does get a bit annoying when you are in the middle of trying to dodge and suddenly do a 180 turn and get hit with a projectile. If you are stuck trying to figure out what to do next, or are at a dead end, the answer is probably to hit the X button, which does everything from reload your gun and open doors to climb ladders and jump through windows. Garcia seems to be a rather versatile man, able to jump through broken glass of 3rd storey windows without flinching. The threat of shattered ankles in an unfamiliar territory are no match for finding a lost love I suppose. "Paula" will often show up to guide you astray, and the unwitting Garcia doesn't seem to learn his lesson...ever. This may get old by the end of the second act's first chapter, but really, venturing down dark corridor after dark corridor will probably get a bit old, and variety is the spice of life.
Otherwise, there isn't a whole lot toward the roaming aspect of the game. This isn't an open world with rolling hills and castle after castle with large landscapes for you to roam. The game is very much to the point and puts you into each level, guiding you to where you need to go. Rather than relying on a huge world of run and gun, the game is reliant on you solving puzzles and problem solving your way through the Underworld. Granted, much of the problem solving is grabbing your gun and shooting things, but Johnson will teach you certain things about the underworld and then expect you to remember how to deal with them later on. The "buddy comedy/ebony and ivory" aspect of Johnson and Garcia's partnership will be one of the things that will continue to draw you back time and again, and will be one of the things that continue to lead you toward an awaiting battle with Fleming, and your fate.
Graphics: 9/10. Something about this game's graphics just jump out at you. Texturing is done very well, the underworld looks, well, seedy and everybody and everything look great. The inanimate objects are about the only thing that aren't done so well, and are average as best. One may argue that it's there purposefully so you the gamer are aware what you are able to break and not break, but it's an odd eyesore in an otherwise beautifully animated world. Outside of that, everything else works. The enemies are animated perfectly and move as fluidly as you'd want them to.
Sounds: 8.5/10. Imagine if you will a survival horror game where the screaming demons aren't obnoxious, and there is so much glurge that your speakers distort and are unable to process the 12643 simultaneous foreground and background noises. Just because there are 12000 enemies to be killed does not mean each one is speaking at the same time and must be heard no matter how far you happen to be from it. This game's a bit more reasonable about everything going on. Granted, the ominous yelling and bonechilling screams still abound once in a while in the background, but they don't get to that point where you're reaching for the mute button. As mentioned before, Johnson's advice is a reasonable volume, and he never becomes too loud or too needy in his sidekick role. The voice actors are all relative unknowns in the grand scheme of things too, and as a result, don't just become characters voiced by a Hollywood actor. Rather, the voice and identity are retained by the character on-screen itself.
Controls: 7/10. If I had to pinpoint a weakness in this game, this is it. I feel the controls could have been mapped out a little bit better. The frustration of the A button taking up so many different actions in battle wore a bit thin on me in the early going. Considering you have to take down most of the regular undeads with headshots, aiming is a touch annoying too, as pinpoint precision is often required. Even with a gun trail aiming you straight to the head, don't be surprised to hit a shoulder, or graze the head enough that it doesn't lead to a kill. As a result, you will have to adjust your aiming, but I do recommend standing back and firing, since somebody forgot to tell Suda51 that zombies don't jump, and as such, they are capable of leaping from meters away onto you. Johnson will teach you all of the controls as you go through the first chapter, as well as teach you how to fend against the different types of enemies, so if you see yourself doing something you didn't know about, or cannot figure out how to solve something, you will have help.
Gameplay: 8/10. This game is nonstop entertainment once it gets going. The only trouble is, it's going to take a while. The first level of act 2 is very slow moving for an intro stage, and it takes a long time to get going through wave over wave of repetitive battle. Stick it out and you'll be rewarded with a story rich thrill ride. As mentioned, the game doesn't go out of its way to scare you and become a living shock video like many games of its kind do. In fact, most of the scare tactics and seemingly instant actions will be foreshadowed on screen if you are paying enough attention. I wouldn't call this game all ages, but all skill levels perhaps? The game doesn't ever overwhelm you with tons of weapons and vast worlds like a sandbox game, but it won't bore you either. Development has stayed within reasonable means making everything easy enough to just pick up and go. This might detract those used to stacking weapons or getting creative, and there are better options for gamers that like to keep things a bit more complicated. For everybody that wants a humorous, well rounded and fun game bashing the daylights (no pun intended) out of strange creatures and doing crazy things like firing beams of light at goat heads, look Shadows of the Damned up.
The thing I like about this game is that in spite of claiming itself to be a "Survival Horror" style game, it never loses sight of what it is. This game is extremely satirical, and never takes itself seriously. Picture a grindhouse-style film with over the top visuals, purposefully badly written dialogue, and concepts so outlandish they're just ridiculous in nature. This is what Shadows of the Damned brings to the table, and if you're looking for a game that messes with you a little bit just as much as it draws you in, go out and get it. If you're not laughing at Johnson, you're probably laughing at the enemies onscreen, or the fact that you got yourself worked up for nothing, only to calm down long enough and catch an eyeful of something so strange you can't help but crack a smile. This game is a little bit of Robert Rodriguez, a little bit of John Swartzwelder and a little bit of the PS1 game Nightmare Creatures. It took 6 years for the first one to be released, and I hope this game does well enough that a sequel doesn't take that long. It certainly is not a game for everybody. It's definitely not a game for the light hearted, squeamish or those easily disturbed, and it's not for those who absolutely despise shooter games, because humor and amusement aside, that's what this game is. Still, you're basically playing one marathon Grindhouse film, and that will be its best selling point. While it probably won't rush out and win game of the year awards all over the place when all is said and done, it will contend for a lot of your time right out of the box and is more than deserving of it.