If you’ve played 2005’s killer7 before then you might think you know what to expect from a collaboration between Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil) and Goichi Suda (No More Heroes). In hindsight though, killer7 was probably about 10 per cent Mikami and 90 per cent Suda; all esoteric gameplay, memorable characters and a game more concerned with storytelling than interactivity. Shadows Of The Damned, on the other hand, is a true collaboration, seamlessly blending equal quantities of each creator’s style in a way that still retains everything that makes them individually distinct.
Let’s start with the Goichi Suda ingredients. As conceptually bizarre and original as any other Grasshopper game, Shadows Of The Damned puts you into the diamond studded leather jacket of Garcia Hotspur, a ludicrously named Mexican demon hunter who is constantly accompanied by Johnson, a talking skull who can transform into various types of bone-spitting firearms. The story takes off following the death of Hotspur’s girlfriend, Paula, and sees her dragged to Hell by Fleming, the six-eyed lord of the underworld. Hotspur and Johnson quickly follow in an attempt to rescue her, and that’s where the game begins proper.
Grasshopper’s vision of Hell is as disturbing and gory as its classical depictions, all disfigured inhabitants and body-horror architecture, but with a quirky Suda twist. It’s one of the most grotesque survival-horror games in recent memory, but it’s not without its sense of humour either, particularly thanks to the dialogue between Hotspur and Johnson. The two constantly chat throughout the course of the game, partly as exposition to the backstory of the world around them and partly as a cleverly disguised hint system, but also just to elicit a laugh or two. So for every bit of sage advice that Johnson might give, contextualising the game mechanics within the fiction of Damned’s setting, Hotspur will retort with a laugh-out-loud and quotable response. Upon finding out that doors have to be opened by shoving a brain into a baby’s mouth and that light can be returned by shooting a goat’s head, for example, Hotspur quips, ‘Just warn me if I have to fuck a horse to unlock a door.’ And it’s exactly this kind of foul-mouthed flippancy that warms you to the pair and makes you want to spend the whole game getting to know them.
A truly great double act, Johnson and Hotspur’s finest moments arguably come whenever they find one of the story books hidden throughout the world, each of which details the mortal life of one of the boss characters and how they came to be dead. As they take turns to read the stories out loud, Johnson quite eloquently, Hotspur’s renditions verging on illiteracy, they also make editorial asides to the narrative, reacting to funny or gruesome parts or cracking jokes between them. Not only do these sections offer some of the most entertaining dialogue to appear in an action game, but they also improve upon a fairly standard videogame device – the optional delivery of backstory – by involving you on two narrative levels.
Undoubtedly, this is Suda’s finest script work yet, packed with comedy moments but tainted by a haunting tragedy. Having to watch Paula die over and over, each time in a more disturbing and painful way, or hearing of the deeply human mistakes that led the inhabitants of Hell to their fate, makes for pretty uncomfortable subject matter and hints at an emotional maturity bubbling away beneath the surface of sexual innuendo and toilet humour, to be utilised in a future Grasshopper production.
If this is Grasshopper’s most finely crafted setting and story then it’s only fitting that the game design scales the same heights – which is where the Shinji Mikami influence comes in. On the surface, Damned is a mechanical copy of Resident Evil 4. It plays from over the shoulder, features familiar controls and pits you against a series of undead enemies that gradually expand in strategy, capability and intelligence, forcing you to make instinctive, tactical use of your handful of weapons along the way. It may be old rope by now, but the formula still works. The way in which Damned’s mix of crowd management and boss takedowns gradually escalates into an experienced repositioning of self and juggling of weapons is just as satisfying as in any of the modern Resident Evils.
Damned isn’t just a Capcom derivative, however. There’s also its core mechanic; a creeping darkness that envelops the world to drain Hotspur’s energy and coat its enemies in a protective goop that has to be removed by either a charged shot or a whack with the torch. Adding an extra layer of desperation to each battle, the role of the darkness creates complexity in even the average combat sequence. Finding and shooting the goat head required to extinguish the dark is no mean feat, especially when you’re forced to locate it by the sound of its bleating alone. And then there’s the fact that the darkness can sometimes work to your advantage, revealing hidden switches or even killing some enemies. When the traditional gunplay combine with the risk/reward nature of the new darkness mechanic, Shadows Of The Damned really comes into its own as an extremely playable action game that proves once again why its creators are among the most respected in the world.
Sadly, not all is perfect in Shadows Of The Damned. There are a couple of instant-death chase sequences that tend to frustrate rather than entertain, while a trio of 2D side-scrolling shooter stages tread too far down Grasshopper’s style-over-substance path to the point where the game would actually have been better without their inclusion. Such sections can leave you feeling resentful towards Shadows Of The Damned but, ultimately, you’ll still be thrilled by this original, amusing and brilliantly playable horror game.