Critical Consensus: Shadows of the Damned
Garcia Hotspur goes to Hell
If you're a fan of Grasshopper Manufacture's games already, then chances are that you're not that interested in what the reviewers think of Shadows of the Damned. Previous games from the house of larger-than-life auteur Goichi Suda haven't always reviewed brilliantly, but the Japanese developer's off-kilter approach and lurid style have certainly earned it a loyal following.
If there is a consistent theme to the company's titles then it's one of irreverence, of fresh ideas and the not so occasional triumph of style over substance. From child friendly games like the DS's Contact to the Wii's decidedly more adult No More Heroes series, Grasshopper imbues each of its titles with a sliding spectrum of charm and puerility, never failing to make something memorable, even if it has historically struggled with commercial success.
Shadows of the Damned is very much at the grown up end of that scale. A range of 'mature' themes and jokes pepper the game's hellish landscapes, including a bridge of breasts, door knockers in the form of baby faces which have to be fed body parts and a floating skull accomplice which transforms into various weapons, playing a number of unsubtle variations on a general theme of 'boner'.
It's not exactly high-brow stuff, but from a man who once described his development process as analogous to 'having a brain poo' it's not really a big surprise. Nor is likely to be an unwelcome one for those fans already invested in his previous work. This is Suda let loose and given free reign - his first ever HD title.
But Suda51 isn't the only non-conventionalist involved here. Also on-board for the scatalogical ride are Shinji Mikami, creator of Resident Evil, and Akira Yamaoka of Silent Hill fame. For a product of three so prominent minds, Shadows of the Damned's 79 per cent Metacritic rating (80 on PS3, 78 on 360) might seem disappointing, but this was never likely to be a game which saw widespread mainstream appeal.
Nonetheless, there are clearly some fans among the gaming press, not least of all Phil Kollar of GameInformer who praises the game's "grindhouse" sensibilities on his way to a 9.25/10 assessment.
Whilst Kollar acknowledges that main character Garcia 'f***ing' Hotspur's one liners are largely "boneheaded," they're delivered with a charm and enthusiasm which proves infectious.
"Despite being the hero, Garcia is a dimwit who chuckles at his own horrible jokes and stumbles into enemy traps constantly," writes Kollar.
"Plenty of games with dumb writing use self-awareness as an excuse, but Shadows of the Damned isn't just aware of its stupidity, it embraces immaturity with an abandon that I can't help but respect. It doesn't seem like Grasshopper considered any situation too outrageous or any line of dialogue too goofy to include."
Accomplished in both action and puzzle sections, Kollar feels, SotD's few foibles come in the form of difficulty spikes: "frustrating late-game scenarios where you're put in arena fights against an absurd number of opponents, and a handful of chase sequences where Garcia is instantly killed if caught by a pursuer".
Nonetheless, this "unapologetically adolescent" game clearly strikes a chord, to the point where Kollar is disappointed by the lack of a "game plus" replay mode to continue the experience after completion.
At the other end of the critical scale is 1-Up's Jose Otero, who is clearly less enamoured with Hotspur's ribaldry and vice, describing SotD as "yet another Grasshopper Manufacture game that's big on style but little else," before going on to award a C+ to a game he calls a "decent to slightly above average shooter that, at times, feels a little bland."
"Even with strong creative influences and fun story elements," Otero writes, "Shadows of the Damned still fumbles into a predictable gameplay rhythm: ripping off RE4 but then devolving into a typical third-person shooter that doesn't creatively explore the space." Otero also seems unimpressed with SotD's light and dark based 'puzzle' mechanics, but finds some redeeming points in the script's "near endless barrage of toilet humour" and the soundtrack of Akira Yamaoka, which he calls the game's "two major accomplishments".
Summarising a fairly scathing review by describing Shadows as "ripping off RE4 and putting it in a different wrapper" which he says "doesn't even rip off the source material that well", Otero makes clear that it's not the tone of the game which disappoints him, but the lack of meat behind it.
"While I have nothing against toilet style humour and style," he concludes, "they do little to hide the game's lack of substance."
Plenty of games with dumb writing use self-awareness as an excuse, but Shadows of the Damned isn't just aware of its stupidity, it embraces immaturity with an abandon that I can't help but respect.
Phil Kollar, GameInformer
Firstly, Eurogamer's Simon Parkin is struck by the over-ridingly puerile nature of the game's tone, embodied by an early encounter with a recurring NPC - a simple game mechanic dressed up in typically absurdist Grasshopper uniform.
"Perhaps nothing better exemplifies Shadows of the Damned's ability to make vulgar absurdity somehow relevant than than the person of William, a one-eyed levitating fish-bat who is so alarmed every time you enter his vicinity that he drops a flaming turd before tearing off down the street," writes Parkin.
"It's a one-note scatological gag - but it's one with a higher purpose. The trail of smoking dung serves to show you the areas you've already explored, creating a stinking, gleaming light trail behind you."
For Parkin, the base humour also serves a practical purpose, bringing some levity to what is otherwise a game replete with hellish imagery, gore and suffering. "The dreadfulness," as Parkin puts it, "is softened in every scene with a clutch of knob gags."
"The satisfying rhythm of upgrading weaponry," is contrasted with "graceless enemy animations and their repetitious designs," but it's the unique nature of the combined setting and cast which overcome the game's flaws for Parkin in the end.
"For example," he writes, "there's Christopher, a hulking demon with two rows of razor teeth and a camp redneck accent, from whom you can purchase ammo or weapon upgrade crystals. Or there are the firework stations into which you thrust your Johnson torch in order to light up the sky and ward off the sapping darkness.
"There are the yakety-sax sections where you're chased at high speed by a zombified version of the girl you're trying to save. And there's the pot-bellied demon boss that incessantly screams 'f***********k yoooooou' as a battle cry before turning into a giant eagle and shooting feather daggers at you.
"These ideas are one-offs. They haven't been plundered from a rival series, and they won't be making an appearance in any other EA titles scheduled this year. Uniqueness alone isn't cause for celebration - but when combined with competence and the odd flash of inspiration, it can make up for other shortfalls."
It's a similar sentiment to those expressed by Jamin Smith's Videogamer piece, which defines the game by its "kooky sense of humour and Mexican undertones."
Pleased with the addition of Christopher the demon merchant, and the game's system of light shots, Smith does find fault with the difficulty spikes which tainted GameInformers perceptions. Whilst "it's not that these moments are badly designed, as such, it's just that these parts aren't fun and feel needlessly unfair." Smith also picks up another common theme for complaint, the technical difficulties which mar the game's camerawork and hit detection.
In his summary, Smith strikes the essence of many a Grasshopper title with his final assessment.
"Shadows of the Damned is easy to criticise, but it's got character - brimming with the stylishness of Suda 51 and the maturity of Mikami. It's a cool game, and is likely to earn a loyal following despite its problems."
Perhaps unlikely to be a massive seller, then, but one with undoubtable niche appeal.