Shadows of the Damned Review

By Jeffrey Matulef - Posted Jun 29, 2011

Shadows of the Damned is an endlessly creative action game. Charming, gorgeous, and a combat system as slick as its lead's purple designer leather jacket make this one of the most polished and imaginative shooters in recent years.

The Pros
  • Visually arresting
  • Excellent combat and controls
  • Amazing soundtrack
  • Doesn't take itself too seriously
The Cons
  • Can't pause or skip cutscenes
  • Could use more enemy variety

Shadows of the Damned Review:

Say what you will about visionary game creator Suda 51, the guy's got moxie. Placing his name on the cover of his most recent game Shadows of the Damned is one thing, but calling it "a Suda 51 trip" is another. It's the right word, given its otherworldly nature. His previous efforts, No More Heroes and Killer 7, were never less than interesting with cel-shaded pop-art aesthetics, surreal atmosphere, twisted humor, and gleeful gore. Unfortunately they weren't always fun, with awkward controls and plodding repetition. Legendary game designer Shinji Mikami (of Resident Evil 4 fame and more recently Vanquish) collaborated with Suda and co. this time around, and his mark is readily apparent. This is a finely crafted title fitting of Mikami's repertoire, while sacrificing none of Suda's madcap sensibilities.


Life in Hell

The game kicks off with demon hunter Garcia Hotspur's girlfriend Paula being kidnapped by Fleming, the lord of demons. Dead set on getting her back, Garcia and his flaming skull buddy Johnson embark on their crusade through the underworld.

At its most basic level, Shadows of the Damned plays like a traditional third-person shooter ala Dead Space, but some subtle tweaks give it a distinct feel. For starters, light and dark play a big role in combat and puzzles. When consumed by a veil of darkness, the world takes on a blue hue and Garcia gradually loses health. In this mode enemies are invincible so you must ignite lamps to vaporize the darkness by shooting them with "light shots", a secondary type of ammo you have an infinite supply of. Light shots can also be used to stun enemies and eventually you gain the ability to charge them until they turn into sticky bombs. Attaching these to enemies before detonating them with a well placed shot never gets old.

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Garcia only has four weapons: a pistol, machine gun, shotgun, and a torch for melee (actually, they're all the same weapon and not really a weapon at all, but rather the shape-shifting Johnson). Having only a handful of weapons may sound limiting, but they frequently gain new properties like charge attacks, lock-ons, and the aforementioned sticky bombs. You can also upgrade your weapon's damage, reload speed, ammo capacity, blast radius, and firing speed along with extending your health meter. Mixing up your core arsenal with light shots, a powerful melee weapon, and context sensitive finishing moves ensures there are multiple ways to skin a demon.


The Illustrated Man

The exquisite combat is only half of the equation, as the game is bursting with personality. Garcia may be a misogynistic creep, but he's wildly entertaining as he makes bad puns, laughs at his own jokes, and in one hilarious turn, reads a storybook where he seems to be channeling Strong Bad. It's raunchy, offensive, and juvenile, but knowingly so.

In many ways Garcia fulfills the void left by Duke Nukem. Where Mr. Nukem parodied the musclebound action heroes of the 80s and early 90s, Garcia is a riff off the modern Hollywood heartthrob; ultra chic, obsessively romantic, and wearing nothing but leather and ink, he's the quintessential bad boy lover. Nevermind that he's ultimately a shallow, immature stooge. Garcia's offbeat brand of scatological humor and sexism won't be for everyone, but I don't believe we're supposed to look up to him and his jokes are often funnier for being stupid than clever.


Garcia's not the brightest bulb, but his bold persona and foolhardy bravado fit in nicely with the hyper-stylized Eastern European punk rock vision of hell. From its cobblestone streets, to its murky swamps (complete with a recreation of the cabin from The Evil Dead), to its seedy red light districts, every inch is brimming with detail. Corpses are positioned to form a cannibalistic supper, statues portray men with heads of horses and frogs, and neon signs for sex clubs advertise "blood wrestling."

Bristling with imagination, this is a world with its own internal logic. Goat's heads emit light when shot, demon doors require being fed brains, eyes, and strawberries, and checkpoints are instigated by a bat-like creature pooping. There's even 2D levels designed to look like they were made out of paper like a storybook. These wonderful visuals are complimented by a stellar soundtrack by Silent Hill composer, Akira Yamaoka. This is one of the few games where I'd progress slowly simply because I wanted to examine every detail of the environment.


Drag Me to Hell

While a majority of Shadows of the Damned is exceptional, there are a few blemishes on this otherwise splendid romp. One bewildering flaw is the inability to pause or skip cutscenes. Being able to do this became the norm half a decade ago, so it's especially disheartening to see now in 2011. Aiming can be sluggish and hit detection with the shotgun is spotty, though adjusting the sensitivity helps. There's also a mini-game where you defend a stationary position from oncoming demons that's uncharacteristically difficult and goes on too long. Elsewhere, load times are lengthy and there isn't a whole lot of enemy variety, though this is mostly made up for with some spectacular boss battles.


Damned if You Don't

Shadows of the Damned is one of the few games that maintains the refinement of a triple AAA title with the cocksure appeal of an indie. In an industry full of bleak shooters it's refreshing to see one that doesn't take itself seriously and you get the distinct impression that Grasshopper Manufacture had fun making it. Its striking visual style, brilliant soundtrack, and goofy humor give it loads of roguish charm, while its refined third-person shooting ensures that it's as fun to play as it is to look at.

Editor's Note: Some staff members had issues with the controls, mostly around the slow turning speed and aiming difficulties with the lead playable character, Garica. Our reviewer and other staff members did not encounter these problems, but we felt they were common enough among those who played it to warrant a mention here without letting it affect the review itself.