Musings: A Japanese June; or Mini-Review Rundown: Child of Eden and Shadows of the Damned

Many in the games press bemoan the increasing irrelevance of Eastern game developers. Outside of Nintendo’s titles I would be hardpressed to name the last Japanese game that made a major financial splash here in the west. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is probably my best bet, but even that is bolstered by its inclusion characters familiar and dear to Western audiences.

Critically things aren’t much better. Japanese stalwarts like Final Fantasy have taken a beating by the press as of late and taking a look at the titles that make up the wave of post-E3 hype, I haven’t found nary an Eastern game (Another Capcom fighter, Street Fighter x Tekken, comes to mind. Dark Souls as well.).

Meanwhile June saw the release of two highly anticipated (by the press anyway) Japanese games, Q Entertainment’s Child of Eden and Grasshopper Manufacture’s Shadows of the Damned. Neither of these will sell of course, but I think they’re incredibly important reminders that the East is still relevant and home to some of the real treasures of this industry. From a design and aesthetic perspective Eden and Shadows could not be more different.

Eden is a gorgeous onslaught of synaesthetic colors and shapes, with each level reaching for a slightly different visual style but never drifting too far from sterile neon lights. Its soundtrack traverses the spectrum of electronic music with ease, providing clean and twinkling harmonics mirroring the beauty of its visuals.

Playing it is a massage for the senses. It’s a bit rough at first, the flashing lights and bass-tones bringing me to a wide-eyed panic, but it all starts to come together quickly. Those wide eyes remained, but the panic became something closer to a trance. You become one with the music, itself one with the visuals. Your aiming reticule is purposely slow, seemingly stuck in the phosphorescent soup of sensory stimulation (much like the player). It’s an all inclusive sensory experience, drawing the player in and trapping them in a beautiful, space-bound acid trip.

Child of Eden

Unfortunately this only lasts for the first two levels. Progress to the third is blocked off by an arbitrary ranking system, forcing you to replay one of the prior levels to continue. It kills all momentum and absorptive powers the game has. Replaying levels never leads to the thrilling heights of your first time and mostly just reveals the games problems. Many of the shooting gallery sections are just too long, overstaying their welcome long before you move onto the next.

At its heart, however, Child of Eden is a celebration of life and nature and the beauty held within them. It’s filled with environmentalist messages and late 90s, technobabble new-agisms, almost to the point of annoyance.  It’s a game with a purpose and a plan, not so much interested in entertaining you as enveloping you in hypercolor techno-coma.

Shadows, on the other hand, is a grimy, nihilistic nightmare. Where Eden provides comfort through the harmony of its art, music and mechanics, Shadows goes for nothing but disturbance. The tense multitasking of its battles, the wailing, tribal demon choruses of its music and the very “hellish version of Silent Hill, but all the time” environments offer nothing but blood-pressure raising intensity.

But then again, the game is filled with dick jokes. Its earnest obsession with puerile humor is charming, as are its cast. There aren’t any winks to the camera, any knowing nods to how silly the whole thing is. The humor and irreverent sensibility thankfully keep things light in between tense combat scenarios, but they also serve to characterize the hell writer and producer (Goichi) Suda 51 has created. It’s a violent and perverse place, but also kind of silly; the home to baby-head door locks, redneck demon-goat-man hybrids and One-eyed Willy, a tiny, flying cyclopse that takes flaming dumps marking your check points (I became quite fond of him by the end of the game. Good ole Willy).

Shadows of the Damned

These two games really couldn’t be more different in tone. Eden is self-serious, accompanying its barrage of simple and sterile sensory stimulation with a highfalutin message. It wants to enrapture  the player and make them part of the harmony . Shadows just sort of wants to kick you in the gut. Make you tense up. Leave you shaking and sighing hard at the end of a battle.

For as different as they are, they also have some striking and more important similarities. These are products of auteurs. They are distinguishable visions of their creators, unflinching in the tone they create and the methods used to get there.

Eden is of course the baby of Tetsuya Miziguchi. His philosophies, electronic music leanings and visual sensibilities are all over it as well as every other Q Entertainment product. Shadows is unmistakably a Suda 51 game. It opts for a more rough, in your face (he aptly calls it “punk rock”) style while basking in irreverence.

The most impressive thing that these two games have in common is the way they use all communicative facets of our medium to create tone. I touched on this earlier, but it’s an accomplishment that bears repeating. Video games can utilize visuals, dialogue, music, sound, text and interaction to communicate. The most memorable games are made when a studio is able to use all of these tools in sync to reach out to us. Call it atmosphere or tone. As long as their is an internal continuity to it all, I’m happy.

This is obviously a byproduct of the auteur touch, but it’s something a little more intangible and impressive. It’s because these creators were allowed to let loose and take their visions to the logical end that they’ve delivered such special games. We don’t see this as often in the west outside of the indie scene. It’s an invaluable asset the Japanese developers have in their favor.

Or perhaps, the reason why it seems that way is the Japanese game industry has devolved into something as predictable and boring as the west. Those auteurs just stick out among the muck and we’re attracted to them.

A full review of Shadows of the Damned is coming. Eden….not so much.

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About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

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