Shadows of the Damned Review: A Supergroup That’s More Cream than Chickenfoot

Supergroups sound like a great idea on paper: take established artists, clump them together in one band and let them collaborate without interference. However, the same reasons that make the supergroup concept so exciting are often their undoing.

Famous artists are famous for a reason. They do something people enjoy and they do it well. The trick with supergroups is melding those talents together and hoping the end result is something cohesive. Sometimes you get Cream, the original supergroup and progenitors of both heavy metal and jam bands. Sometimes you get Chickenfoot, a concoction of tired hard-rock machismo with a terrible case of dissociative identity disorder.

That same danger applies to a collaboration of successful artists in any medium. Luckily, Shadows of the Damned, the product of gaming’s latest supergroup — Suda 51 of Killer 7 and No More Heroes, Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami and Silent Hill’s aural mastermind Akira Yamaoka —  is more Cream than Chickenfoot.

Damned’s opening sequence sets up the game perfectly. We’re introduced to our hero, demon hunter Garcia Hotspur, and his personality as he dubs the monster he is about to execute “Puta Claus.” Next up we meet the mysterious damsel in distress girlfriend, Paula (who is hanging from a ceiling fan, of course) and the big bad, Fleming, lord of the demons, who proceeds to kidnap Paula, make a joke about Garcia’s “endowments” (the first of many dick jokes) and dive into a portal to hell. Garcia pursues and the “road movie” begins.

Not only does this introduction quickly present us with the cast and conflict, but we’re introduced to the real star of the game: its tone.

Damned  is dark, perverse, nihilistic and even a little goofy, but it’s not stupid. It strikes an admirable balance between serious and silly. At it’s core is the relationship between Garcia and Paula. He truly loves her, a fact is reinforced throughout the game as he is made to witness his beloved’s violent death time and time again.

I felt for the both of them. Paula, because…well she’s being murdered over and over again, but really because she’s innocent here. Garcia is the one being punished, in this case for his indiscretions against demon kind, and Paula’s repeated death is merely the tool.

The emotional resonance only works because the cast is so charming, with the exceptions of Paula and Fleming who are really just archetypes. Garcia, for all his cheesy, action hero masculinity, is a lovable lunkhead. He laughs at the game’s puerile humor more than any player probably will. His sidekick, the floating and transforming skull Johnson (wonderfully voice acted by Mr. Greg Ellis), is a less annoying and more sleazy C-3PO. The genuinely funny banter between the two only furthers the whole road movie pastiche the game puts on. You believe these guys are friends, although the circumstances under which they met are never fully explained, but that’s not important.

A crazed version of Paula will occasionally appear to chase Garcia.

The supporting cast is just as memorable. There’s Christopher, the demon-goat-redneck-hybrid merchant who eats white gems and barfs up his wares and One-eyed Willy, a tiny, flying cyclopse that takes flaming dumps to mark your checkpoints (I became quite fond of him by the end of the game. Good ole Willy.).

Then you have the bosses, each one superbly designed and given a darkly comic backstory read to the player by one of our two heroes. These story books are one of the game’s highlights. They’re creative and funny enough to even make the voice actors laugh (listen to Stephen Blum’s performance as he reads through “The Legend of Stinky Crow”).

Not only does the humor feel earnest, it serves a real purpose within the game. Suda’s vision of hell is filled with gore and sexual perversion. A lot of the jokes just reinforce that.

This worldbuilding even sneaks into the game’s play mechanics. Much of the game is taken up by shooting red glowy spots whether on bosses or in environmental puzzlers, but their existence is actually explained (they’re filled with human blood which powers the demon world, duh).  Same goes for the healing items: bottles of alcohol (in hell, liquor unkils you, duh). Damned is filled with tons of these little details that bring this hell to life.

The amalgam of Suda, Mikami and Yamaoka plays out just as you’d expect. Suda provides the script and scenario, an irreverent trip through his unique vision of hell. The influence of Mikami is felt most in the mechanics, which closely resemble Resident Evil 4’s blend third-person shooting and horror.

Yamaoka of course provides the music and sound design and boy does he provide it. The soundscape is nerve racking. The music crescendos to a frenzied, tribal assault of furious drumming and demonic wails. Even the ambient sounds are unnerving, with many of them persisting throughout play, building on top of each other and creating a horrible symphony.

Rather than feel like isolated contributions by these three artists, these various facets of the game all work together to create a whole that’s biggest accomplishment is total, tonal cohesion.

Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami

Action scenes are reminiscent of Dead Space — part firefight, part puzzle, all tension. The player often needs to juggle keeping enemies at a distance, switching between weapons and solving environmental puzzles. It creates the kind of tension that will have you eeking out grunts and swears. Part of this also comes from the touchy aiming controls, which are nowhere close to perfect. As much as “it makes the game scarier” is no excuse for poor shooting controls, the overly touchy and often unfairly precision heavy shooting really does end up working to Damned‘s favor. Combine these intense sequences with Yamaoka’s blood-pressure raising sounds and you have something truly terrifying.

Damned’s weakest elements are the few diversionary moments peppered throughout the game. There’s a far too long turret sequence featuring Garcia repeatedly pronouncing “Taste my big boner!” and a handful of 2D shooter levels with some nice art, but boring gameplay. The latter is also responsible for robbing the game of a boss fight that had been built up for hours. That left me feeling a bit slighted.

Oh! And despite the game’s weapon upgrades, there’s no new game plus option.

The best thing I can say about Shadows of the Damned is that I enjoyed every moment of it. While it’s not the completely bizarre  joy that Suda’s Killer 7 was or an example of mechanical excellence, every bit of artistry put into it coalesces into something fitting with the tone its creators set out to produce. It’s a testament to the powers of unfettered creativity and a trip well-worth taking.

In the name of transparency: I played Shadows of the Damned from start to finish on the Xbox 360 on normal difficulty. 

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

One Response to Shadows of the Damned Review: A Supergroup That’s More Cream than Chickenfoot

  1. Pingback: Game of the year 2011, part 2: 10-6 « Rated J, For Janky

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