Shadows of the Damned Xbox 360 Review

Once upon a time there was a game called Resident Evil 4. It was a good game. No, it was the best game. It was magical. As beautiful as a sunset and as bonkers as a trigger-happy music producer. Everyone in the land loved Resident Evil 4.

Resident Evil 4 was a little bit frisky though, and had quite a few children. The first child (born out of wedlock) was called Dead Space. He was a handsome, well turned out child and became very successful in his own right. The second child was conceived with his wife Capcom, and was therefore legitimate. They called him Resident Evil 5, who tried very hard to be like his dad.  He was a nice lad and was well liked in his own right, but he tried to take over the family business and entered into an ill-advised partnership that sort of missed the point. He was more serious than his often playful, fun-loving father as well, and misunderstood what made him tick. Some of his racial views were a bit off too.

Resident Evil 4 had many nephews and nieces, ranging from jackbooted dumbbell first nephew Gears of War, to his beautiful sparkly supermodel niece Vanquish. However you can’t keep a good zombie dog down; Resident Evil 4 got hammered one night with Grasshopper Manufacture and, speaking plainly, they got jiggy. 9 months later, the child came out backwards. He was very similar to his Dad and his brothers, but he took an altogether different path. While Dead Space went off to be an astronaut and Resident Evil 5 joined the young Conservatives club, the third child deliberately dropped out of college, caned lots of drugs and started a band. He took the wild, demented streak his father sometimes displayed and rode off with it on a motorcycle, flipping a tattooed bird at his more straight-laced brothers. ‘Fuck you, you squares!’ he shouted.

This child, this unruly, gloriously-deranged child, was called Shadows of the Damned.

Within the first ten minutes of Shadows of the Damned, foul mouthed protagonist Garcia ‘fucking’ Hotspur (best name ever) has killed a mass of demons, called the innuendo-spewing Lord of the Underworld a fucking asshole and leapt headfirst into hell to get his dead girlfriend back. His ex-demon companion Johnson (a floating skull who sounds like Hugh Laurie) then morphs into a motorcycle after Hotspur cracks a hole in the fourth wall with a joke about the internet. He then revs his bike, screeching down the highway to Hell, while a pounding buttrock track plays. Then the title screen comes up.

I’m not sure there’s been a better opening to any bit of media ever.

What’s doubly excellent is that Shadows of the Damned has the cojones to back up its B-Movie swagger. It should do too, after all it’s the brainchild of Shinji Mikami (director of Resident Evil, Resident Evil 4), Akira Yamaoka (composer of the Silent Hill series) and Suda 51 (the nutjob behind Killer7 and No More Heroes). It would have been so easy to just knock something crappy out and sell it off its heritage alone, but no. Shadows of the Damned is easily the most fun you could have in 2011 this side of Bulletstorm. We’re not talking about some ‘so bad it’s good’ Deadly Premonition style slog either, this is a game that could go ten rounds with Dead Space 2, and on about a third of the budget.

Shadows combines a tried and tested gameplay formula with a batshit premise. The controls are immediately recognisable to any survival horror veteran, and Hotspur is like a more limber Leon S Kennedy. Unlike the floppy-haired philanderer though, Garcia can move while shooting, and leap out the way of his enemies. You can either blast away at baddies with Johnson, who can turn into various weapons (with names like the Boner), or stun them with a light shot, allowing Garcia to get up close and personal for a brutal kill. Johnson can also be used to batter away at the game’s foes. It’s mostly a hectic cluster of bloodshed and body parts. You can enhance your Johnson (aaaaargh) too, by finding gems around the world, allowing him to hold more ammo, pack more of a punch and even get an erection. I’m not making that last one up.

It isn’t just a killfest though. To mix the formula up a bit, Garcia comes across areas of darkness that chip away at his health, much like the dark world in Metroid Prime 2. The enemies are invulnerable in this state, so Garcia needs to be quick about traversing these environments. The only way to dispel the darkness is by shooting pure concentrated light at a goat’s head. As you do. There are also puzzle sections that are obtuse enough to be a challenge, but not headscratching enough to make you put your foot through the wall.

These segments could have been a proper ballache, but they’re not, and it demonstrates how tight and well-developed Shadows of the Damned is. Compared to the on-rails night terror of Killer7 and the sprawling, idiosyncratic brutality of No More Heroes, Shadows is just a full on, balls out horror blaster. Of course, it chucks in some gameplay deviations, because it wouldn’t be a Suda 51 game if it didn’t, but on the whole it’s probably the most polished, straight ahead thing they’ve ever done. And their best.

Shadows of the Damned keeps the momentum going a lot longer than other Grasshopper games, and this is likely down to two things. Firstly, Shinji Mikami was on hand to probably tell Suda to rein things in a bit, and secondly, Suda wasn’t even the main director. That job instead went to a lad called Massimo Guarini. As great as Suda 51 is, you’d be hard pressed to call any of his games polished or appealing, but Guarini appears to have dropped in out of nowhere and choreographed a well-paced bit of schlock action that’s immediately easy to get to grips with, and great fun for the 9 to 10 hours it takes to kill positively every last demon mofo in the room.

Right, now that stuff’s out the way, I can talk about just what it is about Shadows of the Damned I loved so much. It’s Hell. Literally. Rather than the fire and brimstone depiction that every man and his dog is used to, Hell is a magnificently seedy place. Imagine if Hieronymus Bosch went to Montmartre, Paris in the 19th century and you’re bang on. It’s wonderfully decadent and sick, with stylised art and cabaret posters as much a presence as glistening, bloodied cadavers. Bottles of absinthe (which in a gratifyingly dumb twist are Garcia’s health pickups) lie strewn about the place, cherubic faces serve as keyholes and neon lights provide garish (but never overpowering) illumination. It’s a glorious nightmare, a wild mashup of Moulin Rouge and Doom that’s wonderful to look at and interact with.

Much has been made of the grindhouse influence too, but Shadows generally has more in common with the likes of Evil Dead 2, cranking out daft one-liners amidst all the splatstick comedy. It’s damned funny. Every reviewer’s boned on about the dick jokes and swearing, but Shadows’ sense of humour is smarter and slyer than someone shouting ‘haha cocks!’ A lot of this is down to the odd couple pairing of Johnson and Garcia. It’s probably the most fun and likeable game partnership since Farah refused to put out for the Prince of Persia in Sands of Time. Johnson’s dithering contrasts nicely with Garcia’s gravel-voiced Hispanic machismo. It makes Duke Nukem Forever’s attempts at comedy seem even more Bernard Manning-ish.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the music. Akira Yamaoka proves once again why people aren’t ashamed to keep him on their profiles. It’s the most varied score of his career, featuring eerie Lustmord-style brooding, jaunty cabaret numbers and headbanging metal. It’s a big part of what makes Shadows so compulsive and atmospheric.

Shadows of the Damned is one of the best games of the year, and I never expected to say that. The only fault I can think of is that it’s probably a bit too easy. You’ll die a few times, but that’ll be down to lapsed concentration and some mildly irritating insta-kills. However, its relative lack of challenge doesn’t detract from the delicious, gory fun you’ll be having. Other critics have moaned about the lack of ‘new game plus,’ to start a new game with all the accumulated upgrades, but to be honest, the game pretty much allows you to go on a rampage even without being fully upgraded, so it’s merely cosmetic. Besides going through the game on a higher difficulty (which you will do, because you’ll want to go through the madness again) with all the upgrades would be cheating.

Dead Space 2 probably still has the edge, but Shadows of the Damned has cult hit written all over it, and will likely go the way of other criminally overlooked curios like God Hand and Beyond Good and Evil. It’s too colourful, too out there, too damned beautiful for this awful beige world. Those who do get it will love it.

9 out of 10
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