Shadows of the Damned is - unquestionably - one of those “love it or hate it” experiences. Admittedly, the “hate it” side is holding most of the ammunition. The result of a collaboration between Shinji Mikami, creator of Resident Evil, and Suda51, the gonzo genius behind Killer7 and No More Heroes, Shadows is easily dismissed as a puerile, misogynist, deeply adolescent take on survival horror made by a team too busy cracking gags about babes and boners to spot the obvious flaws in the gameplay.
On the other hand, plenty of people out there will love its energy and invention, its love of games and grindhouse movies and its sheer desperate need to entertain. We could spend years discussing whether Shadows of the Damned is knowingly and ironically stupid and offensive, or just stupidly stupid and offensive with the stupidity glossed over with a lavish coat of style. What we can say is that there is something lovable in it, and that if you can find that something, you’ll end up having a great time.
How should we describe it? Well, think of Shadows as the grindhouse remake of Mikami’s Resident Evil 4. Ace Hispanic demon hunter, Garcia Hotspur, takes down demons. A major demon, name of Fleming, takes umbrage and then takes Garcia’s girl. Garcia follows her into the underworld, and much demon blasting ensues. Viewed from an RE4-style over the shoulder perspective, Garcia follows his girlfriend’s trail through demon cities and demon swamps, blowing heads and limbs off the local demon population as they shamble, thunder and crawl their way towards him. Various strange items - strawberries, eyes and brains amongst them - operate as keys on locked doors, and every now and then a fairly simple puzzle or action sequence is thrown into the mix. If you liked RE4, RE5 and Dead Space, then you’ll feel right at home with this one.
Except there are some differences. One is a new lightness/darkness dynamic. Demons are either stronger or invulnerable when covered in the stuff of darkness, and at various points in each level you’ll find the whole world filled with the stuff, making fighting harder and sapping health from your bar with every passing second. Sometimes you can dispel the darkness by shooting a goat’s head on a wall (logic isn’t Suda51’s prime concern), or remove it temporarily by firing off fireworks or following a weird glowing fishy-lamp-thing around (see what we mean?).
Creatures covered in darkness can also have the darkness removed by firing a shot of light at them, making them vulnerable or just easier to kill. You don’t always get things your own way. Some sneaky demons will also try to extinguish the goat heads, while great columns of darkness will sometimes materialise in the middle of an area. What’s more, there are times when darkness is your friend: some enemies and some switches are invulnerable or inaccessible when viewed in light.
More importantly, Shadows of the Damned isn’t actually scary, and in some ways it’s intentionally so. The blood, gore, brutality and violence are so massively over the top that they render the whole thing absurd, and the game’s dubious phallocentric gags only push the humour angle further. Horror also works best if you’re alone, and Shadows of the Damned provides you with a sidekick - a talking demonic skull named (groan) Johnson who transforms into a pistol named (double groan) Boner, plus some shotgun and machine-gun variants. It’s not devoid of shocks, but Shadows of the Damned is keener on humour than horror. Whether you find it funny is a matter of taste, but we’d rather have this ridiculous, OTT fantasy over grimy, pseudo-realistic torture porn any day.
There are disappointing aspects to the gameplay. Unlike Resident Evil 4 the levels are extremely linear, and there’s precious little opportunity to explore or discover. Shadows of the Damned also hasn’t got that sense of paranoia - that feeling that something bad could come from anywhere and overcome you - that makes RE4, RE5 and the Dead Space games so compelling. You can pretty much see when and where the demons will attack from long before they do, and there’s usually a safe spot to blast from. Most seriously, many of the demons have been programmed to move erratically, and when you couple this with a slow-moving and imprecise aiming mechanism, it can sometimes be a nightmare to target weak points at speed. On the plus side, you can move whilst firing, unlike Resident Evil 4 and 5, and there’s even a handy evade move for when the hellspawn get too close.
Disappointing? Maybe. Game ruining? No. The core combat is fun, and Shadows of the Damned has a nice way of throwing in new ideas, new monsters and new mechanics as it goes on - at least during the first half of the game. Even your weapons develop, not just through regular upgrades, but also through sporadic upgrades that see them transform into bigger, more badass versions with secondary fire modes to boot. Throw in a handful of cool set-pieces and a clutch of surprising and a enjoyable boss battles, and Shadows of the Damned, while rarely exceptional, is always a solid piece of entertainment. Indeed, it’s more than that. Even if there’s nothing that new or startling about the core action, its distinctive visual style and goofy exuberance, peppered with film and game references and really silly jokes, makes it feel unique and unpredictable. Shadows of the Damned might be crass, flawed and immature, but it’s very rarely boring. You also never feel that you’ve seen it all and done it all before.
The style and the way it handles its subject matter ensure that Shadows of the Damned really isn’t a game for everyone. Even if you don’t find it offensive, you might find it merely pathetic and juvenile. Trust us; there’s gratuitous nudity everywhere and we lost count of genitalia-related jokes halfway through. However, if your sensibility locks with the game’s, it can be a great guilty pleasure, bristling with horror-nut nostalgia and overcooked machismo. Shadows might not be quite as “magnifico” as its hero makes out, but it’s close, and when it’s at its very best it’s a blood-spraying, demon-slaying riot.