Whenever I see the name “Shadows Of The Damned”, the hit single “Shadows Of The Night” by the immortal Pat Benetar starts playing in my head. This doesn’t really say anything about the game except that it has perhaps a rather generic name. It’s a game about a demon hunter named Garcia Hotspur, who follows his girlfriend and her many-eyed kidnapper into the underworld. That premise, also sounds rather generic, but the truth defies simplicity in this case.
SotD is from the minds behind Killer 7 (Suda 51) and Resident Evil (Shinji Mikami) and their influences are easily recognisable. The backing of a big name western publisher, EA, manages to chase away the feeling of ‘weird for the sake of weird’ occasionally attributable to a rather Japanese affair. There’s a self referential humour here which is almost winking at the camera a few too many times, but it pulls back enough that it mostly stays amusingly charming (if occasionally odd) and doesn’t ever go to far as to be obnoxious. In some ways it comes across as mocking itself to deprive anyone else of the chance, but thankfully the various elements required of a videogame all stand up on their own and don’t cause any major ire to be directed at the sheer strangeness of some of the token videogame concessions.
So as I stated earlier, Garcia Hotspur, protagonist and Mexican demon hunter, finds himself in the unenviable position of having his woman kidnapped, almost Double Dragon-style, and having to pursue her captor. He sets off with his floating-skull sidekick, Johnson, who also double as four different kinds of weapons (and a motorcycle, too, but that’s only in the opening cutscene.) In contrast to Garcia’s hating Mexican accent, Johnson has a British candour, and being a demon in exile, he fits into the guide role to tutorial-ise you in the early parts, but later acts as the ‘goofy one’ to Garcia’s ‘straight man’ in their little duo.
The duo’s excursion into the demon world sets up an aesthetics of a horror movie of a decade or two gone by, and the main character himself references their trip as their “very own road movie”. Though they’re not going for the same look at all, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Wet, with it’s good intentions at setting a mood and visual style of an old film genre. In that comparison though, SotD definitely comes out on top, because it actually has substance. You find out about Garcia and his absent girlfriend, Paula, via the conversations between Garcia and Johnson, and the stories of the bosses, with which battles are impending, are told via story books which are read by Garcia or Johnson, with a kind of delightfully twisted, black humour. It’s all really surprisingly fun stuff that straddles the fence between taking itself too seriously and not enough comfortably and without saddle sores. I feel like after playing Duke Nukem Forever, this is exactly what I needed.
Mechanically, SotD is a shooter, third-person at that, in the vein of Resident Evil, though notably Garcia can aim a gun while walking at the same time, bless his heart. It feels probably more like Dead Space in that regard, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. At first, the aiming can feel a bit loose but once you get past the adjustment period, shooting the head off a demon or dismembering them becomes second nature. As mentioned above, Johnson forms the four types of weapons Garcia can use; when idle, his flaming noggin sits at the end of a torch, lighting the way, and this can be used as a melee attack. The other forms are a pistol, shotgun, and machine gun. It sounds pretty standard, but the evolution of the weapons involve some secondary fire modes which keep things fresh.
When it’s not straight combat, SotD is a combat-puzzler, and that’s when it’s at it’s best. The demon world is a pretty unusual place, and one of the things that becomes apparent early on is that darkness can have a tangible manifestation; it saps Garcia’s life, and makes his enemies invulnerable whilst they’re coated in it. Often located in these areas of darkness are goat head candelabra’s (which in a nice piece of dialogue, Johnson passes off as common knowledge) that can chase away the darkness when lit up with Garcia/Johnson’s light-shot power. There’s a lot more interplay with the darkness than I’ll probably be able to recall, like demons that will attempt to snuff the goat heads out, things that can only be destroyed by darkness, enemies who are considerably tough in the light but die instantly in the dark, and when demons emerge from the darkness, they remain covered and invulnerable until lit up by the light shot. It’s an effective and engaging system, and it makes for a third person shooter for those who like to think, more than a good variety of enemies does (which it also has.)
When it comes time to think about what I didn’t like about SotD, I can only think of a couple of irritating chase sequences that bugged me at the time. Shadows Of The Damned didn’t exactly cause a brainsplosion, but it’s all around good fun. I have no problem recommending it to anyone partial to some action gaming.