Suda 51 of Grasshopper Manufacture is perhaps best known for “No More Heroes” 1 & 2 for the Wii. I’ve played the first game, and it was three things: bizzare, imaginative, and family unfriendly. Basically, the protagonist, Travis Touchdown, is some low rent otaku who became a kind of hitman after buying a lightsaber on the internet and wound up climbing his way up the Assassin’s Association ladder, but he has to pay a hefty sum for each ranking battle, so he winds up doing odd jobs like coconut gathering, mowing lawns, and cleaning up litter, as well as “assassin work”. A large part of the game’s imaginativeness is in the foes Travis face, from a country singer wannabe to a high school girl who thinks she’s a samurai to a fake superhero and even a sadistic psychopath of a woman who thinks she’s hot. As for family unfriendliness, this game is chock full of bloody violence and sexual themes.
The protagonist of this game is Garcia Hotspurr, grizzled, veteran demon hunter. His girlfriend, Paula, has been killed and kidnapped by demon overlord Fleming, and he sets out to chase him all the way to hell, avenge and/or rescue Paula, and blast to pieces anyone or anything that gets in his way with his smart-mouthed sidekick, ex-demon Johnson.
Now let’s get one thing straight: this hell isn’t the fiery inferno it’s popularly depicted to be. When the duo goes through the gates of hell, they happen upon a gloomy little town, though after a bit of wandering around, it turns out this is far from an ordinary town, with zombie-like demons skulking about, fleshy masses spilling out of doorways, mirrors that only show swirling darkness within and goat heads on the wall. Also, it seems that when people get damned to this hell, they not only get tortured by demons, but become demons themselves, and a special few win Fleming’s favor for how they lived and died and receive the VIP treatment. Hopefully, Paula isn’t already a demon, but she dies repeatedly before Garcia’s eyes, has demons burst out of her torso, and even murderously chases Garcia like she’s possessed. All in all, Garcia’s in for a hell of a fight in a world practically straight out of campy b-list horror movies.
Basically, “Shadows of the Damned” is a horror survival third person shooter like Resident Evil and Dead Space. Johnson starts with the ability to shape-shift between a torch and a pistol called the Boner (awkward, huh?), and later gets other gun forms to shape-shift into, and as any gun, Johnson can also do the lightshot; it does not damage to demons, but it stuns them, burns off any infernal darkness coating them and lights goat heads and lamps hanging on the wall. Speaking of infernal darkness, there are times when Garcia will be engulfed in it, and he better get out, gather some human hearts (don’t ask), or light up a goat’s head to disperse it, or it’ll eat away his flesh. As for damage he endures, he can heal by drinking some of the booze he collects on his quest or purchase from vending machines or Christopher. He’s half-demon by the way, and he eats the diamonds Garcia pays him then spits out the items.
The game controls fairly well. It’s nice that you don’t need a submenu to change weapons or even use the healing items. It’s also cool that Garcia can smack enemies behind him with the torch as well as in front. At least the aiming speed is adjustable, but I found it difficult to aim for the enemies weak-point, which was usually the head of weak enemies and organic sacs of human blood somewhere on the stronger enemies, so I often used the more powerful shotgun or machinegun. Whatever weapon you decide to favor, you’ll have to keep in mind that ammo, although plentiful, is limited, and the light shot and torch do no damage, so be efficient with your shots.
There is a point in the game where you literally drop into a side-scrolling schmup that looks like something from a popup storybook or cutout animation like South Park which all has a retro gaming flair to it. In it, ammo is unlimited, booze fully restores your health, and damage strips away Garcia’s clothes and skin until he’s a boxer-clad skeleton. It’s honestly a partly refreshing departure from the usual desperate struggle for survival and progress because the sound effects and animations are obnoxiously comical, but some segments are frustrating and intense, and it’s really another way for Fleming to mock Garcia and his quest for love and vengeance.
Grasshopper Manufacture is known for making videogames that have intensely distinctive visual styles usually involving cel-shading, like “Sun, Rain, and Flowers”, “Killer7”, and, of course, “No More Heroes”. That makes it a surprise that “Shadows of the Damned” looks pretty realistic. Of course, if the videogame is to fit in the horror genre, it helps that the bloody flesh, fanged maws, and instruments of death look real enough to scare children into weeks of nightmares.
Perhaps most commendable is the game’s dynamic use of light and darkness, not just aesthetically but symbolically. Most of the world is dimly lit in the half light of dusk or by street lights, with Johnson, as a torch, brightening Garcia’s immediate vincinity. Of course, there are pitch black areas that hides enemies almost perfectly, but there’s usually a sushi lamp hanging nearby, which is a sort of land-crawling angler fish. Garcia can light him up with the Light Shot, and it can guide him through the pitch black and scare off most enemies, acting as a sort of sanctuary vessel. Then there’s the infernal darkness, which are announced by a liquid black wall that you can’t see through until you go through. Inside it, almost everything is painted a ghastly shade of blue, the sky turns into liquid, and the darkness tries to eat away Garcia’s flesh, but light up a goat’s head, and the infernal darkness disperses like smoke.
The character designs are pretty good too. In the game prologue, Garcia is shown sporting a bad-ass body tattoo that he hides beneath his leather jacket for the rest of the game. Paula is quite pretty, whether she’s wearing casual clothes, lingerie, or for some reason, a white wedding dress. Instead of red satires with long pointy tails, the demons seem more like monsters in other contemporary games, like Dead Space and Left 4 Dead. The VIPs in particular, like George and Crow, seem like they can rub shoulders with Freddy Kreuger, Jason, Chuckie, and the like. Fleming himself is quite an impressive character, with three skull fused into a six-eyed pillar, sporting a leather trench-coat decorated with bones, and gnarly, clawed hands.
This game has a good soundtrack. Styles run from orchestral to electronic, but it manages to create an overall spooky ambiance. After all, some of you might be familiar with the work of Akira Yamaota. If that’s the case, it makes the game that much better.
Voice acting is also top notch. Garcia has a heavy Hispanic accent, of course, but his voice sounds gruff and grizzled, which adds to his character. Johnson’s British accent enhances his personality as a joker and a neurotic. Even Fleming, the lord of evil, has quite a voice. It’s not at all what I expected, but he still sounded strong and menacing.
· Off-beat story
· Straightforward combat
· Excellent use of light and darkness in game
· Spot on Voice acting and Soundtrack
· Somewhat difficult to aim
· Might be hard to understand
“Shadows of the Damned” is no ordinary horror game (not that I play many), and that’s what makes it great.