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Andy Alderson discovers that Suda 51 + Shinji Mikami = bizarre vulgarity with adolescent humour...
There are some things in life which you know you shouldn't like. Michael Bay films, Elton John's back catalogue, and Jersey Shore, to name a few. And yet, every now and again something comes along which leaves you conflicted. It may well go against the strongest of your principles but, somewhere within it, you see hope. And, infuriatingly, that hope plants a seed in your mind which grows into a type of dysfunctional affection. And that's exactly how I came to like Shadows of the Damned, against all my better judgement.
The bone of contention here (and the word "bone" is especially appropriate) is the tone of the game. This collaboration between No More Heroes' Suda 51 and Resi 4's Shinji Mikami somehow manages to be both intensely, controller-bitingly annoying and yet wonderfully puerile, often at the same time. It's absolutely bizarre. You shouldn't like it. It's the kind of tits, gore and curse-fest that traditionally gets the anti-gaming lobby all worked up like a drunk Mel Gibson in a synagogue. It's the kind of game the doubters will turn to when trying to convince the nation that games can never compete on an aesthetic level with films and television. And so, at least initially, I felt a little snobby about it. But, by the time I got a few hours into the game, something strange happened. I became anaesthetised to all of Shadows' irritating foibles (and there are many) and began to enjoy it for what it is; a solid, if basic, third-person action title which demands that you jettison your brain for the duration.
The premise of Shadows of the Damned is a gaming classic: rescue the damsel from the demon. We've seen it many, many times. Only Paula is not your average damsel - the game's Latin hero, Garcia Hotspur (yeah, I know) found her in a bin, she dresses like she's auditioning for a sluttier version of The Only Way is Essex and she apparently likes to indulge in the occasional domestic knife attack. The game's triple foreheaded villain, Fleming - king of the demons, has kidnapped Paula and dragged her into the Underworld where he intends to have his mucky way with her for all eternity. Which leaves Garcia and his trusty floating skull sidekick Johnson to follow them to Hell and battle their way to Fleming.
The dialogue between Hotspur and his rehabilitated demon pal, Johnson, tries hard to keep the mood light throughout. I mean, it tries really hard. You'll hear more dick jokes than a Kevin Smith convention and, for the most part, they fall flat with the writing frequently leaping head first over the taste line and into toilet cubicle graffiti territory. But then, just as you're about to indignantly switch it off and read some Oscar Wilde instead, the game spits out a line like "warn me if I have to f*** a horse to open a door" and you find yourself giving it just a few more minutes. It undoubtedly lacks the satire and wit of Suda 51's previous efforts and at times seems to go out of its way to irritate you, but it's hard to argue that it's not in keeping with the game; the game which at one point has you jump through a tastefully-placed portal between a billboard model's legs; the game which features a gun called the Boner. Which later becomes the Hot Boner. It's overwhelmingly silly, frequently ridiculous, but also self-aware. At least I hope it is.
But, of course, Shadows is a collaboration and while the dialogue and storyline have a distinctly OTT Suda feel to them, the gameplay, or rather the gunplay, unsurprisingly recalls Mikami's Resident Evil 4. The over-the-shoulder, laser targeting will be instantly familiar to fans of Capcom's survival-horror classic, although Shadows plays like a juiced-up version. Aiming feels a little smoother, and movement a little quicker which is handy because, once you've made it beyond the rather forgiving earlier sections of the game, you'll frequently be faced with multiple types of enemies, each with different strengths and attack speeds. Aiming for the head is pretty essential for many of the enemies and, thanks to the fluid aiming and nice headshot animations, it feels pretty satisfying to dispatch a series of nasties with successive shots to the noggin. Other foes will sport armour which you can chip away at, while some will require you to think about another of Shadows' core game mechanics, the light/dark system.
Demons, it would seem, are not fond of light and so, throughout the game, you'll find yourself shrouded in the darkness, which causes your health to deplete. So, you'll need to find a way out of it quickly, lest you use up all your booze (yes, booze means health) trying to stay alive. Luckily, each of your weapons has a secondary "light shot" function which, if you fire it at the wall-mounted goat's head nearby, will light up the area. Look, I never promised this was going to make sense. The light shot can also be used to get rid of the darkness that shrouds some enemies, making them invincible to regular ammo. The light/dark mechanic generally works pretty well, adding a puzzle dimension to the balls-out shooter action, but it's hard not to feel like the developer could have made more of it. All too often, you'll find yourself wading into to the darkness simply to shoot a switch that isn't visible in the light, or to find a new enemy's weak spot.
That said, the level design in Shadows isn't bad. Sure, the environments aren't exactly pretty to look at (it's Hell after all), but they are generally well laid-out. Most are smallish, self-contained dungeons with a couple of locked door puzzles and an array of nasties waiting to pop out and rip you to bits. It never feels particularly demanding to find your way out of a level and their modest size makes it feel like you're progressing satisfyingly through the game. The gun upgrade system has a similar effect. Collect red gems and you can upgrade aspects of each gun such as damage, reload speed and capacity, and the game gives you complete freedom to pick and choose. So if you want to completely soup-up the Boner pistol (yeah, I know) early on in the game you can, or you might prefer to spread out your upgrade gems between all other weapons (you also have a shotgun and a machine gun at your disposal).
Bigger weapon upgrades can also be gained by collecting blue gems, which can add new functions to your existing shooters, like a sticky bomb fired from the Hot Boner (still laughing?). These blue gems are generally found once you've taken down one of the game's small roster of bosses. While there aren't a huge amount of major bosses, each is provided a decent back-story through fairy tale books dotted around the levels and boss battles themselves are predictably multi-stage affairs. And you won't have any problem working out what to do, as the conveniently glowing red sections on the bosses means you always know what you're aiming at. Sure, it's a hackneyed game mechanic, but the boss battles are pretty enjoyable if a little undemanding.
And this is probably an appropriate judgement on the game in general: enjoyable if a little undemanding. Seasoned gamers will tear through the regular difficulty level with relative ease and there's not much to compel you into a second play-through. By the end of the somewhat modest campaign, you'll have seen everything Shadows has to offer. And, if you're like me, you'll have had enough of the dick jokes.There are some things in life which you know you shouldn't like.
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