Monday, August 22, 2011

Review: Shadows of the Damned (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

The combination of video games and comedy is a mixture that doesn’t always work, since for every laugh-out-loud hilarious game like Conker’s Bad Fur Day, there is the painfully unfunny Leisure Suit Larry and Naughty Bears. There is often a fine line between the effective use of toilet humor and sexual innuendo and drowning the gaming experience in a sea of groan-worthy jokes that ultimately kill the experience Thankfully, Shadows of the Damned fall into the latter category and succeeds at giving us a playable, if unremarkable, third-person action game that combines equal parts Resident Evil, Alan Wake and a very adult sense of humor.  Be warned, this game is not for everyone, but read on if you’re intrigued.

The story for Shadows of the Damned concerns a demon hunter named Garcia Hotspur, a gun-toting ruffian who is as quick with the sexual puns as he is with his guns. The game begins with a confrontation with the demon lord Fleming in which Garcia’s girlfriend Paula is killed and taking through a portal into the depths of hell, and Garcia being a pillar of male bravado, jumps in after her and spends the rest of the game trying traversing the nightmarish levels in an effort to save her.  This being hell, the rules of light, dark and logic do not apply. At various points, your surroundings are plunged into a thick darkness that drains your health, forcing you to light goat-head lamps to dispel the darkness and the creatures lurking within it. Aiding Garcia in his travels are two friends, the very aptly named Johnson and Big Willy, and they provide much of the comic relief throughout the game. Johnson is a floating skull with a British accent who transforms into the various guns that Garcia must use, plus he provides tips on how to use your weapons and get through the environment. Big Willy is a floating creature that marks your checkpoints with flaming piles of excrement, which sounds ridiculous but you will often be very glad to see him once you have gotten through a particularly difficult area. Connecting the story and the characters is a Grindhouse-style of storytelling that gives the game a cinematic feel that works for the most part, although the dialogue and it’s abundance of sex jokes and foul language is definitely not for every taste.

The story is told in a very straight-forward manner and the game plays out in a very linear fashion as a result.  Throughout the various pits, caves, towns and houses, you are given a minimal amount of freedom to explore and find hidden items, such as red gems that upgrade your items, liquor bottles to boost your health and ammunition for your weapons. However, this is really were the freedom stops as there is only one right path to get through the levels and the game keeps you moving towards these bottlenecks at a good pace. To prevent backtracking, paths close behind you, doors lock and even ladders you just climbed become inaccessible, so take a little extra time to explore before moving onto the next area. Similar to Resident Evil, the levels are broken up in stages and chapters, each containing one or more boss battles.  To break up the “rinse and repeat” monotony, you are given various levels that break the “A to B” level design, such as a shooting gallery level, a side-scrolling shooter level and a few puzzles that add variety. These provide some whimsical fun but are little more than diversions you’ll neither be frustrated with or blown away by.
Those familiar with the Resident Evil style of gameplay will immediately feel at home with Shadows of the Damned, as it controls very similar to latter entries in the series. All of your guns have a laser-like aiming system that takes a little getting used to, but unlike Resident Evil, you are able to move around while aiming and shooting and I see this as an improvement on the old formula. The guns are stylish implements of hell but they function as three different weapon classes; the pistol, shotgun and machine gun. These guns are upgraded as you acquire blue gems throughout the game and each gun has two kinds of shots, the standard rounds and a burst of light that is used to light lamps and weaken creatures shielded by the darkness. The weapons feel meaty and powerful , and the pistol (called the Hot Boner) even shoots sticky rounds that explode. As you can tell from that last sentence, everything about this game is a sexual innuendo of some kind. The difficulty level here is moderate and most gamers will only find certain areas frustrating, however the boss battles generally will not be among them. Most bosses follow the “shoot the red area until the creature dies” formula and well-timed shooting and dodging pretty much assures success in most battles. The frustration comes in levels where you need to be either very quick to get away from certain creatures or very accurate in shooting. To divulge more would be spoiling plot points, but you will know what I mean when you play the game.

The graphics and sound production is fantastic and, similar to my opinions on Alice: The Madness Returns, they save the game from being another garden variety third-person action game.  The game takes place in hell and this has given the developers license to make it as twisted as possible, though it is not done to quite the same effect as Dante’s Inferno. Environments are well detailed and full of subtle touches that will likely escape notice on the first playthrough, but the variety in the levels also serves to keep monotony at bay. Hell in this game is a mix of caverns, Victorian houses, swamps and other nasty places that are more creepy than nightmarish. There are some levels, such as a super-dirty vision of the Las Vegas strip and the haunted library, that provide the real eye candy. The aforementioned side-scrolling shooter level is done in a strange cardboard-cutout style that isn’t as impressive or quirky as the designers likely intended, but it’s one level and it’s over fairly quick. The dialogue between the characters, both the protagonist and the enemies, is one of the key selling points and they lay on the toilet humor very thick. This could work against most games, however Shadows of the Damned is so self-aware of its own ridiculousness that you’ll more often be laughing with the game than at it. Not every dick joke is a winner, but there were very few moments where I shook my head as one would at a bad comedian tanking in front of a crowded bar.
Shadows of the Damned was made to appeal to third person action fans with an irreverent sense of humor and it succeeds very well at giving you a fun diversion for about 8 hours. Stripped to its bare essentials, it’s a playable action game with familiar controls and gunplay mechanics, and the style elevates it to something rather unique. Personally, I have fallen out of love with the Resident Evil games over the years and it is refreshing to play a game that combines elements of that series with newer action games like Alan Wake. However, my initial caveat stands – there is nothing about this game that is remotely tasteful, so don’t buy this for your kids or for anyone whose sensitivities might be offended. For those like myself, with a cheeky grin and a gutter-bound mind, this is definitely a game for you to check out.  
Rating: 8 out of 10

1 comment:

  1. Great review! Well written; I spotted some grammatical mistakes here and there but nothing major.