This week, Zero Punctuation finds out if the Shadows of the Damned developer dream teams pays off or not.
I tell you what, Shadows of the Damned has a damned good pedigree behind it; it'd fetch a high price at a Japanese sperm bank. It's produced by Shinji Mikami, who made Resident Evil, but don't let that discourage you because he also made Resident Evil 4- yes, the only good one. The music's by Akira Yamaoka - (who?) - the guy who did the music for Silent Hill - (what's that?) - a series with really good music! (oh.). And, lest we forget, it's written and directed by Suda51, the quirky auteur behind No More Heroes and Killer7. That's the kind of superstar line-up you'd introduce with something like the opening titles of Captain Planet.
Now, Suda, bless his heart, tends to have what you might call a long-distance relationship with normalcy, but his tag team seems to be holding his leash pretty tightly on this one. Getting past the rather alarmingly generic title, Shadows of the Damned tells the story of a demon hunter named, brace yourself, Garcia Fucking Hotspur - and I think his middle name actually is Fucking, because in the subtitle it's got a capital F like a proper noun - who must battle through Hell to rescue his girlfriend from the demon lord. It's probably the closest to a "standard" plot Suda's ever done; it's probably what he'd come up with if they asked him to make a Mario game. Akira Yamaoka's soundtrack is unmistakable, and one can certainly feel Shinji Mikami's strong, masculine hand on the reins, but for a while it was difficult to detect Suda's influence.
The game I was most reminded of at first was God Hand, the game Mikami made when he was with Clover Studios that also sailed out of Port Sensible on the HMS Quirky. The over-the-shoulder shooting is reminiscent of Resident Evil 4, but with the ability to move while aiming and dodge at any time, so approximately ten billion times easier. Attention, hardcore gamers: stop chewing on that piece of wood and listen. If you play this game, start out on the hardest difficulty setting, because otherwise you'll feel less challenged than the world's greatest handjob artist playing ring toss. If a standard demon actually manages to hit you because you're blind and deaf and having a stroke, then they can do big chunks of damage very fast, but healing items practically come out of the fucking plumbing.
So for a while I didn't really feel like I was playing a Suda51 game, but then something happened that I think deserves to be recounted in full. Garcia has an amusing buddy movie partnership with Johnson, a sort of well-spoken lost soul from Doom who can turn into a motorbike which thrumbs mightily between Garcia's thighs or a handgun called "The Boner". At one point in the game, you require some heavier artillery, so Johnson calls a phone sex line, which causes his barrel to extend by about five feet and turns him into "The Big Boner", which Garcia holds right in front his crotch and fires by thrusting his hips forward and yelling "Taste my big boner!" Oh, there you are, Suda, you randy old bastard. And there was me thinking Travis Touchdown jerking off his lightsaber was about as overt as symbolism could get. Did I mention that in-between Big Boner shooting segments you have to run across the buttocks of a giant stripper? It's all right, girls, it's ironic! I guess if you are embracing the masculine power fantasy thing, it's advisable to have your tongue in your cheek so you don't have to taste all the dicks in your mouth.
There's something terribly retro about all this, besides the fact that you're saving your kidnapped girlfriend, which as game stories go is only slightly newer than "you have to shoot the thing." The game's divided into numbered levels, the pickups are the size of novelty inflatables, and there are key-hunting puzzles, which I'd thought action games had long since packed away into the attic trunk alongside its graduation photos and its roomy trousers that hold more than three weapons. There are even entire levels taking place in a 2D shooter, apropos of nothing, in which you actually have the boss fight with one of the major villains.
One could put this down to the "directors being Captain Quirk sailing the HMS Quirk of the Bermuda Quirkangle", like that one 2D shooter section in No More Heroes that came out of nowhere, but as anything other than a whimsical aside, it smacks more of a production whose budget no longer felt as reassuringly weighty in the trousers as it had done at the start. Shadows of the Damned bears the tell-tale scissor marks of a game that has been cut down. It's disappointing short and doesn't quite have the wealth of imagination one would expect from its heritage. Ooh, listen to me. I think I'm the Antiques Roadshow now.
Weapons upgrade systems are presumably shagging someone in authority in the games industry, so Shadows of the Damned has to have one, like every game and their dog. The trouble is, what with the difficulty level being right up there with trimming your toenails, I never felt like upgrades were necessary. I was either insta-killing enemies with a single headshot from the starting pistol or blowing off a leg with the starting shotgun and jumping up and down on their prone form until the carpets were far beyond the power of any shampooing service. And I didn't feel adding miserable little buffs to the damage, capacity, and reload speed would improve that process. What I needed was either better aim or some heavier shoes.
The only really significant weapon upgrades occur at fixed moments in the plot, generally after a boss fight, and once you get the homing bullets for the machine gun then a game that was a walk in the park suddenly becomes a prolonged snooze on a park bench while an Arabian slave boy puts grapes in your mouth. I think I only died once in my entire first playthrough, and that was when I was experimenting to see if I could play games while eating a toffee apple.
I'm not saying I didn't have fun. Almost every level has at least one new idea, the demon world has a definite richness about it, and Garcia and Johnson make for an appealing double act. But for a game that seems to have set out with the plan to bring three big names together and wait for the explosion, none of the three amigos brought their A game. Akira Yamaoka randomly smashing at his banjo strings suited the disquieting surreality of Silent Hill but not so much a quirky action-horror game that seems to be mouthing along to a squealy heavy metal soundtrack that it doesn't have. On the gameplay side, where was the Shinji Mikami who once made a game where dozing off for one second led to you getting your head chainsawed off by a mad Spaniard? And while enough of the disposable income of the alternative crowd glimmered invitingly in the eyes of the publishers for the game to be marketed with the tagline "A Suda51 trip," for all Shadows of the Damned 's demon skull knobstitutions, this is probably the most grounded Suda51's ever been. Killer7 was a "trip"; this is more like a bank holiday day out to watch someone throw horse giblets at a lingerie shop.
His favourite adjective is "throbbing": Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Until the Big Boner section I didn't get the 'Johnson' thing, I thought they might have been going with some kind of presidential naming system
Damn! A shadow