Garcia F****** Hotspur, the protagonist behind Shadows of the Damned, is something of a unique specimen amongst video game characters, and not just because he has an expletive as a middle name. Hotspur is a hispanic, purple jacket wearing, vulgar-mouthed demon hunter whose girlfriend has been taken down into a bizarre underworld filled with weird logic and an army of demons that wants to kill him dead. Okay, maybe he's not that unique, but the adventure he's embarking upon sure is. Here is a road movie within a horror game, all in a hilarious comedy package.
Fortunately, Hotspur has a secret weapon of his own, a wisecracking skull with a British accent named Johnson who can transform himself into any tool for the job. Yes, his name is a not so subtle pun for exactly what you think it is. In the opening cutscene, after Hotspur's precious Paula is kidnapped, Johnson turns himself into a motorcycle so that Hotspur can ride guns blazing into the underworld sunset after her. Johnson can also transform himself into useful tools like a torch and a variety of different weapons. Mostly these are variations on the shooter standards like a pistol, shotgun, machine gun, and sniper rifle. But, with names like the Big Boner, it becomes obvious where this game's sense of humor lies.
Mechanically speaking, Shadows plays a lot like Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space. The action is viewed from a behind the shoulder camera that zooms in closer when you're aiming your equipped weapon. Unlike the aforementioned horror titles, Shadows' protagonist is a much more nimble character. You can duck and dive out of the way of obstacles, a skill you'll be using pretty often.
As you progress through the very creative environments (which include a demon-infested town, cemeteries, swamps, and sewers, all of which are packed with little details to make them feel fresh), you'll acquire a variety of gems that you can use as currency of upgrade tokens. White gems act as currency, which can be traded to a friendly, southern-drawled merchant demon named Christopher that has conveniently set up shop near any major battle. A complete playthrough (around eight hours) will likely not yield enough gems to upgrade your character fully, meaning that you must spend your gems carefully in order to customize your character to your preferences. Don't stress out too much about it though, as the game is pretty easy overall. Experienced gamers will want to skip straight to the harder difficulty levels. Individual enemies can indeed prove challenging, but the difficulty is undermined by the fact that healing items and vending machines are strewn a little too liberally throughout the environments. It also bears mentioning that the game is extremely linear, rarely deviating from the one and only path from point A to point B.
A major component of the game is light versus darkness. When enveloped in darkness, enemies become invincible and Hotspur's health will start to drain. Fortunately, Hotspur also has access to a light shot, which can be used to ignite floating goat heads or slow moving slugs to illuminate your path. If that sounds weird to you, just wait until you feed strawberries or brains to baby heads that unlock doors that are blocking your path. Yes, this game is as weird as it sounds.
Boss battles are also very fun and creative, with giant abominations that will require a little bit of puzzle-solving to effectively beat. I'm reluctant to describe them in great detail because 1) they defy common classification, and 2) their designs are wacky and/or terrifying enough to remain a horrifyingly pleasant surprise. Just know that by mixing in the light and dark mechanics, you'll experience some boss battles quite unlike any you've encountered in a shooter before.
It's unfortunate that with some much goofiness and inspired design at work here, that there's so little to the package. The main campaign can be completed in eight hours, or perhaps even less if you're playing on an easier difficulty. There's also no multiplayer, and extra downloadable content is unlikely.
The hardcore amongst you may be wondering how this title compares to the past titles of creators Suda 51 (No More Heroes, Killer7) and Shinji Mikami (The Resident Evil Series, Devil May Cry). Shadows compares quite well, actually. As absurd as the game is, it's not as brain meltingly odd as Killer7. The Resident Evil influences are obvious, but Shadows is not quite as memorable as Resident Evil's finest hours.
Shadows of the Damned looks great. The creative environments are fantastically detailed thanks to the power of the Unreal Engine. The transitions from light to darkness are particularly beautiful. Enemies are very well animated and exquisitely detailed, especially the gore-covered bosses. The only graphical issues come from some unfortunate texture pop-in, and some awkward animation when Hotspur is running.
The audio in Shadows is fantastic. The acoustic sound track provided by Silent Hill maestro Akira Yamaoka is appropriately creepy and kooky as needed. The voice acting on both Hotspur and Johnson are consistently energetic and hilarious. Johnson in particular reminded me of Portal 2's Wheatley in a good way. Shadows provides one of the more impressive acoustic packages in the industry.
If it wasn't for the not-for-everyone grind house aesthetic of the game and the short play length, Shadows of the Damned would be a slam dunk recommendation. If you want some grindhouse and road movie in your game, this is the experience just for you. Even if you're a horror fan who's looking for something a little less serious than Dead Space of the latest F.E.A.R. title, you may just find what you're looking for here as well.