Shadows of the Damned (PS3)

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Shadows of the Damned is a game about tragedy, despair and desperation. It’s a game about foul-mouthed, hideous and nightmarish demons, damned to an excruciating existence in the gloomy, unique vision of Hell presented by Suda51 and developer Grasshopper Manufacture. Despite the game’s oppressive themes and atmosphere, however, and in amongst the darkness and torment, Shadows of the Damned is also a game about unbridled defiance, boundless hope and the never-ending battle between the powers of Good and Evil, with a few big-hearted and helpful demons at hand to light the path towards victory.

Occasionally, your path will also be lit by glowing faeces dropped by a bat-like creature with one eye, and you’ll hold regular conversations with a talking skull with a British accent. Sometimes, you’ll need to consume a human heart to survive in the world, and you may even witness a dozen severed heads rolling down a ramp. Shadows of the Damned is about all of these things and more, but nothing can quite prepare you for what you will see.

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Garcia Hotspur is a demon hunter, and because of his aptitude for destroying evil fiends terrorising Earth, he has caught the attention of the underworld to the point where ‘The Lord of Demons’ pays him a visit and spirits away his beloved Paula into Hell. To save Paula from a fate worse than death (i.e. dying in many, different and gruesome ways for all eternity), and without second thought, Garcia barrels headlong into this evil world to begin his journey. What he finds there isn’t the traditional picture of Hell painted in cultural works, though.

This isn’t a place of fire and brimstone but rather a slightly twisted and heavily oppressive version of the real world. The cobblestone streets and gothic architecture of an aged and crumbling European-style city make way for expansive cemeteries and a literal meat market, the winding tunnels of a dank sewer, the innards of a bubbling volcano and the eeriness of a murky, swampy forest, with brief visits to a demon-infested and neon-lit red light district, a sinister series of cavernous catacombs and a ‘puzzle room’ filled with moving platforms and mind-bending scenarios.

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The variety of environments on offer in Shadows of the Damned is certainly impressive and while they all share similarly dark and brutal themes, it never feels as though you’re trudging through the same areas twice, effectively mixing up the pace to freshen the experience. To help make your way through this warped world, you’ll be accompanied by the disembodied skull demon, Johnson, who not only makes for an informative (and talkative) tour guide to explain the way the world works, but is also able to transform into a host of useful items and weapons, most importantly a source of light as well as three upgradeable weapons – a powerful handgun, an explosive shotgun and rapid-fire assault rifle.

Why ever would you need these armaments? To protect yourself from hordes of shambling, twitching, leaping, crawling, spitting and plodding demons, of course, each ‘hell-bent’ (…) on tearing chunks of flesh out of Garcia and feasting on his corpse. These monstrous enemies come in all shapes and sizes, too, and although you’ll meet these creatures multiple times throughout the adventure, new and creatively designed adversaries are introduced at a steady pace and compliment each other well to make for some interesting combat.

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Everything is controlled from the third-person, and unloading a few shotgun blasts into a pack of slower demons will allow you to pay attention to some of the quicker fiends who have a penchant for sneaking up on you, who can usually be sighted again with a quick 180 degree spin and an elbow attack to the face. Carving up enemies further away is effectively handled with the rifle and precision shots can be carried out with the handgun – perfect for picking out explosive barrels to wipe out new hordes of imps.

Combat is made more interesting still with the game’s use of ‘darkness’ that can, at any time, flood your current location, which makes enemies invulnerable until you find a new light source or ignite one that’s been doused (which take the form of goat heads, happily chewing away). Some enemies may even have a layer of darkness protecting them which needs to be burned away with a special ‘Light Shot,’ before you’re able to damage them by normal means (with your otherworldly bullets, or a simple melee attack for creatures closer to home).

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This ‘darkness’ is also used to solve light progression puzzles and adds a level of panic to the action, seeing as how darkness damages you until you step into a light source, and if left unchecked, Garcia himself will be destroyed, which makes it important to always keep an eye (and ear) out for those braying goat heads. Some enemies, too, are sensitive to light and won’t approach if you’re bathed in the stuff (although the demons soon find a way around this shortcoming…).

Boss battles, too, make extensive use of this ‘dark vs. light’ concept and weak points (represented by big, glowing red spots, of course) are only visible when Garcia is immersed in the ocean-like murk, so when you take those necessary breaths of light you in turn become more vulnerable to attacks, resulting in a satisfying ebb and flow feeling to these encounters.

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It’s a unique concept that hasn’t really been used very often in games (most notably in Alan Wake), but I would have liked to see Shadows of the Damned explore the gameplay merits of this idea a bit further, possibly with ways for players to actively ‘create’ light and dark during combat and puzzle sequences to add another layer of depth, but the game’s current use of the concept is no less engaging – frantically looking for light sources or desperately slogging through stretches of darkness always gets the pulse racing.

It’s this very frenzied nature of the gameplay, however, that exposes a flaw in Shadows of the Damned, and that is the third-person combat itself. Like a game such as Resident Evil 4, Shadows of the Damned uses a ‘laser pointer’ to help you aim at and target enemies, but no discrete reticule (as seen in other third-person shooters such as Gears of War, for example, or most any first-person shooter) is visible until your pointer is directly over a target, which can result in many a missed shot. You also need to enter the game’s separate over-the-shoulder aiming mode to fire off a round, so it’s simply not possible to quickly shoot a gun at a demon that’s just leapt into view, which makes gunfights feel a bit restricted.

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There’s so much style, personality and variety injected into Shadows of the Damned that it’s difficult to parse it all and discuss it without only taking quick glimpses at some of the highlights. How about those times you’re transported into a 2D, side-scrolling paper doll version of the world with the ability to fly and shoot demons? What about all of those parable-like fairy tale books related to the game’s story? Why do we need to feed eyeballs, brains and strawberries to baby-faced gates to progress? Why do bosses eat their own hearts in mid-battle to grow stronger and continue the fight? And how is it that alcohol causes no liver damage in the underworld, but instead restores health?

The world of Shadows of the Damned is a twisted place, and you can expect all of these things and more on your journey to help Garcia save Paula from ‘The Lord of Demons.’ Each character is incredibly memorable, each piece of eclectic, otherworldly ambient music is expertly chosen, every line of dialogue is delivered with purpose and meaning, and all of the story beats and cinematics arrive at the right time to refresh the expedition, all of which is wrapped up in a unique, disturbing and excellently realised vision of the underworld with offbeat presentation and humour to temper its oppressive feel.

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While there is no multiplayer mode and no option to replay the game with your newfound abilities in tact, Shadows of the Damned is packed with enjoyable moments, setpieces and hidden meaning to make returning to Grasshopper Manufacture’s latest creation a very intriguing proposition. Shadows of the Damned is Garcia Hotspur’s very own road movie, filled with tragedy, demons, hope and self-sacrifice, and if you join him on his journey you’re in for “one hell of a trip” indeed.