Naturally, it takes a mind like Goichi Suda, better known as Suda 51, to make a game like Shadows of the Damned work. He didn't do it alone though; Resident Evil mastermind Shinji Mikami also collaborated on this bizarre blend of survival horror and grindhouse bloodsports – and the partnership certainly shines through the gore.
The story premise isn't really too out-there; you're Garcia Hotspur - just a guy on a mission to save his girlfriend from the depths of hell, dragged there by a figure called Fleming. No biggie, really. This tale of revenge is the perfect excuse for Suda and Mikami to experiment with sheer, wilful weirdness.
The Shinji Mikami / Resident Evil Bits
Shadows of the Damned is a game with two souls mashed together in a bitter marriage. On one hand, there are bits that are like Resident Evil 5: it's a third-person shooter with a slower, more considered pace. Enemies come in waves, and you clear the area, room by room. These elements are, essentially, the 'Mikami-bits'.
There's an overall feel to the presentation and pace that marry Resident Evil 4 and 5 with something like Alan Wake and Deadly Premonition. In true Mikami / Resident Evil style, Shadows of the Damned is a very manual game. It seems like you're hitting X to do just about everything; there's no automation when it comes to scaling ladders or dropping over ledges. This makes your actions very deliberate and slows the pace down a little bit. If you're being hemmed in by enemies, it can be a risky trade-off to stop and face an edge and X to drop down, rather than simply falling over the precipice.
That horse just blue itself.
Light and dark play major roles in the game – hence the title. The titular Shadow monsters are invulnerable to standard attacks and must be weakened with light in order to be brought down. The right shoulder button works a bit likeght the flashlight in 'Alan Wake' – you fire off a bolt of light (or charge it up for a more powerful attack) to partially weaken your enemy before either swapping out to a melee attack or a potent blast with your shotgun or default pea-shooter pistol.
More effective is the Fireworks Launcher. These are positioned in fixed points in some areas. Again, you need to crank the launcher a few times in order to ignite the fuse –and true to its survival horror gameplay roots, you have to risk being overwhelmed by enemies in order to set the thing off. It balances risk and reward nicely.
The Suda 51 / Insane Bits
Then there are bits that are decidedly Suda 51-esque. These are the eccentric parts – like the bizarre gate/key system, where you're searching for eyeballs and brains to jam into the mouths of baby-faced demon door locks in order to satisfy them and convince them to open up (you can't make this stuff up). These keys are scattered around the town square, hidden in alleyways.
'Demon's Pubes', tangled masses of wiry hell-pubes, are the other nuisance that you must overcome. Yeah, evil pube-gates. These block your progress and require you to kill specific enemies in your path. Largely straight-forward stuff, but again, with that Suda 51 twist.
Monsters are equally perverse and peculiar. Meet Christopher: he's a big, blue demon with scaly legs and horns. He's also a merchant and apparently, he's pretty gentle. Shadows of the Damned likes to subvert and humanise its underworldly monsters. This humanising of monsters also extends to your sidekick, Johnson. A know-all glowing skull that floats around alongside you, Johnson's extensive knowledge of the layers of hell (and its residents) is accessible through the sub-menus.
Garcia Hotspur... almost as cool a name as Travis Touchdown.
Those who played Suda 51's 'No More Heroes' and its sequel will appreciate how developer Grasshopper Manufacture tends to blend genres and different gameplay styles into the experience - to varied success. When you weren't hacking enemies into explosions of coins, for instance, you'd be mowing lawns and collecting fallen coconuts. As you do when you're Travis Touchdown.
During one sequence late into our demo of Shadows of the Damned, Hotspur stands at the centre of a giant circular pendulum hanging inside a giant Pisa-like tower. You can raise and lower the pendulum and swing that sucker around, smashing into pillars, collecting gems and wiping out enemies as you gradually make your way to the top. It's a short sequence – but a complete change of tone and a welcome departure.
Overall, though our time with the game was brief, we were left with the distinct feeling that Shadows of the Damned is hiding a few key elements from us. We're expecting, for instance, more gameplay variety as you progress, rather than strictly run-and-gun. The story is also deeply warped, and without much context beyond 'find your girlfriend', it's hard to gauge how it's going to come together. As a marriage of game design talents, it could end up going awry or very, very right. We're leaning toward the latter.