Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Shadows of the Damned has potential but disappoints

I had been looking forward to Shadows of the Damned from the moment it was announced. A game developed by Suda 51, the writer/director behind No More Heroes, which was one of my favorite games this console gen, and executive produced by Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami (just having come off from developing his own great game, Vanquish) I thought this had potential. Several times throughout the experience, this potential makes itself visible; at others, the game feels tedious, repetitive, and restrictively linear. Shadows of the Damned has its moments, there’s no denying that, but just like with Suda 51/Grasshopper Manufacture’s last game, No More Heroes 2, I find myself stopping short of awarding it a recommendation. (And I honestly have no idea what role Mikami had in this thing, since it never once feels like one of his games. Strange.)

Visuals: Graphically, Shadows of the Damned is very nice. Running on the Unreal Engine, which does great work with lighting effects, areas of this game look very pretty. The art direction’s inspired, the characters are cool-looking, some of the enemies are downright bizarre, and overall, Hell has never looked better. This is actually, come to think of it, Grasshopper Manufacture’s first game on HD platforms, and even without that considered it looks very nice. Certainly not the best-looking game on the systems, (and long load times and some *serious* linearity are a price to pay) but it looks good and the stylish art direction and varied environments keep things fresh.

Storyline: Undoubtedly the best part of Shadows of the Damned is its incredible dialogue and voice acting. The laugh out loud moments are not only quite frequent, but the game’s self-awareness and perfect voice acting really helps keep Shadows of the Damned’s humor varied and unpredictable. Garcia Hotspur (a Suda 51 name if ever there was one) proves to be a likeable main character, but the real star here is his talking gun, Johnson. His existence not only serves to provide the game with a long-running **** joke, but he actually winds up stealing every scene he’s in with his hilarious commentary and excellent vocal delivery. He and Garcia’s banter wind up being the star of the show, and thankfully cutscenes are frequent but short enough so as not to feel like an interruption from the action.

The storyline itself is pretty simple; Paula, Garcia’s girlfriend, is dragged into Hell by demons and it’s up to him to save her. The plot's not terrible; it’s serviceable in that it gets you from one level to the other, but it’s unfortunate that more effort wasn’t put into this part of the game. With such great voice actors and writing, not to mention the fact that Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami’s last collaboration was Killer 7, a game with a truly thought-provoking, groundbreaking, twisted, and memorably horrifying storyline, this just feels like a missed opportunity. I also have to stress that this game never tries to be scary, which is again too bad, because a true horror game from these two would be absolutely terrifying. Even going as far as calling Shadows of the Damned “action horror” would be too much of an over-statement, as this game presents itself almost as a full-on comedy. There’s just no effort to be scary here, and though the story has its moments and more than its fair share of wonderfully weird characters, it just never feels like it’s on the level of Suda 51’s past games.

With such great dialogue, though, you’ll love the cutscenes. The game may not be about a whole lot, but the way it says what it wants to say is pretty near perfect. The story keeps Shadows of the Damned afloat, while the gameplay tries its hardest to capsize it, resulting in an uneven experience that I loved one moment and hated the next.

Gameplay: Shadows of the Damned features an aiming style similar to that of Resident Evil 4 and 5, in which the camera sits behind the character and goes to an over-the-shoulder view when aiming. The difference is that this game, unlike those, not only allows you to move while aiming, but also gives you a dodge button that has Garcia roll out of the way. Dodging makes him momentarily invincible, so it’s a move you’ll find yourself using constantly, especially when enemies begin using otherwise unavoidable moves against you.

At its core, Shadows of the Damned provides a fun gameplay experience. The demons you face off against respond well to being shot in specific places, there’s plenty of enemy variety, and the environments are very cool-looking. Checkpoints are often frequent enough (I’m not going to spoil what those look like) and you have a good deal of customization over your character and his 3 weapons (shotgun, machine gun, and pistol). This stuff’s all solid. The problem is that Shadows of the Damned has some huge flaws that can rear their ugly heads at any time to make what should be a fun experience frustrating.

The game’s first problem is its darkness mechanic. Often in Shadows of the Damned, the demons will trigger darkness upon the world, which immediately begins draining your health. When Garcia gets trapped in darkness, he must either escape it as soon as possible, or, if the game doesn’t give you that option, shooting your light beam at a goat head (yup) on the wall will turn it light again. Any enemies that were in the darkness with you now must also be fired at with the light beam before you can continue to effectively damage them. Shadows of the Damned does not feature regenerating health, instead, Garcia gets his HP back by drinking alcohol, either purchased in vending machines or found throughout the environments. Going into the darkness is often required in order to progress through the game, and you are not given your health back after these segments. So essentially, through no fault of your own, you’ll have to tear through your alcohol surplus at a nearly constant rate just because the game decided “okay, you’re going to lose health here” and threw a darkness segment at you. The dark sections look cool visually but don’t add anything fun to the experience and are certainly not worth all the health you’ll lose when you’re forced to venture through them.

Another problem is that the game features some of the more tedious boss battles I’ve experienced in a long time. Back when Resident Evil 5 came out, I defended its decision to prevent you from aiming and moving at the same time. Many people disagreed with that, but I just don’t think that this type of aiming is well-suited to a run-and-gun action title and Shadows of the Damned validates that point for me. Aiming can be difficult, and more times than I liked, I found myself missing enemies entirely, even when using something like a machine gun. Boss battles, unfortunately, are all about shooting tiny red areas on the boss’s surface, which becomes a nightmare later in the game as bosses start using projectiles a lot more. These guys move fast, and getting Garcia to a place where he can aim at one of these red spots isn’t easy when you have to constantly dodge out of the way to avoid projectiles or other moves by the boss that cover a ridiculously large radius. While I admire the developers’ decision to force you to use all of your weapons on some bosses, the game’s just not long enough to level them all up to a satisfactory level; you really have to focus on one or two of them, unless you happen to be great at finding the hidden gems scattered throughout the levels that level you up. So bringing out my shotgun for the final boss when I was required to was irritating, because it was much weaker than my pistol and machine gun. Once the game gave me the option to upgrade my HP, I stopped bothering with my weapons entirely, and after losing patience from dying so much due to the many Darkness sections, (and suffering through long load times while you’re taken back to the level) I think most of you guys will do the same thing and opt to simply upgrade your health instead of your firepower. Not to mention the game’s complete lack of an ability to let you skip the cutscenes, even after having seen them. Not any fun.

Then there’s the linearity… yeah I know, more whining about linearity, but I have to make a special case for Shadows of the Damned, which is about as linear as games get. There’s only one path through each level, with small branches along the way leading to gems, ammo, or stuff like that. Let’s say though that you see a fork in the road and take a path, walk a few yards down it, and realize that this is where you go to progress the story. You’re out of luck if you want to go back those few yards to see what’s down the other path, as the game will throw a force field in the way preventing you from backtracking. Yeah, really.

Don’t get me wrong, linearity’s not typically a big problem for me, especially in an action game, but Shadows of the Damned just feels so shallow, and exploration would really have helped add…something to it. In the first couple chapters I was loving the atmosphere, the dialogue, the gameplay, and the art direction. But once it became clear that the game had little else to offer, I found myself dreading playing it. Grasshopper did add some variety to certain levels, including a couple sidescroller segments and a pretty awesome game of Pachinko, but generally their attempts to shake things up result in levels more frustrating than the rest.

Audio: What is absolutely top-notch though is the game’s soundtrack, which was done by Silent Hill's Akira Yamaoka, who outdoes himself. Just like with Alan Wake, which also had a stellar soundtrack, I found myself wishing here that they had just created an actual *horror* game instead of an action game, because this soundtrack would have been perfect for one. As I mentioned earlier, the voice acting’s excellent, as it often is for Suda 51 games. Overall, the audio experience here is pretty much perfect: one area where this game really shines.

Verdict: Shadows of the Damned was a game that had me hooked at the very first moment….until around Chapter 2. At its start, I thought I was about to play another Suda 51 classic. Even though I don’t recommend this game at full price, I’d go as far as to say to pick it up once it gets to the bargain bin just to hear its hilarious dialogue and great voice acting, not to mention that awe-inspiring soundtrack. As the game went on, though, I found myself growing more and more tired of it. A misguided and poorly-implemented dark/light mechanic adds far more frustration than fun, aiming’s slow and difficult, bosses last too long and are rarely ever any fun, ammo ranges from being seemingly infinite to unbelievably scarce, and the main story lacks the depth I expected from a Suda 51 game. Shadows of the Damned isn't horrible and there’s plenty of redeeming factors to it, but just like with No More Heroes 2, I find myself wishing somebody inside Grasshopper Manufacture would have tried playing the game and realized “hey, this is actually kind of annoying.” I think Suda 51 needs to return to directing his projects himself instead of just overseeing and having other directors take a crack at them.
Presentation: An interesting storybook motif and kind of a cool level-to-level load screen. Story though is not one of Suda 51’s best and the ending *really* goes to painful lengths to set itself up for a sequel. Load times are bad.

Graphics: Pretty visuals make great use of the Unreal Engine. Characters have that usual Grasshopper Manufacture feel.

Gameplay: There’s fun to be had, but it’s stopped in its tracks by frustrating gameplay mechanics that constantly show up to ruin the good time.

Audio: The soundtrack’s amazingly good, voice acting’s top notch, and the sound effects work well. Game’s very atmospheric.

Replay Value: Ehhhhhhh. 8+hours isn't bad at all for an action game but replay value's minimal.

Overall: 6/10

(Note: This review is for the Xbox 360 version. My reviews go on a .5 scale)

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