Totally Not a Review: Shadows of the Damned

I want to tell you that Shadows of the Damned is an all-time classic. I want to tell you Shadows of the Damned is one of the games that define this console generation, to be spoken in the same revered tones as Bayonetta and Bioshock and Arkham Asylum.

I want to be able to tell you that you should love this game. Without qualification.

But I can’t. You see, while Shadows of the Damned could have been a classic, it is instead merely a very good videogame. And because of that, Shadows of the Damned may be the most frustrating experience I’ve had since playing Mirror’s Edge.

Goichi Suda, the mad genius behind flawed masterpieces such as Killer 7 and No More Heroes held up his end of the bargain. In terms of atmosphere, writing, and just general balls-out “holy shit I can’t believe I just saw that”, Shadows of the Damned delivers. If Goichi Suda is the sort of personality that drives you to love games, then buy Shadows of the Damned. I guarantee you will treasure this game.

But Creative Producer Shinji Mikami, the man responsible Resident Evil 4, Vanquish and Viewtiful Joe, failed in his mission of creating a polished, flawless videogame gameplay experience. And for that Shadows of the Damned will go down as one of gaming’s great “What If's”

I don’t like reviews; I feel that they serve to validate opinions on forum discussions and little else. Videogames are the most subjective of all media experiences; there’s no real way to tell if you will love a game unless you sit down and play it. I can’t convince you to buy or reject a game; or at least I shouldn’t be able to. I can only tell you why I feel love or hate or apathy for any given game.

When I like a videogame, If find that they fall into two categories. The first is the sort that makes me forget the the passage of time, the kind of videogame that I willingly forego sleep to eke a few extra hours with-- This is how I know if I like a videogame, everything else is turned off and I’m not concerned with the internet or instant messaging or hunger pains.

The second type comes along very rarely, perhaps twice a year, and they're so good theyvalidate my love for gaming itself. Bayonetta is the best example I can think of this generation.  It is clear to see the care and love and passion that went into it’s creation. These are the games that I point to when people ask me why I’m a gamer.

Shadows of the Damned is so close to being one of those games that I’m incapable of judging it fairly.  There is a disconnect between Goichi Suda’s excellent grindhouse atmosphere and Shinji Mikami’s haphazard, sometimes downright bad game design.  Suda's vision deserves better than this.


A Tale of Two Games

On a mechanical level, Shadows of the Damned is a 3rd person shooter somewhere in the middle ground between Resident Evil 4’s methodical stand-and-shoot pace and Dead Space’s vision of constantly backing up and firing while desperately searching for ammunition. At no point does it approach Vanquish’s arcade mania. Indeed, the vast bulk of it’s gameplay is rather uninspired and deliberate-- often I found myself using the shotgun simply because it added tension as enemies came within biting distance before I blew them (back further) into Hell.

Shadows features a perfunctory skill upgrade system, but it’s largely wasted as the game lacks any replaybility. There’s an extra difficulty setting unlocked once you beat the game once on any difficulty, but if you were already tired of Shadow’s gameplay the first time around then the lack of New Game Plus doesn’t offer any incentive to replay the game. The gems are used to upgrade skills are collectible, but they can also be bought using currency dropped from normal monsters, and there’s enough opportunity to farm these enemies that collecting all the hidden gems is an exercise in excessive completionism; there’s not even an Achievement tied into finding the hidden gems. As a result, exploration and replayablility are rendered inert-- there’s not even an extra or “true” ending for finishing the game on it’s hardest setting.

Sure, Shadows of the Damned does nothing new, but that in itself isn’t damning. After all, Uncharted 2 isn’t terribly imaginative, but it’s still a classic videogame. But it’s disappointing that Goichi Suda’s wonderfully insane writing and atmosphere are tied into a gameplay medium that is at it’s very best, unimaginative and inoffensive. Indeed, it often seems like these two men were working on completely different videogames.

The best example of the disconnect between Suda51’s vision and Shinji Mikami’s execution can be seen in Shadows of the Damned’s turret sequence. I find turret sequences bland, blasé and banal, and I think they should have been retired the moment Chair managed to somehow shove one inside of Shadow Complex, which was supposedly a 2.5d Metroidvania. So when presented with Shadow’s turret sequence I honestly thought perhaps this would be some sort of statement from Mikami on the moribund state of modern 3rd-person-shooter game design. No. It’s just bad.

Really, really bad.

Godawful bad.

At their best, turret sequences offer a catharsis-filled break from the frenetic, stressful action found in your typical Gears of War-inspired shooter. Properly executed, they can be enormously fun, even if they are trite and overdone. The best examples feature heavy-hitting machine guns plowing through scads of helpless enemy mooks while blazing through their ranks in mostly invulnerable, fast moving vehicles. It’s no mistake that all the best elements of turret sequences were first codified in GunBlade NY.

 Shadows of the Damned’s turret sequence is nothing like that. Instead you find yourself standing rock-still and defenseless as you cycle through a sequence of alleyways using the shoulder buttons. Your goal is to keep hulking demons from reaching your immobile, somehow implausibly fragile person. Apart from being the worst setup for a turret sequence imaginable, your weapon isn’t an enjoyable engine of destruction.  Instead it’s the equivalent of a recoilless rifle-- slow, clumsy, difficult to aim, and not much fun to use.

If any of the enemies lumbering toward you manage to reach your position you die in one hit. Simple as that. Keep in mind that as recently as the previous stage your character was standing toe-to-face with these same demons using nothing more than the standard revolver and quick footwork. The rifle’s firing arc makes these shambling brutes nearly impossible to hit when the get within 20 feet of the platform. There were many times playing through this sequence when I’d cycle to an alleyway to find a demon already within this circle of total helplessness, with little recourse but to put the controller down and wait for the death animation to kick in while reminiscing upon the vastly more enjoyable and totally optional turret sequences found in Vanquish.

Here’s the disconnect between Suda’s artistry and Shinji’s craft I mentioned earlier: Everything surrounding the turret sequence is a fantastic, trademark Suda head trip as your character wanders through Hell trying to find a demonic whorehouse, with Hell’s streets imagined as your dead girlfriend’s naked body. It’s like Shadow of the Colossus but with less stabbing and more ass cleavage.

It’s an amazing sequence and everything you’d want from Suda, but horribly botched in execution by Shinji Mikami. This could have been one of the all-time great moments in gaming; instead it’ll just be remembered for a horrendous gameplay sequence and the phrase “TASTE MY HOT BONER” repeated ad naseum with every other laborious rifle blast.

This is the exact opposite of fun. It misses every reason to have a turret sequence in a game. It’s not cathartic, it’s not fast, it doesn’t let you see anything new, it doesn’t provide a stress-free break to the game proper. It’s just frustrating. It’s not something that the man responsible for Vanquish should have had any part in.

Grenade Physics, Scripting Glitches, Button Layouts and Other Sins of Game Design

If derivative gameplay and a poorly-conceived turret sequence Were Shadow’s only failings, it’d still be a great experience. But these are not isolated failings. Indeed, if Grasshopper Manufacture should possess a Quality Assurance department, then Goichi Suda needs to sue someone for fraud before these same people destroy Lolipop Chainsaw.

There’s something fundamentally wrong with the way this game calculates range, and I’m not sure if this is an oversight or if it’s genuinely supposed to be a gameplay element. There is an indefinable area surrounding your character just outside of melee range where enemies randomly cannot be hit by gunfire. I think it has something to do with the laser rangefinder built into your weapon, but it’s hard to get a grasp on. If it was a glitch then it’s a glitch that should have been caught in testing, and if it’s a gameplay element then it’s a poorly thought out element that should never have seen the light of day.

Similarly, scripting is an inexact science. All too often I would enter rooms and not be able to find a way to the next area simply because whatever monster was supposed to provide the flag to open the doors refused to spawn or vanished beneath the world and thus untouchable despite its mocking growling from somewhere off screen. Sometimes doors that were supposed to trigger to an unlockable state would never be updated after satisfying the requirements to do so, forcing me to restart from the previous checkpoint and hoping the glitch didn’t carry over from the previous save state. Thankfully this never happened. Sometimes the hotspot to allow the character to hop down a level or leap about an obstacle would refuse to materialize until I wandered around the corner and got far enough away that the area would be redrawn. Sometimes entire monster encounters would just refuse to trigger at all.

A staggering amount of SotD’s gameplay revolves around puzzle solving. Really annoying puzzle solving. Littered through the landscape are doors that can only be opened by tracing an ethereal string to its source, usually nowhere near the door itself. These strings can only be seen by triggering an environmental element that engulfs the surrounding area in a spreading spectral darkness that gradually eats away at your life and where demons are all but invulnerable. These puzzles sometimes add much-needed tension and drama to what is otherwise a rather straightforward game; unfortunately far all too often they feel like busywork as you trace individual leads to their course, escape outside to regain health, and then dive back into the unfriendly darkness. You can only stay in the darkness for maybe twenty seconds before you die and often you’ll need to track down four or five leads in order to proceed. Sure it’s tense, but it’s also hectic and annoying and it’s easy to see what the game expects from you the moment you see a tangled weave of spectral strings leading to a central point.

The second type of puzzle in Shadows of the Damned revolves around using your grenade launcher as an improvised mortar as you lob makeshift grenades in a parabolic arc through tiny, moving obstacles. These are inoffensive enough, but the grenade launcher’s controls are fiddly and require that you charge it up for several seconds before it’s ready to fire. Usually this results in missed shots when you know full well the exact same setup hit the same target only moments earlier. This becomes a huge issue when playing against the game’s (sort of) final boss fight. Simply put, the game’s controls are nowhere near responsive enough for what this encounter asks of the player.

Finally, this:

This is a Playstation 3 controller. The 360 pad is clearly the superior controller, but the Dual Shock has enjoyed the status of the iconic videogame controller of the past three console generations. Anyway. The Dual Shock 3 features no less than 12 useable buttons not counting the clicky sticks.

Now, I want everyone at Grasshopper and other development teams around the world to listen to this next bit very carefully: If you have managed to create a control scheme where Reload, Melee Kill, Contextual Actions, Interact With Nearby Object and Random QTE elements are on the same button, then you’ve done something terribly, terribly wrong.

As Always, Remember:  I'm Probably Wrong

Fans of Shadows of the Damned (all 24,000 of them) will say my complaints are nit picking, that these flaws are inconsequential and do nothing to distract from Suda’s vision. And these people are probably correct. It is entirely possible that I simply expected too much of this game. It is perfectly acceptable dumb entertainment featuring a heavy dollop of Suda51’s wonderful weirdness.

There’s a lot of things this game does right. The boss fights (with the notable exception of the next-to-final boss fight with Flemming, which is an annoying war of attrition) are good, and I normally don’t like boss fights and wish they’d go away. The humor and dialog are excellent, the team at 8-4 have done an exceptional job at creating an enjoyable, somehow believable relationship between your character and his best friend/gun/motorcycle/tour guide who is also a talking skull-on-a-stick .

The drama and tension of the final, final encounter is fucking outstanding and is nearly enough to redeem the game entirely. It is telling that this moment is almost entirely Suda’s doing with only the very basic elements of Shinji Mikami’s gameplay taking part. Hell, I even liked the strange shmup sequences that took up a majority of the 4th act and felt the boss fight for that section was one of the most refreshing examples I’ve ever seen of a game completely fucking with gamer’s expectations. Again though, these shmup sequences feel very much like the sort of thing Suda had a direct hand in and were easily the most artistic parts (in more ways than one) of the game proper.

In fact, I’m convinced that if you stripped Shinji Mikami’s name off the credits I probably would have enjoyed Shadows of the Damned unreservedly. Perhaps it’d even qualify as one of those defining classics I spoke of earlier. But Shadows of the Damned is as much Shinji’s game as as it is Suda’s. This is the guy who invented Resident Evil 4. I expect more from him and I don’t think I’m wrong in that.

In Conclusion:  Oh Just Buy the Stupid Thing

I can’t deny that Shadows of the Damned is a good game. I can’t deny that I enjoyed playing it. I sat down with this thing for a wistful, frustrating 12 hours and don’t regret doing so. Surely it deserved to sell more than twenty four thousand copies, and if EA had bothered to spend any money at all advertising the game it could have made plenty of money for everyone involved-- Yeah it’s Suda, but we’re not talking Flower, Sun and Rain here. We’re talking Gears of War with less cover and more dick jokes.

If you haven't’ bought Shadows of the Damned and are on the fence, then do so. It’s a worthwhile game. But buy Vanquish first. Between Lolipop Chainsaw and No More Heroes: Heroes Paradise, there’s a lot of Suda to go around.

If you’ve already made up your mind to buy Shadows of the Damned or not, it’s probably correct. I cannot validate your opinion either way.