The collaboration between three of videogaming’s most prominent Japanese developers hasn’t received quite as much attention as one might expect on its way to release, outdone by the many First-Person Shooters (FPS) and Role-Playing Games (RPGs) that are set to dominate the latter half of this year. To any videogaming hobbyist worth their salt, uttering the names Goichi Suda (aka Suda 51), Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamaoka in the same sentence would certainly raise a degree of interest, informing them that all three have worked together to create a single videogame experience would most likely conjure thoughts of groundbreaking works. Thankfully, Shadows of the Damned doesn’t disappoint.
Shadows of the Damned is unquestionably a game designed for the core demographic. Right at the start, after the rewarding of your decision to purchase the game but before any gameplay has even begun, the player is asked to choose their control method and aiming speed from a menu that offers no indication of what the result of your decisions will be. You’re expected to know how fast you like your reticule to move based upon the force you apply to the right analog stick, and are also expected to know to what degree that would be on an the entire scale of screen resolution to analog pressure. This is not a game that can be played for thirty minutes during an evening once a week, it’s a game intended to be played for several hours on consecutive evenings, and is so compelling that it’s a fight to resist from doing so.
The game’s tutorial is a fantastic piece of design, building tension in a flash whilst still giving players the room to get to grips with the controls and the aiming system. It’s right at this early point when the influences of it’s three creators is evident, from the gruesome, obscure rock stylings of Suda 51’s many visions to the stilted movement and precise aiming demands familiar from Shinji Mikami’s work on the Resident Evil series. Cast as the fascinatingly self-assured Demon Hunter Garcia Hotspur, the player is thrown headfirst into a chase through a demonic world to save his girlfriend, Paula. Aided by a former demon with the ability to transform into an array of vicious weapons, players must take down hordes of demons enemies and solve a number of different puzzles, often at the same time.
One of the key features of Shadows of the Damned is its darkness mechanic. Frequently throughout the game the player will succumb to areas of Darkness in which, after a short time, the player’s health begins to drain. Equally as potentially damaging as it is needed to solve certain puzzles, the Darkness can be disbanded by utilising your weapon’s secondary function on the correct environmental object – once you’ve found it, of course. The necessity to return to the light quickly whilst requiring the Darkness at regular occasions brings to mind the light/dark mechanic of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, though Shadows of the Damned does of course present its own original take.
Enemies can become enveloped in the Darkness, providing them with invulnerability against basic weaponry. Assaulting them with your close-combat torch or your weapon’s secondary function to remove the Darkness brings to mind Alan Wake, a Survival Horror title which promised much and unfortunately failed to deliver on most of its potential. Shadows of the Damned is most certainly more successful in near-every respect: the pacing of the game is masterful, flitting between combat and light puzzle solving, tension and more optimistic moments. The variety in the gameplay is very impressive; even if the game does fall into the realm of kill-every-enemy to proceed on occasion, there are enough alternative moments of interest to keep the balance heavily on the positive side.
Clearly influenced by Tarantino in the delivery of its plot through the intricate communication between characters as enemies, as well as the cunningly chosen camera angles during cut-scenes and the drained greyscale colour template, everything from Reservoir Dogs to Death Proof has clearly been used as a basis for the world and the behaviour of the characters within it, and yet somehow Shadow of the Damned manages still to become bigger than all of that. Suda 51’s own trademark is evident in the nature of giving the horrific violence an art house feel and the constant sexual references and innuendo, and Shinji Makami has clearly brought his expertise from the Resident Evil series to not just the suspension system (which, yes, does mean the controls feel very similar to the aforementioned Survival Horror title), but also the game’s pacing: something which simply can’t be praised enough.
The technical aspect of Shadows of the Damned is practically immaculate. Iterated to the point where glitches are entirely absent and the only moments in which you will loose your way are those when you haven’t been paying enough attention, every moment is a concentrated delivery of the precise atmosphere and intricate detail that keep the player on edge: never is there a moment that discourages the player, no matter what the story might suggest. The localisation is spot-on, with quintessentially British colloquialisms such as ‘BO’ used perfectly in terms of meaning, tense and character, and the soundtrack is frequently stunning. Everything from the elevator music during loading delays to the obscure rock influenced orchestral tracks during boss sequences has obviously been iterated to within an inch of it’s life to deliver an atmosphere that’s just right for the specific moment.
As positive as this analysis has been, Shadows of the Damned isn’t perfect. There is the occasional difficulty spike and, as previously mentioned, a few moments of padding in which the player is simply challenged to remove all of the enemies from an area before proceeding. However, when compared to the competition, these blemishes are easily forgiven. Shadows of the Damned is basically Alan Wake done right, within the twisted universe of a leather-clad Harley Davidson riding Deadly Premonition. It’s intelligent, witty and obviously a labour of love for all of its sharply dressed intricacies: Shadows of the Damned is videogame design genius distilled, and simply can’t come any more highly recommended for fans of the Survival Horror genre. Not only should the game be considered a contender for Survival Horror release of the year, but at present, it’s the frontrunner on the current-generation consoles.