Spooktober 2018 – Shadows of the Damned Throwback Review — Bloody Hell

Erotic Grotesque Nonsense is an artistic movement stemming from Japan that focuses on… exactly what the title implies. The absurdity of eroticism and the grotesque are realized to the extreme, compared, and subverted; decadence and deviancy are embraced and questioned at once. The ethos of the movement has been translated across numerous visual and literary artforms, which entail the sort of depravity that cannot be posted here, but has rarely been touched on in video game form.

It’s somewhere between a miracle and a glitch in the matrix then that through a publishing deal with EA, Suda 51, glorious trafficker of the grotesque and the nonsensical, would produce one of the closest efforts to an ero guro nansensu opus in gaming history. It’s an uneasy combination that leads to Shadows of the Damned being a bit of a mess. The aforementioned description still leaves out the additional presence of Shinji Mikami returning to the action-horror well after the genre-rejuvenating Resident Evil 4, and the incomparable Akira Yamaoka producing the atonal atmosphere that has made him one of the best gaming composers in the genre.

As far as supergroups go, Shadows of the Damned finds itself somewhere between Cream and Chickenfoot in terms of success, but there’s not much like it and certainly not much of its accord that has been released by EA. Shadows of the Damned is a restrained experience only by the standards of those involved, in the context of being an EA title, it is completely alien even if Suda 51’s vision appears to have been partially brought down to earth. The gameplay is something of a trojan horse, grounding the title (for better or worse) and even erring rather conventional for the genre. The playstyle of Resident Evil 4 is translated to Shadows of the Damned roughly 1-to-1, with the exception of the appreciated ability to move and shoot simultaneously. Leon’s dive ability and general movement crosses over to our protagonist Garcia Hotspur, and though it remains slightly stiff, its shambling quality can arguably enhance the tension of the encounters Garcia faces. It’s a challenge to get out too far ahead of any of the enemies the game has in store.


Courtesy of Damned Wiki

Nonetheless, Shadows of the Damned doesn’t really offer the same challenge or terror that RE4 handed out so frequently. It took me a couple of acts (of which there are five total) to die for the first time, at the hand of the second boss, all of which are strikingly designed and require decently clever exploits to take down. They pose a substantially greater challenge than the typical enemy encounter, but do so in a way that only rarely proves frustrating. A chase sequence with one demonic harmonicist proves to be a highlight of the game, employing one of the most outlandish components of the game’s presentation; the presence of mounted goat heads who transform the environment at once through spitting forth darkness. The darkness chips away at Garcia’s health and coats enemies with an impenetrable substance, but are swept away with the “light shot” that each of his guns carry.

Alternating between running for your life, drawing out the boss, and finding these sources of darkness is exhilarating and prioritizes a feeling of tension more than the remaining majority of the game. Absurdist spectacle is more the angle that Shadows of the Damned approaches its design from. To backtrack a bit, Shadows of the Damned orbits around impromptu demon hunter Garcia Hotspur, in pursuit of his girlfriend Paula who has been kidnapped by the Lord of Demons to be ruthlessly killed and revived ad-nauseum. This serves as an excuse for Paula to repeatedly be torn apart and deployed against Garcia sans much consequence. Once you have been sworn into the underworld, any lovebird interaction between Garcia and Paula instantly turns demonic, or at the very least Paula does. There are moments of romantic nirvana in Shadows of the Damned, they’re just interrupted by a severed head sooner or later. Much of the lust in the game, however, is of a cruder accord.

The elephant in the room comes in the form of… The Boner, your talking weapon and accompanying floating radiant green skull who talks like Tony Blair. Paula metamorphosing into one unprecedented monstrosity or another is often greeted by Sir Boner saying something to the effect of “Well, that killed my stiffy,” at one with the absurdity the game seeks to confront players with throughout. By the time you are lead to make The Boner become The Big Boner while exploring the underworld’s red light district, you will have long decided whether or not Shadows of the Damned is for you. In my book, the presentation is what truly picks up the slack for the game whose gameplay adheres to a formula pretty staunchly.


Players are invited to “taste the Big Boner” an exceptionally generous number of times

This is to say that Shadows of the Damned is not much for variety. Suda’s original vision for the game involved a much more gradual progression of combat down to Garcia not even having a weapon at the start of the game, but this concept was lost on EA, who wanted to fit the title into the mold of a more conventional action-horror title. Gameplay ultimately comprises of Shinji Mikami providing what is expected of him and not much more (albeit to an incredibly playable extent), with the exception of a few 2D run-and-gun segments in the latter half that mutually could have been the result of Suda’s flagrant individualism or time cuts on EA’s behalf. These sections are prone to diminishing returns and an increasing enemy density within them that can prove slightly tedious, but embody the sort of ramshackle ridiculousness that defines the game as a whole.

In achieved tone, Shadows of the Damned is caught somewhere between ero guro and Evil Dead (sometimes overtly in terms of the latter), both rather unprecedented in video games, both very fun to play, but merely coexisting instead of coalescing. Suda’s imagery (darkness spewing goats and demon baby door knockers) gradually reveals itself as highly amusing window-dressing to spruce up the standard action horror experience, but it may be Akira Yamaoka who appears as the odd man out. Yamaoka’s score is excellent, but it largely grasps at an atmosphere that isn’t really there. The transcendent cock rock that Yamaoka occasionally composes for the title is both out of his wheelhouse and a resounding success, but his generally fantastic atonal composition style clashes with a title that inspires more laughter than it does fear.

Doing battle in a dreamstate atop the scantily-dressed Paula is a lot to take in, but it generally kills any pretense of inspiring terror in players. Shadows of the Damned is odd, flashy, slightly perverse, and incredibly gory; it just also doubles as one of the least scary horror games I’ve ever played. If you were to deride action-horror games as effectively being power fantasy horror, this would be a prime manifestation of such; but it sure is good at being that.


Erotic, Nonsensical, and soon to be Grotesque

The bloody bells & whistles on offer throughout the campaign propel the pace of it, keeping demon-killing plenty satisfying throughout. Beyond the light-up sushi fish illuminating your path, the variety of enemies and weaponry on offer pairs with the dependably gratifying shooting mechanics in a way that keeps the ultimate repetition of the title from grating. The light shot particularly invigorates gameplay (infusing it with a sense of chaos that is otherwise oddly restrained), but numerous explosives and an insistent slow motion effect whenever a headshot is scored make you feel sufficiently on top of the (under)world.

Truthfully, the American excess on display in the title is almost as entertaining as the content Suda brings to the table, and the junction of the two proves that maybe it’s more compelling to confound than cohere. The seems of the title are very much on-display, compare the enemies foreshadowed by perverse fairy tales packaged in literal storybooks that only could have come from Suda’s presence to a grunting mercenary that shows up for no reason except to resemble a Resident Evil protagonist and disappears soon after. This disconnect is intentional within the confines of the game, but can be understood as an allegory for the development of the title as a whole.

Suda and Mikami have gone on record expressing mild discomfort at just how comfortable the game ended up being. Out there for an EA title remains conservative for Suda, evidenced by the further streamlined Lollipop Chainsaw brought from the same camps later on, and Shadows of the Damned can’t help but feel slightly restrained by its studio makeup. Nonetheless, it still excels as a Resident Evil makeup, something of a Resident Evil 4.5 starring Bruce Campbell with a dose of surrealism added to distinguish it further. Under the right mindset, Shadows of the Damned is imminently playable and just far enough out of the EA wheelhouse to be a commendable experiment. The bitchzillas won’t slay themselves, so why not be the one to man the big boner.


Even in paper cutout form, Garcia can ensure that the armies of the undead are boned.


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