Shadows of the Damned is a story about a demon hunter who battles to save his beloved from a fate of never-ending death at the hands of the most powerful demon in the Underworld.
Garcia Hotspur, the protagonist in Shadows of the Damned, is a likable character. He's confident as a demon hunter, kicks plenty of demon butt, and yet he has a soft spot for the love of his life, Paula. Fleming, the Lord of the Demons, has Paula abducted after an early confrontation with Garcia and, as it turns out, winds up as a third point in an unexpected love triangle. For each catch-phrase or amusing line that Garcia has in the game, an equal sense of panic and anguish can be seen and felt as he watches Paula repeatedly taken away by Fleming's minions. Sometimes she is dismembered or "killed", while other times, she cries out to Garcia in helpless distress. Johnson, Garcia's shape-shifting demon companion, not only serves as his arsenal throughout the game but also serves as his support and his friend. Sometimes he is the comic relief, and other times, he's the only source of information about the Underworld that Garcia has to consult from.
The premise and characters sounded interesting to me when I took part in the conference call for Shadows of the Damned prior to its release, and I had purposely avoided any other information or impressions about the game after the review had been assigned to me. I wanted to go into the experience as a generally neutral reviewer. I did have some expectations that were unavoidable, given the pedigree of the lead members of the development team. After all, any collaboration between Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami is something that always has big potential. When I started playing the game, and for most of the first three acts, I really liked what I saw and enjoyed the experience.
Sure, there were a lot of adult references that I felt a little guilty for laughing about. Yes, there was a fair amount of blood (akin to Killer7). It's also true that the interpretation of Hell in this game was a bit of a stretch at times. Still... the bottom line rarely wavered. I was having fun and found more right with Shadows of the Damned than I found wrong. I liked the game's relationship between darkness and light. Headshots felt satisfying. Johnson's upgrade abilities and versatility in weapon types added an extra dimension to gameplay. There were occasional puzzle sequences, but nothing was overly taxing and the game's pacing was solid. Boss and miniboss battles were exciting and even a little over-the-top at times. I was fortunate enough to have found a game that I was going to enjoy playing and reviewing, even if there were a few flaws to be found, like texture pop-in and occasionally lengthy loading times. One of the boss battles in the third act has frustrated me somewhat, but taking time away from the game and going back to it fresh solved that problem.
Then came Act 4.
It was here that Shadows of the Damned began to show its first signs of trouble. Titled "The Big Boner", Act 4-1 was a glorified turret level where one hit meant instant death, followed by a recurrence of unskippable cutscenes that may or may not have quickly become tiresome and grating. Johnson transforms into a slow-loading cannon-like weapon and players must constantly monitor up to five different lanes on which large Hellbeasts gradually approach. Accuracy and headshots quickly become essential to success, but aiming wound up being too loose, leading to many repeat deaths. The problem was compounded by multiple waves and locations, which dragged the act on for far too long. I reached my breaking point at least a couple of times after lasting through several waves only to miss one lane, leading to an unskippable death sequence and having to start all over again. This turret mechanic was new, but it also dramatically slowed the pacing of the game, which had been largely consistent and exciting up to this point. After finally clearing all of the waves and locations and successfully subduing my temper, I was ready for this obstacle to be cleared so that my previously enjoyable experience would continue.
Sadly, this was not the case. The consistent quality of the first three acts would inevitably devolve into puzzling inconsistency for the rest of the game.
Frustration returned later in Act 4-2 as 2D shooting sequences that started out as unique and fun gradually gave way to maze segments that led to cheap trial-and-error deaths. The uniqueness of these segments was undermined by difficulty. They felt like throwbacks to the NES era, where trial-and-error was a common theme in certain games. You were expected to die a lot in order to determine the proper course of action to proceed back then. The Mega Man games were notorious for this at times. Unsurprisingly, this kind of level design lacks fun now just like it did over 20 years ago. The sparse checkpoint system implemented in these stages only added to the annoyance factor, and unskippable cutscenes sometimes reared their ugly heads once again. They felt like extra penalties for dying and became barriers to progress.
Act 4 wasn't done torturing me, either. A nefarious slide puzzle awaited me in a library in Act 4-3, and again, my progress in Shadows of the Damned ground to a halt while I shuffled bookshelves to and fro to attempt to make some sort of bridge. The enjoyment of shooting demons, collecting gems, and watching the story unfold was rapidly melting into a pool of anger. How could a game that had started out in such a promising fashion falter so quickly? As I finally figured out this puzzle, my objective went from enjoying Shadows of the Damned to just surviving the experience for long enough to write about it. Acts 4-4 and 4-6 were repeat visits to the 2D environment that 4-2 had introduced. In spite of a fun and well-balanced boss battle at the end of Act 4-6, the 2D sequences had long since worn out their welcome and felt like the same kind of "new thing overkill" that Act 4-1 had done with the turret sequences. When I victoriously emerged from the boss battle at the end of 4-6, I had hope that the worst was over and that the game would go back to being fun.
It seemed that Shadows of the Damned would revert to form for awhile. The pacing picked up again in Act 5 with lots of action and intense miniboss confrontations. One area had Garcia taking on two minibosses at once, and it was intense as precise aiming and efficient use of ammo were requisites to getting through to Fleming's tower intact. The game had again found the right formula for success as I entered the tower. I was close to the final confrontation and was thinking to myself that the frustration from Act 4 might just have been worthwhile. Then Act 5-2 brought me to a room titled "Moor Pu Dekcuf". I knew what it meant, but had no idea what was in store. It almost broke me, and my controller.
The puzzles that awaited in this room were the worst ones yet. That could be expected, but these spinning block and platform puzzles that seemed to be pulled out of M.C. Escher's cranium were nearly the last straw. Thankfully, death never resulted from the continuous trial and error from attempting to find the proper spin and placement for these platforms, but the whole process was time-consuming and seemed to artificially add playing time to the experience. It was at this point that I found appreciation for another action game, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Lords of Shadow also had its share of puzzle sequences, but many were optional. If players wanted to take the time to solve them, extra items were the payoff. If not, the game didn't penalize players. This design decision helped to maintain the game's pacing. In this scenario with Shadows of the Damned, unfortunately, puzzles like the spinning platforms or the sliding racks in the library from Act 4-3 were hindrances to the experience. If I hadn't found a solution online after spending over 40 minutes trying to figure it out, this puzzle sequence would have marked the end of my Shadows of the Damned experience and I'd be telling you that I didn't finish the game.
The climax of Shadows of the Damned is the final confrontation with Fleming. It's a challenging and fairly long battle where Garcia has to deal with avoiding projectile attacks, managing ammo, timing his own attacks to hit Fleming's weak spots, limiting exposure to darkness, and having to be wary of not harming Paula (who is a hostage and any damage to her spells an automatic Game Over). Rescuing Paula is not an easy task and there's a bit of a surprise after the final battle which falls kind of flat in its execution. This kind of intense action is what shines in the game, and it fittingly ends with action just like it began.
As I reflect on my time with Shadows of the Damned, I can't help but to feel impacted more by what was wrong with the game than by what was right. It's still a very playable game and is even enjoyable in more than a few spots. When the game is paced well, there's a lot of action and intensity to keep players going. Akira Yamaoka's soundtrack and the voice work in the game are definite assets. If I could review this game solely on its first three acts, the grade would be higher. I can't do that, of course, and the turret, maze, and puzzle sequences from the later acts are either executed poorly or overused; these flaws end up significantly damaging the overall experience. I understand that Suda and Mikami wanted to change things up a little bit; however, tampering with a generally successful formula-- especially when it's in larger doses-- can backfire as it's done in this instance. Players who have experience with other Suda titles are probably used to questionable game design decisions, but for the rest of us, Shadows of the Damned comes off as at least somewhat disappointing and hard to recommend to most players.