Shadows of the Damned Hands-on Preview

By Xav de Matos, Mar 08, 2011 12:30pm PST

It's becoming increasingly more common that ultra-violent titles are taking the tongue in cheek approach to telling its story. The latest example of this is Shadows of the Damned, from developer Grasshopper Manufacture.

Imagined by the all-star team of Goichi "Suda 51" Suda (Clock Tower, No More Heroes) and Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil, God Hand), Shadows of the Damned is an exercise in the violent, comical, and absurd--and I mean that in the best way possible.

The story in Shadows of the Damned is actually quite common: the game's hero--named Garcia Hotspur--travels to hell to save his doomed girlfriend, Paula. But that's where its commonality ends.

To invade hell, Hotspur literally enters the land of the damned through a door building that sports a giant neon sign that reads "Welcome to Hell." In Hell, Hotspur is joined by a demon sidekick that manifests as a floating, flaming British-accented skull named Johnson. This character can morph into Hotspur's multitude of absurd weapons; including a melee staff, a handgun that shoots bones--awkwardly named the "Boner"--a machine-gun style weapon that shoots teeth, and a skull-shooting shotgun.

The game's central mechanic is light vs. dark. Throughout the demo Hotspur would have to contend with a damaging dark mist that would invade his surroundings. This mist serves two functions: it protects enemies within it and it progressively damages the game's hero.

Visiting a large courtyard during the demo was the first taste of this mechanic at work. Following a quick examination of locked gates (which feature baby heads craving items like eyeballs and brains in order to open) the dark mist quickly begins to fill the area, threatening Hotspur's progression.

The key to this section is to activate a switch--via shooting it--within the world to halt the invading darkness. This is where the light and dark worlds show a little flavor as elements in the world shift in use between both sections. Attempting to activate the switch in the light world does nothing; however, entering the dark world allows the switch to be used. To add to its absurdity, Hotspur must destroy living goat head mantle pieces in order to unleash a flash of light to make the area safer to traverse. Yes, goat heads.

Enemies throughout the demo mostly consisted of powerful, zombie-like creatures. Attacking these beasts in the dark world did nothing; however, ridding the world of darkness and attacking them made elimination easier. Even in the light world, basic enemies are often coated in darkness--think of it like a shield--so the first order of business is to attack them with a blast of light to remove the protection before they can be destroyed for good.

Shadows of the Damned has a mix of over-the-shoulder gun action and light melee combat. Enemies will often stagger after being fired upon, allowing the game's hero the opportunity to run in for a (seemingly random) one-button melee kill animation.

There's a constant back-and-forth during cutscenes between Garcia Hotspur and his British companion. Johnson, it seems, is the game's comic relief, and conversations usually result in a sexually charged punchline. Actually, I should amend that with, "groan-worthy, sexually charged punchlines."

The demo culminates to a showdown with one of the game's most gruesome figures: a giant, blood and guts-soaked demon with a harmonica eternally stuck in his mouth, which a rep managing the demo told me is a story element. The name of this ultimate evil found within the depths of Hell? George. Of course.

Shadows of the Damned seemed way too weird as I watched others play it and probably sounds too weird for some as they read this preview. But my short time with it was entertaining from start to finish and I wanted to play it all again when the demo ended. Though the entire thing sounds strange, one of the wackiest things to me was that--like the over-the-top Bulletstorm--the game was being delivered from EA via its Partners program.

Shadows of the Damned has multiple hooks: the puzzle feel of its light vs. dark mechanic and its eccentric cast of characters, for example. But the biggest hook for me was that the entire thing is an obvious uncompromising vision. It doesn't try to make players feel comfortable by delivering the expected or, in some cases, the understandable.

It's still early but Grasshopper Manufacture's newest has my attention and I can't wait to see what else they have in store for Garcia Hotspur and Co.

Shadows of the Damned ships on June 7 for the Xbox 360 and PS3.

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