NO SHAME Although we can thank Shinji Mikami for a slick interface, this is, at core, a game about a guy obsessed with his dick.
Over the next couple of months, you'll be bombarded with ads for big-budget games. Many of them might be good, and some might even be great. But I submit that none of them will be as strange, surprising, and wonderful as a game that came and went over the summer without making a ripple in the collective consciousness of gamers. The game: Shadows of the Damned.
Shadows of the Damned is a collaboration between two icons of Japanese game design, Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami. Suda is best known as the raunchy visionary behind cult classics Killer7 and No More Heroes. Mikami is the craftsman behind action titles Devil May Cry and Resident Evil 4. Of the two, it's Suda's influence that shows most clearly in Shadows of the Damned. Although we can thank Mikami for a slick interface, Suda's prurient obsessions win the day. This is, at core, a game about a guy obsessed with his dick.
Players take the reins of Garcia Hotspur, a demon hunter whose very presence at the center of our game is confusing. Should we be happy that a Mexican protagonist exists in a game at all, or dismayed that he showcases a fiery Latin temper? Either way, Hotspur descends into the underworld to rescue his girlfriend from a demon lord named Fleming. Fleming is dually phallic: his elongated head resembles a giant dildo, and for a weapon he wields a thick metal pole that shakes the earth. Hotspur is not to be outdone — his sidekick is a shapeshifting skull named Johnson who turns into one of three weapons at the push of a button. Never is the metaphor more blunt than when Johnson, riled up after a steamy bout of phone sex, transforms into a devastating cannon called the Big Boner.
It sounds juvenile, and it is, but there's something disarming about the gleefulness with which Shadows of the Damned embraces its excesses. This is not a game that understands the concept of shame. But its creativity isn't limited to cheap gags. As an action game, it is consistently surprising and inventive with fairly limited mechanics. Garcia's moveset includes aiming and firing, with a quick 180-degree turn and a somersault move that allows him to dodge attacks. From that, the designers rig varied combat encounters that never repeat themselves. The action happens in brief, contained episodes, and then it's on to the next one.
Shadows of the Damned has more surprises in store for its limited duration, including a set of two-dimensional, sidescrolling levels, and a bevy of challenging boss battles that meld old-school pattern recognition with sophisticated tactics. Nowhere is the gameplay more innovative than with a light-and-dark mechanic that demands strategic thinking and precise reflexes. At points, a life-sapping darkness pervades the game world, leading to frantic puzzle segments in which Hotspur must locate new light sources and destroy nodes that feed off of dark energy. These sequences are as forward-thinking as the dick jokes are retrograde. It's a potent mix.
Shadows of the Damned's miserable commercial performance resulted in a swift price cut, and the promise that it will be unavailable soon. This is a shame. If you value artistic expression in games, and want to reward those who are willing to step outside the lines, then you need to play this one.