On first glance EA's Shadows of the Damned seems about as straightforward as any other game of its ilk: a third-person shooter where the player takes on the role of a demon hunter chasing his kidnapped girlfriend through a multi-leveled, multi-themed Hell. While this may sound a bit like a retread, especially of EA's own Dante's Inferno from last year, Shadows of the Damned has the very talented, and very goddamn weird Suda51, creator of the anime and lucha libre obsessed No More Heroes, putting his inimitable stamp on the title.
You play as Garcia Fucking Hotspur (actually his middle name), a Hispanic hunter of "hellmonkeys," searching for his girlfriend Paula in the depths of Hell. The game pretty much puts all of its cards on the table right from the opening moments, with a sexually-charged conversation between Garcia and the demonic Fleming, who mocks Garcia's bullets and their lack of "penetration." Oh dear.
What follows is a horror-fueled, eight hour long dick joke. Garcia's multi-talented sidearm is a flamboyant flaming skull by the name of Johnson, whose forms run the traditional pistol-shotgun-machine gun chain, albeit with appropriately skeletal and sexual overtones. The standby pistol is known as The Boner, which is upgraded into the Hot Boner (complete with "sticky payload") before its final transformation into the positively intimidating Big Boner. I am not making any of this up, folks.
As puerile as the humor is (and I could go on for hours about the barrage of phallic sight gags and homoerotic banter between Johnson and Garcia) it gives the game an incredibly distinctive feel. The collision between traditional Christian demonic iconography (there are a lot of goats' heads), pop art sensibilities, and environments as varied as eastern European hamlets and demonic red light districts somehow works in spite of the disparate elements. The flavor of the game is fresh and fun, and never takes itself seriously in the least. Even as Garcia is subject to watching his beloved Paula die again and again, there's an air of inherent goofiness that's inexplicable, yet the player has no choice but to accept. True, one bull-charging boss may be a hulking horror, but it's hard to take him seriously when he's wheezing musically through a harmonica that he'd swallowed. The same goes for the monstrous crow that verbally accosts you with a raspy refrain of "fuck you," and the human-faced horse who farts columns of pure darkness.
This distinctive goofiness is even more apparent in how the traditional gameplay elements are colored by Suda51. Health is restored by slugging back entire bottles of liquor, ammo is presented not as bullets but as teeth and bones, locks and keys are replaced by baby heads that gobble human organs and strawberries (don't ask), and Garcia peppers all of his actions with a steady stream of profanity. It plays out like The Divine Comedy by way of Robert Rodriguez after an all-night bender of psychedelics and Bosch paintings.
Of course, Suda51 is not the only superstar with their talent pooled into this production. The gameplay was cobbled together by Resident Evil's Shinji Mikami, and it shows. The third-person action plays as straight as Resident Evil 4 with a ball-busting difficulty curve. There are no snap-to aiming modes or auto-aiming: just you trying to get a bead on a tiny target by gently nudging the analog stick and praying. It's absolutely nerve-racking at times, particularly in one Evil Dead-xeroxed sequence where you have to stun your indestructible, possessed girlfriend while laying waste to the demon hordes around her.
Rounding out the package is music by Silent Hill composter Akira Yamaoka, and it adds immeasurably to the experience. While there are certainly some SH-themed tunes in the lineup, the soundtrack is comprised of a little bit of everything, ranging from lo-fi jazz to driving rock to plucky ditties that would be at home in Scooby Doo. The capstone, however, has got to be the game's theme song, featuring The Damned in a deftly meta move on the part of Yamaoka. Simply titled "Theme of Shadows of the Damned," it's a mournful gothic dirge that slowly morphs over its 7-minute runtime into a crunchy wall of guitar and drums that fits the game as perfectly as Garcia's leather pants.
I'm not going to patronize people and say that Shadows of the Damned is for everyone. It's a brilliantly imagined and phenomenally realized piece of goofball grindhouse gaming. To be honest, though, the punishing difficulty and overwhelming air of Suda51 weirdness will turn a few people off who may not like their games being extended penis gags. However, If you can rise to the occasion and are up for a stiff challenge, you'll definitely want to get into Shadows of the Damned.
Shit, now I'm doing it.