When you start up Shadows of the Damned, you’re asked if you want to start your own road movie. It’s a fitting description because Shadows of the Damned feels like a grindhouse road movie where you trek through Hell with your guide and companion Johnson, a talking, floating skull who loves to crack dick jokes and morphs into your tools of destruction for you. It’s a game that asks you to strap in and enjoy the ride because this is a Hell you’ve never seen before, where every moment and location is fresh, insane, and most importantly, a lot of fun.
The game casts you as Garcia Hotspur, a punk-rock demon hunter who apparently pissed off the wrong guy. That guy, Fleming, the lord of demons, has come to take Garcia’s girlfriend Paula to the underworld to be killed and resurrected over and over again for his amusement. Garcia won’t have any of that, so he grabs his jacket and races to Hell to save Paula, kicking some “hellmonkey” tail along the way.
Shadows of the Damned‘s combat is the only standard feature here, adopting an over-the-shoulder, third-person perspective, complete with a laser pointer to approximate a crosshair, as in Resident Evil 4. Here, though, it’s all sped up and smoother over with some polish. Garcia can move while shooting, counter enemies who attack from behind, quickly turn while aiming, and dodge while still keeping locked on enemies. Switching your weapons is just as quick and responsive, making for a combat system that feels familiar, but works much better than the games from which it draws inspiration. Mix in a very cool light/darkness gameplay mechanic and some 2D side-scrolling shooter stages and you have a party.
While the combat is familiar, everything else about Shadows of the Damned is not. Hell is not the standard videogame environment with fiery pits and waterfalls of lava. Hell is a city, complete with cobblestone streets, corner pubs, and movie and propaganda posters littering the homes and buildings. Demons drink to heal themselves (this hlds true for Garcia, as well) and those who die in style get to keep their genitals, as well as be epic boss fights for you to tackle. The visual style of Hell is so striking and different that you won’t be able to stop yourself form plunging forward to see the next sight. Yes, there are piles of bodies and rivers of blood, but there are also bowling alleys, strip clubs, and red light districts that you will visit, making this version of the underworld one of the oddest depictions yet.
The story also has to be commended. While it starts off as a simple “Save your girlfriend” plot, the back and forth dialogue between Johnson and Garcia fleshes out the characters, their relationships, and the intricacies of Hell. Among the highlights are the tale Johnson regales Garcia with that inspired him to escape Hell, and badass Garcia’s trouble reading the many storybooks that litter Hell and tell the stories of the boss characters. He can’t even pronounce the word misogynistic when he threatens one of the female bosses to try to make her return Paula. All these little things add up, aided by the excellent voice acting and writing, to draw you to the characters and keep you invested even though things will get downright crazy as you dive deeper into the bowels of the damned.
If the game has any failings, it’s in its graphical presentation, an unfortunate side effect of the Unreal engine. The engine does a great job rendering all the oddities and darkness of Hell, but texture pop-in and frame-rate issues are present. Sometimes the game freezes up for a few seconds during a save point or before the next triggered event. These moments don’t happen often — usually only during a checkpoint — but it is still annoying when you’re grabbed by a giant demon hand and the game freezes briefly.
There is also no New Game+ here, a real letdown since the game is driven so much by upgrades. Finding gems to upgrade your items is the chief reason you want to explore, but I would have loved to tackle the game again with my already beefed-up weapons.
Shadows of the Damned is one of those games that needs to be experienced. The wacky version of Hell, the cool characters, and the totally insane action combines to create a game that is a blast from start to satisfying finish.