Considering that Shadows of the Damned comes from a pair of creators with well-established cult followings, one would think this fast-flying mélange of demonic headhunting would be less predictable. Goichi Suda and Shinji Mikami, the top talents behind this bawdy Necronomicon, originally teamed up to pen the criminally-insane pulp noir Killer 7 (2005), a game praised for its style and storytelling, but panned for its repetitiveness. What a difference success makes. Shadows of the Damned loses the hard-boiled freakout flair, and instead takes cues from the creators’ more commercially viable works, combining the flamboyance of Suda’s antihero Travis Touchdown from No More Heroes (2008) and the free-roaming laser-sighting of Mikami’s genre-redefining Resident Evil 4 (2005).
The plot is an Orphic myth overrun with studded leather, dick jokes, and goth-pewter machine guns that spit out teeth and ribs. It follows a hot-blooded biker named Garcia Hotspur, a dead ringer for Antonio Banderas, who rides a chopper into the underworld to save his girlfriend. Hotspur’s role is a familiar one. Like many of Suda’s leading men, he is brimming over with machismo; but Hotspur is ultimately older and wiser than his predecessor, the sexually frustrated Touchdown. Travis’ psychosexual side has been relegated to wingman territory—Garcia’s chatty sidekick Johnson, a randy skull whose very name is intended as a euphemism, serves not only as a walking tutorial and cache for firearms, but also as a stand-up comic deserving to be hit in the face with an ceaseless barrage of tomatoes.
In this manner, Shadows of the Damned is unapologetically kitsch: a creative departure, and a step back, for Grasshopper Manufacture, a development house that has defined itself through punk expression. The company has its own punk-rock band, Grasshopper DeManufacture, fronted by Massimo Guarini, the game’s director, and Akira Yamaoka, its composer, formerly of Silent Hill fame. Suda, the company’s CEO, routinely shows up to press events dressed as outlandishly as his protagonists. (Garcia wears leather pants and a distressed, purple leather jacket.) This attitude is frequently copped in their games, but Grasshopper’s high-contrast visual aesthetic, a nod to the photocopied fliers of ’70s punk shows, as well as their twisted plot points, have been undermined in Shadows by the familiar horror of demonology. Hallmarks like Union Jacks, pixel art, and graffiti—or stylish bloodstains that look like graffiti—are missing in action; a change that was allegedly made to appease publishing partner Electronic Arts, as a recent interview claims Suda was asked to rewrite the scenario five times.
The script misfires as often as I did during an elongated turret segment, in which Garcia’s pistol grows into a phallic, long-barreled gun that he discharges while taunting, “Taste my big boner!” The stylistic shift from punk to skunk is as uncouth as changing the radio from New York Dolls to Kiss. Yet as kitschy as Shadows of the Damned may be, it is nevertheless Grasshopper’s best game to date. Its merits ride on the freewheeling combat, a streamlining of the fighting system that has been cemented in third-person shooters since Resident Evil 4––one that now seems sedate. After an hour with Shadows of the Damned, that setup feels as archaic as Mikami’s Resident Evil (1996) did upon playing Resident Evil 4. Even Mikami’s lightning-fast Vanquish (2010) fails to capture the urgency of freezing, spraying, and battering a legion of unruly demons; or rushing through a cistern to escape toxic air known as Darkness; or chugging two bottles of tequila, the game’s form of health, to save your life.
The designers feverishly change directions, cooking up brisk, gamey objectives, such as blasting the body armor off a towering minotaur, or rotating a Tetris block to place a bridge in a sacred cubic temple. Events are seldom retrodden, but twisted, and constantly pushed forward through an increasingly Kafkaesque vision of hell, as well-known scenes of survival-horror morph into a rollicking funhouse of the absurd, mystified by Yamaoka’s haunting urban synths. Don’t expect to be crouching behind a concrete slab. The game moves at a steady clip from fragments of quick-hitting headshots and muscle-tearing body blows to bites of Zelda-like puzzles, evoking an almost euphoric sensation. Or, at least, a speedy one. These short bursts thrive on high energy, a fast pace, and a hard edge. And they rarely last longer than a minute or two, not unlike a punk-rock song. Detractors say Shadows of the Damned, at around four to five hours, is too short, but looking at the studio’s inspirations, that might be too long. Siouxsie and the Banshees’ infamous first show lasted all of 20 minutes, and the Ramones’ early gigs at CBGB topped out at half an hour.
Another common complaint is programming bugs. Sometimes a gun will fire on the draw, rather than on the trigger. Other glitches proved more jarring. The demon-bird boss kept knocking me off the ledge, through the lava, and into a game-breaking state of singularity: a purple, silhouetted zone, with a yellow moon hanging on the horizon, where my character could run endlessly in any direction. It forced me to start over repeatedly, presumably so the boss could yell “fuck you” at me again. Keep in mind, Sid Vicious couldn’t even play.