Shadows of The Damned shipped in 2011 as part of team effort by Grasshopper Manufacture to bring together some of the biggest names in "auteur" gaming; Shinji Mikami, Akira Yamaoka and Suda51. The game follows Garcia F. Hotspur (the F stands for Fucking) a latin American demon hunter and his sidekick come weapon Johnson, who is a talking skull. After Garcia's girlfriend, Paula (pronounced Pow-la), is kidnapped by the king/leader/master of the hell Fleming, Garcia must travel through the underworld to bring her back.
- The game is too short and very easy. The designers saw this and realised they needed to beef up its length and so they arbitrarily created enemies and bosses with huge amounts of health. This doesn't change the difficulty of these enemies and bosses, they are still trivially easy to dodge and land shots on, but they become ridiculous bullet sponges that bored me to tears.
- The core mechanics quickly become uninteresting. Despite it being a short game (less than 10 hours on average), it has taken me almost two and half months to finish. Every time I played it I wanted to quit at the next checkpoint due to the boredom that it induced.
- There is a lack of weapon variety. You receive three main weapons for the entirety of the game. These do get upgraded to have different firing modes but the changes are often rather arbitrary and don't fundamentally change or innovate the way the weapons work.
- One particular "upgrade" for one of the weapons makes it much harder to use by removing its targeting cross-hair and making the bullets (seemingly randomly) track (or more often than not) not track enemies. Upgrades are NOT optional.
- Regular enemies are overused and unique enemies underused. There is generally not enough enemy variety in the game throughout.
- The plot is dull. (see intro)
- Paula is an uninteresting character, despite desperate attempts by protagonist and semi-protagonist to characterise her. She appears constantly throughout the game in different "fake" guises, and the red herrings become so numerous and absurd that I quickly began not to care.
- Fleming is a similarly dull character and is barely seen for the vast majority of the game despite being the principle antagonist. He is offered some affordances in the last level, but they seem like an afterthought.
- There are several arbitrary one hit kill sequences in the game, several of these are also prefaced by (in my opinion) one of the primal design sins; unskippable cutscenes. And not just any unskippable cutscenes, long, engine rendered, unnecessary, plot-empty, self-indulgent cutscenes, often designed to pan around a level to reveal a threat that anyone with even a modicum of intelligence had worked out several minutes before it was shown. Regardless, the designers of Shadows of The Damned felt that it was entirely necessary that these be viewed every single time.
- Level's become very thin on the ground toward the end, some lasting only 5-10 minutes and one notable level toward the end of the game which only contains one room, and isn't a boss fight.
- Arbitrary fourth wall breaking. Another of my personal game design pet peeves. Referencing the fact that the player is "playing" a game just for the sake of it is not interesting, clever or funny if it has zero relevance to the plot or what the game is about. It's a dull cliché. Don't do it.
- There are some minor issues with Garcia being randomly teleported around areas and enemies being sneakily teleported in to fulfil story and cut scene requirements especially if you completed something quicker than the designer's intended you to.
- The characterisation and relationship of Johnson and Garcia is probably the best thing in the game. it's brilliantly written and fantastically voice acted. They are genuinely enjoyable to listen to, especially Johnson, even if many of their dialogues are overly scripted and replay back if you die and have to redo a section. The story book sections are some of the best in any game I've played and it was nice that Johnson also had utility as Garcia's weapon.
- The side-scrolling sections, which I am told acted as a sort of proof of concept for another of Grasshopper's games, Black Knight Sword, are beautifully crafted. They levels are put together entirely using Gilliamesque collage style animation and visuals. It seemed to me that many of these were done using real physical materials as well; one of the stand outs being the drips of slime in the later levels which are animated through stop-motion scrunching of green foil. These sections are somewhat let down by a rather uninspired boss fight to end them.
- Wonderful, inventive sound design and music throughout. Yamaoka, crafts a fascinating and constantly evolving set of unique sounds for Shadows of The Damned. Almost every section of the game has a unique and interesting track to accompany it, and Yamaoka makes use of a staggering array of acoustic and electronic instruments. The side scrolling sections also have a set of beautifully rendered sound effects that cheekily reference a host of other games subtly twisted to fit the dark comedic world of the game.
- The darkness mechanic is exciting and enjoyable. I felt the darkness mechanic was, gameplay wise, one of the strongest ideas in the game. It lends a sense of urgency to when playing through them, constantly having to manage one's exposure. Furthermore the use of the light shot in hunting for a sheep's head to shoot furthered these sections urgency, turning them into a kind of visual puzzle that was very enjoyable to solve. The damage immunity effect it applies to enemies is also interesting, and was a fun way to force me to use the light shot. Towards the end of game, health upgrades allow you to tank the damage of the darkness relatively easily which reduce its interest and excitement substantially.
- Strong visual design. When I began playing the game and was thrown into a somewhat uninspired medieval-like village setting I groaned inwardly. But I was wrong to judge the visuals so quickly. Throughout the game the visuals are used inventively and change often. The world building that went into it all of the design is competently executed, with each section of the game looking markedly different, yet maintaing a consistency of tone.
I did not finish Shadows of The Damned. I got to the "last boss" - Fleming (though not really the last boss) - and quit. As an encounter he concentrated everything that was bad about the game into a single experience. He has an arbitrarily large amount of health, that resets regularly if you don't take advantage of small scripted windows in his attack patterns to transition the fight - I found these often bugged - leading to the arbitrary lengthening of the fight. He is trivially easy to evade and hit. I didn't quit the fight because I died, in fact, he never killed me, I took almost no damage, but after almost an hour in battle with him I realised that the fight was going nowhere, that I was wasting my time doing an uninteresting fight against an uninteresting boss to save an uninteresting character in largely uninteresting game. I was not improving, I was not honing my skills to best an opponent or a system, I was simply wasting my time.
Despite brief flairs of anger at Shadows of The Damned and its arbitrary lengthening mechanics and largely uninventive design, more then anything I feel apathetic. The game is everything I find tiresome and irritating about Mikami and Suda with none of the inventive flair and fantastic design that made them famous. In the end then Shadows of The Damned aspires fundamentally to do nothing. At its heart it is nothing more than a sporadically well written and voice acted exercise in time wasting, something I simply cannot abide in games.
If you do like the sound of the enjoyable buddy relationship between Garcia and Johnson or the beautifully crafted score, I would recommend, watching / listening respectively online. If you want to also have the Shadows of The Damned experience but without the price-tag of the full game I would suggest ordering the grains of salt in your salt cellar by size in between watching each cut scene and you will probably come close to achieving the requisite amount of boredom.