One of the reasons I play video games is to adventure in unfamiliar worlds and see the coolest, craziest ideas game developers can come up with. I like a good sports simulation or realistic racing game well enough, but give me a game in which flying girls in frilly dresses shoot lasers at dancing Victorian couples, and I’m in my element.
Naturally, I’ve had my eyes on “Shadows of the Damned,” the next title from Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda51, one of Japan’s unusual auteurs. In the past couple of months, I’ve gotten my hands on the game twice, and last week, I sat down for a few minutes and asked Suda (real name Goichi Suda) some questions.
If “Shadows of the Damned,” due out June 21 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 isn’t on your radar yet, it’s a single-player game that Suda, through a translator, described as “a road movie set in hell” at a preview event last week in San Francisco. It features a Latino tough guy, named Garcia Hotspur, who ventures into hell to rescue his girlfriend, Paula, from the clutches of a demon lord named Fleming.
As you might expect from Suda, whose best known games are probably the Wii’s “No More Heroes” titles, the “hell” in “Shadow of the Damned” isn’t what most people think of when they hear the word. Instead, much of what we’ve seen of Hell so far looks like an old European city, with quite a few embellishments. (We’ll get to the embellishment in a minute.)
During our brief chat, Suda said, again through a translator, that he wanted to make a Hell that looked lived in.
“The first thing I thought is, the residents of hell have everyday lives,” Suda said. “We worked to make sure that was included.”
To make sure hell looked like a place where people lived and not just a place where unbelievers go to be tortured, Suda’s staff traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, and cities in the Czech Republic.
“The inspiration comes from European cities where people actually live, but it’s kind of the other side,” he said. He elaborated further, saying he wanted the hell in “Shadows of the Damned” to feel like a real place that’ not very far removed from our own reality, like a darker version of the magical places in the “Harry Potter” books and films.
“This is what I feel … that there is another world very near here,” he said.
Having been to Edinburgh, I can see the city’s cobblestone streets and architecture reflected in Suda’s version of hell, but only to a point. Edinburgh doesn’t have giant iron gates that prominently feature what look like live baby heads, which only let you pass after you’ve fed them an eyeball, brain or strawberry. Nor was there any of the purple, curly ornamentation that Garcia and Johnson refer to as, erm, “demon pubes.”
Garcia himself is similarly offbeat, with a sort of tattooed, rockabilly look filtered through a Japanese lens. Being of Mexican origin, he drops plenty of Spanish slang and speaks generally in accented English. His overall feel owes a debt to the films of Robert Rodriguez, particularly his collaboration with Quentin Tarrantino, “Grindhouse.”
Yet for all his visual and linguistic quirks, Garcia largely plays the straight man to another off-the-wall character, his side-kick, Johnson.
Johnson, a demon-turned-good who’s a funnyman, a torch and three different types of firearms all rolled into one, was inspired by Maurice Moss from the British TV drama “The IT Crowd.”
With Johnson in hand, Garcia ventures into hell in search of his love. Much of the game’s action is reminiscent of a “Resident Evil” game, complete with an over-the-shoulder camera. Johnson’s default form is a torch, which you can use to light your way as well as bash enemies. Hold down the left trigger or L1 on the PlayStation 3, though, and Johnson transforms into either a pistol (The Boner), an assault rifle (The Teether) or a shotgun (The Monocussioner).
Each of these weapons has two fire modes, the standard mode and what I’ll call a light-burst mode. Like the Taken in last year’s “Alan Wake,” many of the enemies in “Shadows of the Damned” are vulnerable to light. So you’ll want to shoot them with a blast of light to make them vulnerable.
As in “Alan Wake,” you’ll want to stay out of the darkness, which at time advances on Garcia in a sort of purple, swirling wave. When I previewed the game, God Mode was turned on, so I was in no real danger. But in the final game, entering the darkness, which the player must do from time to time, drains Garcia’s health. To stay alive, he’ll have to hurry through areas or find sources of illumination that kick out more wattage than Johnson.
In the first demo I played, Garcia fired a shot at a candelabrum to light it up and keep the darkness from spawning demons out of a pile of corpses and bones. In other spots, you’ll blast away at barrels that explode in a burst of light and kill or stun nearby enemies. In others, you’ll jam Johnson’s torch form into a giant gas lamp, which only stays lit for a short time.
The game’s more powerful demons require a constant supply of human blood to survive, which is basically a shorthand way of saying they have bright red weak points you need to shoot at to wound them. Of course, they guard these spots, so figuring out how to stun them is key.
Despite the novel setting and fantastical demons, including a benevolent shopkeeper named Christopher I encountered in the second demo, the gameplay in “Shadows” seems fairly straightforward. You’ll progress through “Resident Evil”-style levels blasting away at baddies, soaking up the scenery and enjoying the cultural mashup of a game set in a hell based on Eastern Europe, staring a Mexican tough guy created by a Japanese developer.
In much the same way moviegoers flocked to “Grindhouse” not for its brilliant script or amazing acting, the draw here is the atmosphere and stylish cool. If you think you might like a game in which the purple-jacket-clad hero stumble across his own grave, with an epitaph of “Died wearing a purple jacket,” “Shadows” is worth a look.
Visually, I thought the game looked better than the washed-out images accompanying this preview. (I’ve gotta work with what the publisher gives me.) The levels and enemies looked cool and stylized, but Garcia’s animations looked a little stiff, as if he had a plank rammed down the back of his jacket. The animations were noticeably stiff in one late-demo portion where Garcia was swinging around on a giant chandelier, crashing into wall while his knees barely bent. It’s not a major flaw, but it’s worth keeping an eye on as the release date draws near.
“Shadows” sports a liberal amount of profanity, partial nudity and gore, and Garcia quaffs alcohol to replenish his health. And while clueless parents everywhere will still snap it up for their 9-year-olds in droves, that doesn’t mean you should. For those of us who can vote and drink legally, “Shadows” looks like it’ll either be a joyous, stylish romp or something that’ll grow old after a couple of hours.