As the crass, unfunny “Duke Nukem Forever” can attest, there aren’t many funny first- or third-person shooters. Generally speaking, the genre’s heroes tend to be men of action and few words. Their attempts at catchphrases and one-liners fall flat. If they distinguish themselves, it’s usually for their awfulness.
In that light, Goichi Suda’s “Shadows of the Damned” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3) is a resounding success. Demon hunter Garcia Hotspur is a font of hilarity, spouting memorable line after memorable line, most of them unprintable here, as he trash talks demons and chats with his sidekick, former demon Johnson, a flaming skull who transforms into any number of death-dealing armaments.
The world that Suda, better known by his alias Suda 51, and collaborator Shinji Mikami have created is as inventive as Garcia’s colorful, heavily accented language. Garcia enters hell to rescue his girlfriend, Paula, from Fleming, the king of demons, but Suda and Mikami’s version of hell isn’t your stock lakes-of-fire affair. It’s a bizarro version of Edinburgh or Prague, replete with mounted, candelabra-topped goat heads that light up the streets and crying baby faces who act as gatekeepers until Garcia feeds them strawberries, eyeballs or brains.
On his journey to rescue Paula, Garcia will have to see his love brutally murdered or horrifically possessed over and over again. It’d come off as misogynistic if it didn’t so clearly enrage Garcia and serve to motivate the player. This guy Fleming’s a real jerk.
“Shadows’” dark tones, character design and stylized gore are heavily influenced by the films of Robert Rodriguez, particularly “Grindhouse,” “Machete” and “Sin City.” The singular vision of hell is as refreshing as it is strange, and it’s coupled with some of the best sound direction you’ll see in a game, thanks to the music of “Silent Hill” composer Akira Yamaoka. It’s crushing that the soundtrack, punctuated by such diverse sounds as Spanish guitar, hip-hop beats and organ music, was available as a preorder bonus and can currently only be streamed online.
“Shadows of the Damned” is as complete an artistic vision as you’re likely to experience in gaming this year, bringing together a collection of semi-familiar elements to create something wholly original. It’s too bad its gameplay doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
Of the game’s two creative leads, Mikami is best thought of as the “gameplay guy.” His offbeat resume boasts fan favorites like shooters “Vanquish” and “Resident Evil 4,” as well as beat-‘em-up-influenced fare like “God Hand” and “Viewtiful Joe.” You wouldn’t know it from playing “Shadows,” though. The gameplay is pretty much the same over-the-shoulder, third-person shooting that “Resident Evil 4” helped popularize back in 2005.
Garcia’s sidekick, Johnson, voiced by “Dragon Age II’s” Greg Ellis, delivers a lot of fantastic lines — and a lot of penis jokes — but as a gun, he’s standard shooter fare. In addition to serving as Garcia’s torch/melee weapon, Johnson can transform into a pistol, machine gun or shotgun, each of which is effective against different types of enemies.
“Shadows” gets a lot of mileage out of the concept of darkness as a corrupting force. Many of its enemies will come at Garcia shrouded in darkness, which you remove by blasting the demons with your gun’s secondary fire. Though it’s not exactly the same, it feels a bit like using your flashlight to burn away the darkness in last year’s “Alan Wake.”
“Shadows” takes the concept a bit further by occasionally enveloping Garcia in life-sapping darkness. During these portions of the game, which range from nettlesome to flat-out stressful, Garcia must either race through the darkness or find some way of turning on the lights. The tension brought on by trying to figure out what, exactly, you’re supposed to do as Garcia’s life dwindles down is probably the best-executed gameplay concept.
All these elements come together in “Shadows of the Damned’s” massive boss fights. Just like some of the old 8- and 16-bit action games that serve as its inspiration, “Shadows” features a number of battles against enormous enemies that typically require some unusual strategy or gimmick to defeat. For the most part, you’ll be shooting at bright red weak points that represent the demons’ supply of human blood. But, to expose that weak point, you’ll typically need to mix up your strategies a bit as you dodge attacks and find the key to damaging each boss.
If you’ve taken part in a boss fight any time in the last 25 years, you’ll be right at home during the ones in “Shadows of the Damned.” Unfortunately, the effectiveness with which Garcia can dodge attacks combined with the predictability of enemy attacks means most of these battles aren’t much of a challenge. It’s too bad because the bosses themselves look fantastic and have excellent backstories, as revealed in little storybooks Garcia and Johnson uncover in the world.
While most of the game consists of walking down hallways trying to find a key so you can get to the next boss fight, Suda and Mikami break up the second half of the game with some puzzles and a handful of fun, side-scrolling shoot-‘em-up levels that take their gameplay cues from the core game. The Eastern European-style elevator music that augments these late-game sequences is the highlight of the game’s soundtrack.
The pairing of a one-of-a-kind world with been-there-done-that gameplay means your enjoyment of “Shadows of the Damned” will be determined by whether you prize storytelling, atmosphere and artistic direction over gameplay and level design. That description fits me to a T, but it’s hard to fault anyone put off by the game’s linear nature or relatively short length. (I finished “Shadows” in about 10 hours, and my core motivation to replay it would be to experience the world again and grab a 100-point achievement for finishing the game on “hard” difficulty.)