If you’ve ever dabbled in the nebulous videogame sub-genre known as ‘hardcore’, the match of Vanquish and Resident Evil 4 maestro Shinji Mikami with Killer7’s crackpot engineer Suda 51 is almost too tantalising to fathom. So what’s the deal with those job titles? On Shadows of the Damned, Mikami is billed as ‘Creative Producer’ and Suda is the ‘Executive Director’; two ambiguous and indeterminate descriptions of duty that sound more like the kind of “roles” that a stingy Hollywood exec might give to his secretaries for Christmas instead of a raise. But make no mistake, this is every inch the collaboration that fans of both men have been rabidly anticipating.
Which is to say, it’s less a match made in heaven, and more of a match made in a Tokyo opium den. Though the pair’s last creative partnership – on the fantastic cult oddity Killer7- only featured Mikami as a writer, Shadows of the Damned utilises the great man’s effervescent skills as a pedantic gameplay architect too. The ebb and flow of the gunplay may be as reliably sleek as anything that Mikami has ever put his name to – including the faultless Vanquish, zavvi’s game of 2010 – but the lack of multiple pathways and a general dearth of filler means that it needed to be pretty much perfect. And it is.
Shadows of the Damned‘s control scheme is principally similar to the one seen in Resident Evil 4, and that isn’t the only comparison that fits. Some of the environments – run-down churches, empty streets filled with abandoned Victorian dwellings – are heavily reminiscent of Resi 4, and the gruff, ever-memorable upgrade merchant (catchphrase: “What are ya buying?”) has been replaced by a half-man, half-demon called Christopher, who hails from the Deep South, says “Well, shucks” rather a lot and is always keen to banter with you about his sensitive side. To do business, you’ll need to feed the game’s currency to him – they’re large white gems – in the manner of one of those hungry Lumas from Super Mario Galaxy.
The central gameplay mechanic involves managing the onset of darkness, which can be curtailed by finding the head of a grazing goat in each darkened area, and firing a ‘Light Shot’ into it. In some cases these chowing noggins are quite well hidden, and getting to them involves solving a very straightforward switch puzzle. In some areas you have to trigger firework totems that grant you a very brief spell in the light, and in others you’ll have to stick close to a floating ‘Sushi Lamp’ in order to stay alive; or as Hotspur calls them, “Sushi with a dick.” If you think that Sushi Lamps are going to be the only pointlessly phallic objects that crop up in the game, you’re going to be in for a big surprise.
You’re accompanied on your quest by a disembodied skull named Johnson – of course – who is able to shape-shift at will, and changes into everything from torches to guns to motorcycles. Your weapon set (which includes a handgun called ‘Boner’, naturally) is automatically upgraded as you progress, and using the elusive red gems (or “illegal performance enhancers”, as Johnson describes them) simply involves trading off the primary attributes of your weapons against the amount of health that you have. Even on the game’s hardest difficulty setting things are never unnecessarily tough, and if you can’t find a pub or a vending machine – alcohol is what revives you in Hotspur’s perception of Hades – bottles are littered all over the game’s environments, and drinks can also be bought from your old mate Christopher.
If anyone found the relentless juvenilia and amped-up sexism that was present in No More Heroes to be problematic – and that should really be nobody – then be aware that Shadows takes those ideas to the nth extreme; although here they actually function as defendable narrative elements. Garcia Hotspur is an arrogant, sex-obsessed dipstick to be sure, but you’re stuck in his extraordinarily goofy vision of purgatory, and nobody is more aware of what a gigantic tool Hotspur is than Suda and Mikami. There are a few small moments during the game where you’ll happen upon a discarded horror book, and you’re given the option for Johnson to read the story aloud to you in his spry English accent. The second book that you’ll find is narrated by Hotspur, and the whole episode is straight out of Beavis and Butthead.
A hero pursuing an evasive damsel into hell isn’t a fresh narrative conceit, but it’s fearlessly executed here (and topped off by a genuinely surprisingly ending) that’s ripe for multiple playthroughs; but herein lies the game’s only legitimate flaw. There is no Resi 4 style ‘+’ mode that allows you to keep hold of your goodies on subsequent journeys, which is a very strange oversight, and one that may yet be rectified via free DLC, we hope. But as far as niggles go, that’s it. Shadows of the Damned is an absolute blast, and of the best games of 2011 so far. You’ll come across demons who urinate darkness, broad references to movies like The Evil Dead, and more juvenile toilet humour than you can shake a Johnson at. Tight, engaging and heroically immature, Shadows of the Damned is vintage stuff.
Shadows of the Damned is released on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on Friday, June 24th 2011.
Watch the Shadows of the Damned trailer here: