Shadows of the Damned

What a delightful game. It’s a real shame it didn’t sell well. It manages to pull of the trick of being vulgar and juvenile, but still hilarious. I haven’t played Bulletstorm yet, myself, but I find it funny that this is the second conspicuously penis-obsessed game this year that’s come out well. Unlike Dante’s Inferno it’s willing to revel in how silly it is, and unlike Duke Nukem Forever it manages to be actually be funny, rather than merely gross and exploitative. Johnson is the second best talking skull in gaming history.

It helps that the game plays solidly. Even though it doesn’t aim to revolutionize the third person shooter genre, it still manages to come up with enough different ideas and enemies to keep things interesting. The aiming felt a little wonky, especially up close with the shotgun. There’s virtually no spread on its shots, which made it feel like I was missing a lot of close-up shots between the arms or legs of enemies.

The first two Acts are clearly the strongest. The game does a fantastic job of slowly introducing and teaching its mechanics. I want to call particular attention to the darkness mechanic, where an area is filled with darkness that will damage Garcia if he stays in it for two long. This sort of poison mechanic puts a lot of stress on the player because he has to complete tasks quickly. But the first several times the player encounters darkness, the tasks are relatively simple thing – running straight, or shooting a stationary target – and only later do the tasks gradually become more difficult.

The boss fights are great too. The first boss in particular presents a couple of memorable encounters. The first involves an intense chase through a claustrophobic, yet still somehow easy to navigate, tangle of fairground stalls. Even though the boss is offscreen more often than on, because of his sound design (great use of harmonica), he’s easy to track, and is a constant, menacing presence. The second encounter is one of those classic gems of pattern recognition and multiple stages requiring constant movement, quick thinking and accurate shooting on the part of the player, all calibrated to feel challenging, without actually being frustrated.

Not all of it is amazing. Act 4 is particularly weak. All the pace-breakers got clumped together into just the one act. There are three consecutive turret sequences which are both repetitive and too difficult. Three 2-d side-scrolling sequences, which are fine, but not as good at the core game. It was particularly disappointing that the boss of the Act is fought in one of the 2-d sequences, since the boss fights in the rest of the game are so good.

Special kudos goes to the localization team, who, from interviews such as this one, seem to have had an unusual degree of both autonomy and interaction with the developers. It’s commendable that they were able to create a lead character who convincingly speaks Spanish as his first language and English as his second. The pervasive interaction between Garcia and Johnson feels natural, and is genuinely entertaining. And the storybooks with the backstories for the bosses manage to be weird and creepy and funny, and generally manage to seem connected to the bosses themselves, even though they were written after the bosses were designed and really aren’t referenced within the rest of the game. The music deserves praise as well. It’s catchy and atmospheric and playful at all the right times.

So, it’s a great experience, one that was much easier for me to get into than a modern Resident Evil game. One of the times when a collaboration between a bunch of big-name developers pays off big time.

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