Shadows of the Damned review: Hell and back

Of all the gags in Shadows of the Damned, the biggest may be that it's rated "M for Mature." Believe me, the game is anything but. Over the course of its narrative, I wielded a weapon called the "Hot Boner," shoved any number of revolting things into a wailing infant's mouth and sprinted across a giant, mostly naked woman's body (including a breast roughly the size of a gazebo). And the dick jokes -- so many dick jokes.

In short, Shadows of the Damned is insensitive, puerile, gross, incredibly profane and ... kind of wonderful.

Shadows of the Damned chronicles the adventures of demon hunter Garcia Fucking Hotspur (yeah, that's actually his middle name). After a brief introduction, during which Garcia's girlfriend Paula is kidnapped and taken to Hell by Fleming, the Lord of Demons, players are tasked with beginning a new "movie." Garcia himself refers to his quest as his own "road movie." The homage to grindhouse flicks, and the work of director Robert Rodriguez in particular, is obvious from the get-go.

Cascades of profanity are par for the course, matched only by what could only be described as a cornucopia of raunchy humor, the majority of which is provided by Garcia's sidekick, Johnson. A manifested sexual pun, Johnson is a floating, disembodied demon skull with a lusty outlook on life and a charming British accent. Johnson also serves as Garcia's weapon and is able to transform into several different guns (including the Hot Boner mentioned above). Knowledgeable about the ins and outs of Hell, Johnson also acts as a tour guide of sorts, offering color commentary and helpful underworld information.

And I needed a tour guide, because the Hell of Shadows of the Damned is not what Dante led us to expect. Filled with cobblestone streets, broken-down pubs and aging street lamps, Hell seems to spring not from the Bible, but from the seedy back alleys of a Tom Waits tune. It's a place where demons visit strip clubs and absinthe is consumed for its miraculous health benefits.

That's not to say that Hell isn't without some legitimately nightmarish touches too. Among these are the demon doors, iron gates with an infant's face where the knocker should be. These gates will only open when fed the proper item, be it an eyeball or brain (or strawberry, which is a demon delicacy, apparently). Watching Garcia stuff a brain into a baby's mouth -- often while shouting something like "Eat shit!" -- is bizarre and a little unsavory to say the least.

Another tick in the nightmarish column: The abundance of demons. Lesser demons resemble emaciated human corpses, shambling horrors that advance on Garcia in hordes. Most demons are easy enough to dispatch, requiring a single head shot with the pistol or an intimate shotgun blast. More powerful demons are literally fueled by a reservoir of human blood. The only way to defeat such demons is to destroy the reservoir, meaning Garcia must literally aim for the red weak point.

These greater demons are more fancifully designed than the fodder Garcia typically confronts. My favorite: A hulking, shrouded monstrosity with huge blades on his arms. The brute has swallowed a harmonica, its each breath a wheezing cacophony of tinny notes. Other notable bosses include a gigantic, screen-filling minotaur and massive crow who constantly screams a drawn out, bird-like refrain of "Fuck you!"

Discussing the actual gameplay of Shadows of the Damned almost feels like a disservice to the world that was lovingly crafted around it. Compared to the bizarre world that the demons inhabit, killing them is comfortably familiar. Shooting is handled in the now tried-and-true third person format, aiming with the left trigger and firing with the right. Upgrades can be found or purchased for all weapons, giving them more firepower, faster reloads or a higher capacity. Again, it's a system that has become standard.

Certain weapons have an alternate fire mode -- the pistol being able to shoot volatile balls of goo and the shotgun able to lob rolling bombs -- but these are more often used to solve puzzles than dispatch enemies. The one exception is the final upgrade of the machine gun, which allows bullets to lock on to enemies and home in for the kill (a feature that actually makes some of the final boss battles disappointingly simple). It's also worth noting that there is no "New Game Plus" option upon finishing Shadows of the Damned, a strange omission for an upgrade-centric title.

None of this is to say that the combat isn't enjoyable. It is. Coming from Shinji Mikami, the man that gave us Resident Evil 4, it's perfectly satisfying. My point is that, while this sort of third-person combat turned the Resident Evil series on its ear in 2005, it's become de rigueur in 2011. Also, for all their fantastic aesthetics, a good majority of the boss battles focus on mechanics we've all seen a thousand times. While some might require a few extra tricks, all boss encounters boil down to the same thing: Shoot the red parts.

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Combat aside, the world itself remains the star of the show. Garcia traverses a variety of locales, ranging from a tepid swamp to a demonic red light district, each punctuated with sights of his beloved Paula, who is repeatedly murdered and resurrected before his eyes. It sounds gruesome, and it is, but the narrative almost never takes itself seriously. No matter how dark the subject matter becomes, someone -- usually Johnson -- is always there to make a dick joke.

Which reminds me, Shadows of the Damned is about as blue as it gets. It's littered with profanity, bawdy anecdotes and sexual imagery. In fact, the overtly macho sexuality is occasionally so extreme that it almost becomes disturbing. For example, Paula's frequent murders and resurrections are often accompanied by sexually-charged dialogue. It's fitting business for Hell, but it's a bit more revolting than the game's other, more playfully crude elements.

For the most part, however, Shadows of the Damned remains a campy, silly and over-the-top adventure. It's certainly pleasing to annihilate demon hordes, but the real drive of Garcia's "road movie" is to see what weird and wonderful thing pops up next, be it a friendly demon with a southern drawl or an unexpected series of 2D shoot-em-up levels. In the end, it's worth taking the trip to Hell. Just don't bring the kids, okay?

This review is based on review code of the Xbox 360 version of Shadows of the Damned provided by Electronic Arts.