New horror action game Shadows Of The Damned certainly has an impressive pedigree. The Electronic Arts-published title, first unveiled at last year's Tokyo Game Show, is being developed by Goichi Suda's (Suda51) Grasshopper Manufacture studio in collaboration with Shinji Mikami, creator of the Resident Evil series. The team has harnessed the Unreal 3 Engine to power the game and enlisted Silent Hill sound designer Akira Yamaoka to handle the audio. It's pretty much a dream team in action games development, and what they have produced is essentially a mix of blood-soaked, House of Horror spookiness and Uncharted-style blockbuster action. DS had some hands-on time with the game to see if it's shaping up to be a dream proposition, or a total nightmare.
Shadows Of The Damned's hero is Garcia Hotspur, a heavily tattooed demon hunter who heads into the darkest depths of Hell to rescue his beloved Paula. The premise appears to be loosely influenced by 'Inferno' in the Divine Comedy, a classic 14th Century poem by Italian writer Dante Alighieri. The poem also inspired last year's action game Dante's Inferno, in which the eponymous hero had to navigate the nine circles of Hell to rescue his beloved. We played a level from Shadows Of The Damned inside a Medieval-style castle, right at the early stages of the campaign.
At its heart, Shadows Of The Damned is essentially a third-person shooter with action and light puzzle elements, perhaps more similar to Uncharted than Gears Of War. Hotspur wields a gun and a melee staff, which is a skull on a stick that also acts as his wise-cracking guide/companion. The stick can additionally be used as a melee weapon, with the attack button able to be held down for a period of time to unleash a more powerful assault. The gunplay appears pretty solid, with the shots having a pleasant thwack, leading to enemies being gradually dismembered amid fountains of blood and gore. Red gems can be collected to access the game's upgrade system. Hotspur's gun can be levelled up during the campaign, transforming it into the Teether, a machine gun that fires teeth, and a heavy weapon that shoots skulls.
The game has drawn parallels to Alan Wake, in that many of its action sequences rely heavily on light and dark. Certain enemies are wrapped in a cloak of darkness, which must be eliminated before they can be killed. This usually involves firing a light shot from the right bumper to blast away the darkness, but certain areas can be completely cloaked in darkness and so overrun with ghoulish monsters. The player must then find a glowing goat head, which when blasted with a light shot illuminates the space entirely, enabling the enemies to be banished. There are also barrels of light dotted around the place that work pretty much the same as explosive barrels do in other action games.
After fighting through some early sections against zombified monsters (looking not too dissimilar to the enemies in recent first-person shooter Singularity), we entered a garish open space, triggering a cut scene. A woman dressed in bondage gear kitted out with a variety of weapons was dancing rather oddly on a balcony at the other end of the courtyard. She continued gyrating, confusing our hero, before a giant snarling mini-boss emerged, guarding a big door below a sign proclaiming ominously, "Welcome to Hell". Fighting the boss involved the usual technique of pummelling a glowing section of his body, designating a weak point (when will these baddies learn?). However, the slight twist was that it was necessary to dazzle the monster with a light shot in order to get the chance to dole out some punishment. After downing the foe, we took the plunge and entered the dark underworld.
Moving further into the demonic city brought more enemies to fight, but also a variety of the game's environmental puzzles. Again, Shadows Of The Damned doesn't tread into particularly revolutionary territory with its puzzles, instead sticking to pretty tried and tested techniques. A central courtyard area featured a range of gates with ugly-faced demons as locks, each requiring a different object before they would open - a brain, an eye, and, rather bizarrely, a strawberry. This meant moving around the space to find the right object for each gate, before stuffing it into the mouth of the hungry lock.
We found the brain and the eye, but then the sequence was interrupted by the arrival of a gory demon with a massive cleaver for an arm, who burst through the final gate and headed out into a carnival area. In a cut scene, Garcia pursued the demon but instead found his beloved Paula, or, at least, he thought he did. The beauty was acting rather strangely, not least dismembering herself into small parts, only to reassemble herself again. Paula then peeled off her skin like it was a sweaty tracksuit, revealing the aforementioned cleaver-bearing demon. The monster then advanced on Garcia, but gave us enough time to blast out a light barrel and send the hulk reeling.
Shadows Of The Damned is an 18-rated game and there are certainly lashings of gore and horror, but it is more akin to an end-of-the-pier House of Horror than the claustrophobic terror of Resident Evil. Graphically, everything is polished and the art direction is distinctive, but everything has a theatrical edge, with monsters and bloody piles of limbs amped up to the maximum. It's unclear, though, whether the game has its tongue firmly in its cheek, or is just comically naive. The jokey dialogue is camp and a bit ridiculous on first look, meaning the humour could become a bit tiresome after a while. For example, after the demon emerged from the version of Paula, the skull-stick companion quipped: "Demons are just like men, they all want to get inside the women."
Shadows Of The Damned has many things going for it, not least the considerable pedigree of creative masterminds Suda51 and Shinji Mikami. All the core elements of the game appear solid and it's certainly fun to play, which is, after all, the most important aspect. However, it seems that Shadows Of The Damned will only really succeed by genuinely embracing its identity as a gore-soaked and utterly ridiculous pantomime. By going all out for a camped-up journey into Hell playing a comic book hero, the game could provide an antidote to the more rigid and serious Resident Evil series, and carve itself a little niche. But equally, a mish-mash of all these things could throw up a largely forgettable experience that is devoid of both scares and smiles.
Shadows Of The Damned will be released on June 7 in North American and June 10 in Europe for PlayStation 3and Xbox 360.