You know you’re in for something a bit different when, during the course of a short demo, you’re asked to shoot a glowing goat’s head to rid environments of shadows, feed brains to a crying baby and tackle a blood-soaked, harmonica-playing demon named George.
Then again, what more did we expect? With Suda51 (Killer 7, No More Heroes) and Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil, Vanquish) both involved with the project – as Executive Director and Creative Producer, respectively – things were always going to be a little out of the ordinary.
Initially, it’s Mikami’s influence that’s most obvious. Damned’s camera sits in that tight, third-person, over-the-shoulder position utilised by Resident Evil 4 and 5; providing a good look at lead-protagonist Garcia Hotspur’s flamboyant purple leather jacket and slick haircut. The environment’s too, bear resemblance to the survival horror classic, not so much in their visual appearance as in their role in creating a foreboding, often claustrophobic atmosphere, in which you’re very deliberately led down specific paths in a very controlled fashion. An open world game this is not.
Suda’s influence, of course (given his ‘unique’ tastes), shines through quickly after. For example, there’s the bizarre character of Johnson (a floating skull acting as Garcia’s ‘Demon Physic Sidekick’), the fact that Garcia must consume alcohol to regain health and the darkly comedic posters plastered to walls that celebrate, among other things, the fact that strawberries are a demonic joke on the real world – rather than fruit, they’re actually made of ground-up tongues.
The combination of these two videogame design icons creates something that feels both unique and familiar. Being able to pick up on each individual’s presence providing the familiarity but the combination of them both together generating that unique quality.
What’s less unique is the game’s overall narrative; in very ‘save the Princess’ fashion, Garcia and Johnson must navigate the demon world (ruled over by the Lord Demon Fleming) in a bid to save Garcia’s kidnapped girlfriend, Paula.
At one point during our demo we’d seemingly accomplished that goal, having found Paula amid a market stall area of the demon city. Things were not so simple however… a cut-scene kicking in showing Garcia walking up to his girlfriend only to find that it was all a demon trick, the bloodied, harmonica-stitched-into-mouth George exploding from the fake Paula’s body, leaving it in two, haphazardly split halves. Our deathly dark sense of humour causing cackles all-round.
The portion we played followed, very precisely, the Japanese-game design mantra of gameplay-then-story-then-gameplay-then-story. As with the bulk of Japanese games, Damned’s mechanics are very well defined, each designed to achieve a very specific goal.
For example, the glowing, wall-mounted goat’s heads that are hidden throughout the bulk of enemies infested areas must be shot with a bullet of light in order to remove the thick layer of shadow that grants your foes infinite health. Only once the shadow has been removed can enemies be dispatched with a bullet made of bone, or by hitting them with a charged-up melee attack (a regular attack only acts to fend them off if/when you find yourself outnumbered).
It’s this shadow removal that functions as the game’s primary mechanic for dispatching of the ‘regular’ bad guys. Bosses are different. Our demo featured a boss fight against a foe significantly larger than the standard ghouls, sporting a rather obvious, glowing red, weak spot on his back (explained away as a reservoir of human blood from which it feeds). In order to get line of sight on the weak spot we had to make good use of Garcia’s roll ability, dodge out of the way as it charged, shoot a bullet of light to stun it and then fire as many rounds as possible into its back before it recovered… rinse and repeat until vanquished.
With infinite health and upgraded weapons enabled to allow us unskilled journalists a chance at completing the demo in full, the boss didn’t present much of a challenge but, it did provide a sneak peek into the type of encounters we can expect in the full game. Encounters that, visual style and bizarre quirks aside, felt similar to many we’ve played before.
As you journey through the Eastern European inspired environments (apparently, Suda, Mikami and co. see that area of the world as suitably demonic inspiration) you’ll stumble upon gems of red and white varieties. The white gems act as a currency of sorts, presumably allowing you to purchase health packs (in the form of saki, tequila and absinth), ammo and whatever else. Red gems act as upgrade points to allow you to improve things like your health, ammo capacity and weapon reload speed. You’ll also come across chests containing vibrant red bones with which to load into your rather cool looking, eXistenZ-style skeletal-inspired weaponry.
Despite the Res Evil viewpoint, the ghouls and the shadow-blasting gameplay mechanic, the most memorable thing about our time with Shadows of the Damned was its sense of humour and wit. Everything from the wise-cracking, floating skull Johnson, the brain-hungry babies acting as door locks and the fact that characters are named George, Fleming and Garcia Hotspur all doing a great job of turning the morose into the comical and converting the depraved into the innocuous.
The general structure and gameplay tasks may not (at least, from what we’ve played) be all that original but, the punk-rock paint it’s coated in is enjoyable enough to pull you through. We’ll not know until we play the finished article whether or not that paint is enough to keep you happy for the entire playing time but, what is for certain is that any game featuring both Suda and Mikami in its credit list is a game worth keeping an eye on. Which is exactly what we’ll be doing.