Shadows of the Damned is much like its hero, Garcia Hotspur - unrefined, yet oddly endearing. It offers an offbeat vision of Hell and demon culture that's fascinating, but doesn't infuse the same kind freshness into its too-ordinary guncentric gameplay. Before we go any further, you may want to give serious thought to how you feel about dick jokes. Lots and lots of dick jokes.
Demon hunter Garcia doesn't have two thoughts to rub together, but when his girlfriend Paula is kidnapped by the king of the demons, he doesn't hesitate to take off after her. His rescue mission will take him through Hell itself. Fortunately, he can get the lay of the land from Johnson, his demon companion who not only provides intel about the environment but also morphs into different weapons for Garcia. A hero and his plucky sidekick rescuing a princess from a villain's nefarious clutches isn't exactly groundbreaking storytelling, but the characters of Shadows of the Damned bring their own unique flair to the tale. Garcia's devotion to Paula is at times baffling - she's been known to chase him with a knife when she's upset - and Fleming's surprisingly likable for a guy who tortures people for a living. It's a fun crew.
It has a keen eye for flashy presentation, but Shadows of the Damned aims pretty damn low with its sense of humor. One-eyed Willy the demon marks your checkpoints by taking a big, flaming dump on the street. Garcia observes that Fleming the demon king must be a real dick-tator. And then there's the level where Johnson turns into the Big Boner gun by calling a sex line. It's so dumb, it never really becomes offensive, but if you find such juvenile joking tiresome, you're going to get sick of Shadows very quickly.
Even if cracks about whether or not Garcia's gun has adequate penetration don't bug you, the actual gameplay might drive you away. Shadows of the Damned is so linear it may as well be on rails, and the combat never really develops much past "aim for the head." Once you learn how to turn darkness to your advantage, either by driving it away with some light, or stepping into it to make weak spots visible, you've mastered what little technique there is to slaying the game's demons. You'll earn upgrades for your weapons as you progress, it doesn't really impact how you play, just what kind of boom your stick produces.
The game would be forgettable if Hell wasn't such an interesting place to visit. Depictions of the underworld are usually all fire and brimstone, screaming babies and body parts, and you'll find plenty of that here, but Shadows of the Damned goes beyond the obvious tropes to give us glimpses of demon culture. They like strawberries and go to pubs and enjoy reading really messed up bedtime stories. This insight isn't played for laughs or to make the demons sympathetic characters, but rather just to give the denizens of hell a kind of back story that they rarely receive. This hell wasn't just scary, it was interesting, and I looked forward to each new nugget of information that Johnson shared. Unfortunately, exploration is kept to a minimum, and the exciting newness of the vision begins to wear off after you've unlocked the umpteenth door by feeding a brain to a disembodied baby's head.
Shadows of the Damned also feels oddly disjointed. It lacks the typical progression of smaller enemies leading up to a larger boss, instead mixing up mini-bosses with regular demons in seemingly random fashion. Levels do end with enormous, bizarre bosses, but the way the game is assembled robs you of any sense of success once you've cleared an area. There's none of the relief you'd expect from fighting your way past a difficult adversary, because there might be another one right around the corner. Some players will enjoy being kept on their toes in such a fashion, but others will be left feeling strangely unsatisfied without quite knowing why.
Bottom Line: Shadows of the Damned's slick visuals and offbeat sensibility is worth checking out, despite its ordinary gameplay. Besides, ordinary doesn't mean bad. Beheading demons with a shotgun that fires skulls has a certain amount of appeal, after all. It's pretty brainless, but it's a weekend's worth of stuff to shoot, and sometimes that's all you really need.
Recommendation: If you don't mind a heaping helping of boner humor in your shooters, give it a whirl. If you want something more sophisticated or tactical, you'd best head down a different road.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Game: Shadows of the Damned
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture