Shadows of the Damned is comfortably among the most ridiculous games I have ever played (and I have played, amongst much else, a kissing simulator in which you had to work your way up from kissing gimps in sewers).
There are more dick jokes in the first hour than in anything else except possibly Bulletstorm. The main character, Garcia Hotspur (or Garcia f***ing Hotspur, as he continually refers to himself), has an off-key Mexican accent and all the tattoos in the world. His companion, Johnson, is a flaming skull with an English accent – and he's also several different guns and a motorbike to boot. It's Suda 51's love letter to the worst of Western B-movie horror, and it avoids being hateful in its gratuity because it's so refreshingly unselfconscious.
The weirdest thing about Shadows of the Damned is seeing Suda 51's unhinged influence stamped so clearly upon a game that isn't a bit broken. It plays like a faster-paced Resident Evil 4, except instead of placing crystals to open doors you're shoving a giant strawberry into the mouth of a chuckling baby-faced doorknob, and passages are blocked by demon pubes instead of tangled vines. If you've ever played any of Suda's other attempts at horror, particularly Michigan: Report From Hell, you'll recognise his quirky, OTT style, but it's never been seen in a game so polished. I'd always wondered what would happen if you gave Grasshopper Manufacture an infinite budget.
Shadows of the Damned opens with the abduction of Hotspur's girlfriend, Paula, by a six-eyed demon lord called Fleming. After a brief argument about whose penis is bigger, Fleming tucks Paula into his stomach before leaping backwards out of a window and into a portal to the underworld. Garcia follows, grabbing a bitchin' leather jacket on the way, and the game proper begins as he screams down the highway to Hell on a skull-adorned motorbike.
Shadows likes to refer to itself as a road movie ("Let's start this road movie with some road... KILL" screams Garcia, upon opening the gates to Hell), and it's definitely got that vibe. The banter between Johnson and Hotspur defines the game more than the actual meat of the gameplay. It's certainly got enough terrible puns ("He sounds like a real dic...TATOR", says Garcia of Fleming at the off). I'm still not sure whether Shadows of the Damned's dialogue is good or completely terrible; it walks that line.
Hell itself is a pretty f***ed-up place. It's full of rivers of blood, disembodied hands that spew darkness, vaguely Gothic twisted architecture and legions of creatively designed demons to be dispatched with Garcia's guns. Johnson transforms into different weapons with the touch of a button, beginning with the Boner, a powerful pistol. When you defeat a particularly horrendous boss, you'll usually unlock a new form for Johnson, the second being a machine gun.
Demons hate light, so the first thing to do upon finding yourself surrounded by demons is find a disembodied goat head on the wall, which can be shot with the Boner to get rid of the darkness (naturally). Some demons come coated in infectious black-blue dark gunk, and must be cleansed with a light shot before they can be dismissed with regular bullets. The pace is relentless, sending you ricocheting from combat scene to combat scene – in the first two acts of the game, there's no downtime whatsoever.
Fighting is impressively slick, and a lot less clunky than its third-person inspiration. There's a quick-turn available, but you don't have to use it often as Garcia's turning speed isn't as glacial as Chris Redfield's. Generous aim assist makes it pretty easy to hit the mark, but the sheer numbers of the damned, as well as their aggression, keeps the challenge high. Often, you're dodging and dashing around trying to avoid them in search of a goat-head or light source rather than being backed into a corner trying to mow them all down.
The music is completely bizarre, flitting between mouth-organ solos, jazz, metal, creepy swing and twangy country riffs in wildly unpredictable patterns. In combination with the game's nauseatingly weird cut-scenes, it's enough to make you feel a bit wrong in the head. At one juncture, Garcia finds the disembodied head of what appears to be Paula, before it reattaches itself to its lingerie-adorned body. A massive cleaver-wielding demon then explodes from within her, before picking up her individual limbs and snacking on her bisected lower half. "Well, that killed my stiffy," comments Johnson. I think it killed a little bit of my sanity.
Shadows of the Damned is pretty successful at being disturbing, but I'm not sure it's as successful at being funny. It does manage to avoid coming across as try-hard, somehow, which is more than can be said for most games' unwise attempts at comedy. It can also be genuinely scary at times – there's a boss fight in the middle of the second act against the aforementioned meat cleaver demon in a series of narrow corridors that bears an extremely strong resemblance to a boss fight in Resident Evil 5, but it's tense and frightening nonetheless.
Possibly the most appealing thing so far about Shadows of the Damned is that it doesn't even pretend to make sense. It doesn't even try to. But it's so full on that there's a distinct danger it'll all be too much by the time you're into the third act. It helps that it's so slick, which means that it's enjoyable for reasons beyond its messed-up script and setting.
It reads like a Suda game and plays like a Mikami one, which for some of Grasshopper's fans will be a mild disappointment – it's the slightly broken nature of Grasshopper's games that makes some of the studio's weirdest output so compelling. This, meanwhile, is an action game with a budget and one of the genre's most famous minds behind it. If Shadows of the Damned is as subversive as some of Suda 51's other work, though, there could be a lot more under the surface of this punk-horror road-trip than it first appears.