Version tested: Xbox 360
There are many different examples of Shadows of the Damned repainting routine game mechanics with its lewd, puerile brand of creativity. There's the portal positioned over a call-girl's eager crotch on a billboard that must be climbed into to progress to the next area. Or the sex line you call in order to have your pistol, dubbed the "boner", upgraded to a "big boner" by having a girl talk dirty to it. Then, of course, there's the bridge of tits. It's a bridge that is made out of tits.
But perhaps nothing better exemplifies Shadows of the Damned's ability to make vulgar absurdity somehow relevant than than the person of William, a one-eyed levitating fish-bat who is so alarmed every time you enter his vicinity that he drops a flaming turd before tearing off down the street. It's a one-note scatological gag - but it's one with a higher purpose. The trail of smoking dung serves to show you the areas you've already explored, creating a stinking, gleaming light trail behind you.
Flammable excrement is the first of a great many childish, yet somehow endearing jokes that litter this EA-published collaboration between No More Heroes' Goichi Suda, AKA Suda51, and Resident Evil 4's Shinji Mikami. The story itself is a dark twist on convention, playing on gaming's proto-plot: rescue the girl from the kidnapper's castle. (Called Paula, she almost shares a name with Donkey Kong's proto-damsel, Pauline.)
But as you might expect from Suda, the mind that brought us Killer7, the girl - a leggy, heroin-chic-thin lady who wears frayed lingerie - is no princess, while the hero, who calls himself Garcia F**king Hotspur, is no squat plumber. Shadows of the Damned's reddish hell-world shares no likeness with the pea-green hills of the Mushroom Kingdom; for one thing, it's partially made of tits. But while the details may be different, the structure is familiar: boss fight follows exploration follows boss fight.
Still, the devil is in the detail, and it's here that Shadows of the Damned strikes originality. The horrors of hell are approached with a gurning smile. There are grotesque cherubim that serve as locks on doors, which must be fed fruit or brains before they'll open; there are lumbering bipedal monsters that wear crimson red gas masks as headshot protectors, and minotaur demons that pepper their death speeches with poor puns.
Shadow of the Damned doesn't hold back when it comes to conjuring Dante-esque dioramas of the grotesque, with entrails spilling from doorways and monsters that make their stage appearance by bursting through the translucent skin of a woman. But the dreadfulness is softened in every scene with a clutch of knob gags, or freaks that speak with plum English accents. It's as if Bayonetta had been produced by Terry Gilliam, the effect being that the horror is robbed of shock and transformed into black comedy.
Much of this humour stems from the protagonist, Hotspur - a character who's one part No More Heroes' Travis Touchdown, two parts Speedy Gonzalez - and his side-kick Johnson, a miniature talking skull who can transform into a motorbike, pistol, shotgun, machine gun or flaming torch at the squeeze of a button. The pair jostle their way through hell, wise-cracking to one another with a stream of jokes that miss more often than they hit.
From time to time, the dialogue slips from near-knuckle innuendo to weird unpleasantness (one Johnson soliloquy about how a certain strip club's girls used to give him the best fellatio until he boned them all in the eye sockets sticks, er, in the mind). But nonetheless, Suda51's idiosyncratic dialogue still manages to set the journey apart from the flock of third-person shooters that litter the contemporary video game landscape, and as such is always interesting, even when it's not very good.