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.
Mikami's contribution is clearly the gunplay, which is tight and satisfying, bearing the hallmarks of his work. It lifts Resident Evil 4's over-the-shoulder viewpoint with a lock-to-aim trigger squeeze. But there are no pondering animations here to slow the pace, and it's a simple button-press to snap into a 180-degree turn while aiming down the barrel of your weapon.
However, while character control is comparably tight, Shadows of the Damned is a far looser and ropier experience than Resident Evil 4 when it comes to the fights themselves. Decapitating an enemy with a headshot is accompanied by a lingering slow-motion camera, but these skittish enemies are far less satisfying to extinguish than Los Ganados, and the giant, glowing red weak spots on each and every boss lack the elegance of Mikami's more solemn output.
Each gun can deploy a 'light shot' as well as standard fire, a type of ammunition that will momentarily freeze enemies as well as dispelling darkness if used to light up one of the goat-head street lamps. Darkness damages Hotspur, so is used to construct a series of puzzles, many of which must be solved while battling enemies. The satisfying rhythm of upgrading weaponry (improving power, reload times and capacity) is heightened by more substantial visual upgrades that occur when you defeat key bosses and, by the end of the game, you are starting to feel like the badass Hotspur so readily professes to be.
But the graceless enemy animations and their repetitious designs are among the things holding this game back from being the triumph it could have been. Likewise, the lock-and-key puzzles soon lose their freshness, especially as the stream of new mechanics and ideas slows to a trickle in the second half of the game. There are only so many times you can hunt out a strawberry to feed to a lock, or laboriously shoot and explode sticky bombs around the edges of a fractured wall in order to progress.
Although the game's components fail to inspire in isolation, together they provide a breezy, enjoyable ride. There's just enough variety on offer to keep you driving forward, and the snack-sized chapters make the game difficult to put down. As with all of Suda's games, the wilful absurdity sometimes reeks of trying too hard - while the use of various types of hard liquor as health items is plainly trying too hard - but there's just enough gold amongst the chaff to make the farce believable, and ensure the game can appeal to a wider audience than tittering schoolboys.
For example, there's Christopher, a hulking demon with two rows of razor teeth and a camp redneck accent, from whom you can purchase ammo or weapon upgrade crystals. Or there are the firework stations into which you thrust your Johnson torch in order to light up the sky and ward off the sapping darkness. There are the yakety-sax sections where you're chased at high speed by a zombified version of the girl you're trying to save. And there's the pot-bellied demon boss that incessantly screams 'f***********k yoooooou' as a battle cry before turning into a giant eagle and shooting feather daggers at you.
These ideas are one-offs. They haven't been plundered from a rival series, and they won't be making an appearance in any other EA titles scheduled this year. Uniqueness alone isn't cause for celebration - but when combined with competence and the odd flash of inspiration, it can make up for other shortfalls.
Shadows of the Damned lacks the polish of Mikami's Capcom work, showing a rough edge that its creators no doubt hope communicates their punk attitude to game development, but really just comes across as a bit shoddy. But at a time when few publishers of EA's stature are willing to take genuine risks, its uniqueness is welcome and interesting. And as a celebration of the puerile, it leaves Duke Nukem Forever standing, staring longingly at its tit bridge.
7 / 10