There is a poignant, almost beautiful moment in Grasshopper Manufacture’s Shadows of the Damned. Demon hunter Garcia Hotspur happens across a giant storybook; a fable of an upcoming boss’s human existence. Garcia, fresh from splattering buckets of demon blood across the soil outside, reads it aloud, soft-spoken and almost cautious. He struggles to pronounce larger words like “meandered” and “triumphant,” taking time to sound them out. On the next page he is utterly amused with words like “snort,” chuckling to himself and repeating the word again under his breath to see if it has the same comedic value.
Here is a man who has seen his girlfriend ripped away from him by the underworld, and forced to watch as she is tortured and dies a dozen brutal deaths. A man certainly enraged by the events that have unfolded in front of him; yet the developers take a rare moment to show us his softer, more vulnerable side in a stroke of very skilful storytelling.
It’s too bad, then, that the above moment is bookended and spoiled by an onslaught of dick jokes.
Shinji Mikami and Suda 51 are the creative forces behind Shadows of the Damned, and both boast impressive portfolios. Mikami created Resident Evil and went on to contribute to Capcom classics like Viewtiful Joe and Devil May Cry, before turning his full attention to the groundbreaking Resident Evil 4 and later, Vanquish. Goichi Suda (better known as Suda 51) is responsible for Killer7, No More Heroes, and a wealth of other quirky, imaginative games. The undertaker-turned-game developer has a penchant for dark, twisted punk-rock visuals.
These two developers have earned the right for their output to be taken seriously, perhaps even with giddy enthusiasm. So I entered into my Shadows of the Damned playthrough with optimism, hoping that the overtly sexual (and immature) humor in trailers leading up to the release would be the reserved exception and not the beat-it-to-death norm.
That optimism quickly dissipated as my in-game companion Johnson – a much stupider, hornier version of Portal 2’s Wheatley – used any opportunity possible to talk about his imaginary penis, or about Garcia taking hold of it. See, Johnson is a skull-on-a-stick who transforms into Garcia’s weapons; weapons like “The Teether” and “The Big Boner.” He and demon hunter Garcia Hotspur engage in banter fitting for a junior high school playground, and about as tired. These are dick jokes and sexual humor that you grew weary of by the 2nd season of Two and a half Men; penis references from the days of Animal House and Beavis and Butthead.
Clashing quite abrasively against this ceaseless immaturity is an underworld replete with bizarre creations; goat-heads crunching nonchalantly on food as they illuminate the darkness, baby gatekeepers which demand strawberries and eyeballs, laughing joyously when they’re fed. Picture Jim Henson’s Labyrinth bred with Grindhouse-style horror. The world is populated by ghastly adversaries who put most survival-horror enemies to shame; particularly the frequent boss battles headlined by twisted and emotive characters that are a spectacle to behold and to battle.
All told, this should equal a compelling gameplay experience with its wholly original, twisted visuals, dark storyline and heartfelt touches of narrative brilliance. Of course, then there’s the “Big Boner” level, in which Johnson calls a telephone number specializing in pornographic voice chat in order to, ahem, enlarge himself to fight some especially oversized, nefarious robotic-like enemies. Garcia grasps the newly-formed “Big Boner” shotgun and yells at the top of his lungs “Taste my big boner!” at least 25 times during the sequence. I actually felt a tinge of embarrassment, turning my surround system down for fear of the neighbors overhearing.
This is not the kind of content that demands serious attention, and thus won’t get it from us. It’s a Z-movie of the worst order. It’s inspiration gone horribly wrong, marred by consistently cheesy, decades-old dick jokes which, frankly, will lead you to wonder about the developer’s fascination with all things phallic. Grasshopper Manufacture tease us with their creative potential, and then sully their name with a grossly immature, toilet-humor-laden misstep which pervades the entire experience.
Combined with sound glitches and game-breaking bugs such as levels (like “Suburban Nightmares” in Act 4) which fail to load enemies and plot-progressing triggers, leaving only a barren environment to stumble around in, Shadows of the Damned is intended for only the most diehard fans of Mikami and Suda 51. Even then, those fans have been done a huge disservice.
Our suggestion: Skip Shadows of the Damned and track down the game’s masterful soundtrack, composed by the brilliant Akira Yamaoka.