The main character of Shadows of the Damned, Garcia Hotspur, was 2011’s definition of cool. This was the peak period of Sons of Anarchy, with Kings of Leon and Arctic Monkeys still ripping it up. Garcia had an amazing name, a leather jacket, a motorcycle, tattoos, and he was kicking down the door to Hell to get his girl back. It’s no coincidence that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance also came out in 2011, as Johnny Blaze and Garcia could have been twins. Sure, wind forward ten years and our idea of cool has wandered off somewhere else entirely, but Garcia Hotspur could have been the poster-boy for 2010’s machismo.
Then there was the sexual innuendo. Well, we say innuendo, but it was waggled about the face so much that it probably just classified as crude. “Your bullets have no… penetration”, says the main bad guy, Fleming. Then there was Garcia’s demon-skull sidekick, Johnson. You got to ride him as a motorcycle (“hur hur, riding Johnson”), use him as a torch, or – most commonly – manhandle him as a gun. Shadows of the Damned managed to hide the fact that it had only three, relatively generic weapons by giving them names like ‘Hotboner’.
Never before have so many intelligent, capable people made something so juvenile. You expect it from Suda51, the executive director behind No More Heroes, who would go on to make Deadly Premonition. But you might not have expected it from Shinji Mikami, forefather of Resident Evil, who would act as creative director on Shadows of the Damned. Eyebrows are also raised at sound director Akira Yamaoka, who famously twanged our nerves with the Silent Hill soundtrack, but produces about thirty different genres of music across this one soundtrack.
They came together to produce a game that wears its rude, crude and stupid heart on its sleeve. Take the critical character called One-Eyed William, for example, who wasn’t included because Suda liked The Goonies. You replenished health by drinking absinthe and hot sake (available from vending machines in Hell, of course). Minigames peppered the campaign, with you playing through sections as a 2D side-scrolling shooter.
You suspect that Shadows of the Damned wouldn’t pass a greenlight nowadays, for a whole multitude of reasons. It’s too quirky an IP to kickstart a franchise, and you suspect big studios would sniff at the prospect of betting on it. It doesn’t feel focus-tested into oblivion, with its angler-fishes, goat-doors and screaming baby heads.
But most of all – and this is coming from someone who loves Shadows of the Damned from the pits of their heart – it’s got a deeply ugly side. It plays its damsel-in-distress plot far too straight, with you chasing through Hell to find your partner, Paula. While she gets a last-minute redemption and an alternate identity in the form of the Unbreakable Huntress, there’s no attempt at giving her a character. She’s the football that you and Fleming, the main baddie, are kicking to each other – it’s just that this football is dressed in lingerie. Plus she’s tortured repeatedly for the glee of Fleming, who reduces her to a torso and a head, with all the jokes you’d expect. Once Fleming pushed a quadriplegic Paula into his coat with a soft moan, we couldn’t help but physically shudder.
Yeah, Shadows of the Damned wouldn’t be made nowadays. But there is a lot that’s sad about that statement. By all accounts it went through development hell, as studios tried to contort it into western-friendly shapes, but it doesn’t really show in the final product. This is still deeply weird, and very, very Suda51.
There are the characters you come across, who have an awesome contrast between the way they look and the way they sound. Christopher, a terrifying goat-demon thing who acts as the in-game shop, is a hulking monstrosity who talks in a soft cockney accent. “Heidi ho!” is his greeting whenever you’re near. We love how enemies pop into a shower of gems and crystals, like you’re playing a match-3. It completely undermines the Dante’s Inferno visuals, where everything is horrid and grim-dark, but you sense it’s someone having fun.
Playing it now, Shadows of the Damned hasn’t aged superbly well. It’s clearly riding the 2005 Resident Evil 4 wave (that’ll be the Shinji Mikami influence), where every game was a slightly leaden over-the-shoulder action game. You can get stuck in corners with demons scraping at your face, and you won’t be able to see a damn thing. Garcia’s not particularly speedy, and you’ll trudge through areas that need to be run through. Graphically it’s a bit rough, too, as the characters all have that wide-eyed, sex-doll look, which – we suppose – is what they were going for.
But even playing it now, the ideas ooze out of your Xbox. Shadows of the Damned plays with a concept called the Darkness, where you’re occasionally dropped into a blackened alternate reality where enemies are harder and you are dealt damage over time. You don’t want to spend long in this reality, so puzzles emerge. You’re using your light bullets to shoot goat-gargoyles, which tear down the Darkness, but spotting and finding them becomes a challenge. You might have temporary safe havens, like the angler fish we mentioned, that you have to follow. And bosses – so many bosses – play with the Darkness, making you panic as your health gets chipped away.
In general, the bosses in Shadows of the Damned are crowd-pleasers. They’re giant goats (you don’t go lacking for caprines), fountains with human heads, Frankensteins who charge around open-air markets and more, and they’re all memorable. Kill them and they shower you with gems, which means the opportunity to grapple with the upgrade system, which is also fab. The guns, while just being a vanilla pistol, shotgun and automatic rifle – get taken in some fantastical directions.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Shadows of the Damned made a pittance. Only 24,000 units were sold in the first week, and that was across both PS3 and Xbox 360. There had to be a reason that this kind of sub-AAA game doesn’t get made any more. But it’s so bloated with ideas, so willing to go against the cultural grain, that it’s a shame there aren’t more like it.
Sometimes, when you get tired of the umpteenth AK47 or rocket launcher in a game, you just want to handle a Hotboner.
Have any memories of Shadows of the Damned that are safe for work? Did you share a little bit of love for this flawed masterpiece? Let us know in the comments section. And if you haven’t already played Shadows of the Damned, you may well now struggle. It was digitally delisted from the Xbox Store back in Feb 2021 so your best bet now would be a physical copy from the likes of Amazon so you can play it via Backwards Compatibility on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S.