Shadows of the Damned could have been groundbreaking

05 Nov 2017

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At the end of last year, I was thrown for a moment when a Let It Die press release arrived in my inbox. Selling itself as a free-to-play permadeath hell from Suda51, I had to stop and think for a moment.... the Suda51? The same Japanese designer who created some of the weirdest, perhaps most stylish mainstream games of the late 2000s? To be honest, I forgot all about him. After the controversy surrounding the sexualisation of the protagonist in Lollipop Chainsaw, I took a detour from his work. A quick look on Wikipedia then told me that his last mainstream release was 2013's Killer Is Dead, which is a long time between releases. What had Suda51 been up to? Had he matured as a designer? How the hell does a permadeath free-to-play game even work?

I was pleasantly surprised, and while I never made it terribly far in my streams of Let It Die, it reinvigorated my interest in this brash designer. So I decided that across the next year or two, I was going to make my way through his mainstream releases, the ones in English and on home consoles - that's right, skipping over the handheld releases here, as a look into one of the more interesting designers out there.

Shadows of the Damned would be my first game. Co-created with Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil 4, and more recently, The Evil Within, the king of cool and the king of survival horror teamed up to tell a tale of love, death, revenge and redemption. It misses the mark, more often than it hits, but when it does hit, Shadows of the Damned can be surprisingly poignant.

You play as Garcia Hotspur, a wisecracking Demonhunter from Mexico who is on a quest to save his girlfriend from the Lord of Demons. Together with a floating skull named Johnson, who acts as a guide and can transform into various weapons, you dive into the pits of hell, slay some demons, and make your way towards saving the girl.

Garcia is the first protagonist that I can remember playing, that was not an American. In fact, Garcia is the only Hispanic character outside of Overwatch that I remember having direct control of, let alone a starring role. I will never forget my good friend, and Pixels for Breakfast community member BroDuck commenting on how cool it was to have XX in Overwatch. It made me really think about that, how often do we play as other people from other races and cultures in our games? So in a way, Shadows of the Damned is a pioneer in my eyes, but it is quite a shame that it does little to put a good foot forward.

Garcia is largely a one dimensional character, and fills every "badass Mexican" stereotype I've seen on television (it's worth pointing out I live in Australia, and our Hispanic population is extremely low). He has a body full of tattoos, he drinks, he swears, he's quick to fly off the handle, and he's constantly mixing in Spanish slurs and food references into his insults. It's so annoying, because on one hand, here is this really cool, awesome thing that the game has - a Mexican lead in a time where diversity in games was certainly not high on the agenda, yet it does so in such a bullshit and quite frankly, disappointing way.

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The game has quite a lot of sexual innuendo, although it might as well just be explicit due to the complete lack of subtlety or intelligence. Johnson turns into a BIG HOT BONER during one sequence where you are slaying giant beasts, and at every shot, Garcia is screaming"GET A LOAD OF MY BIG HOT BONER". For most of the game, your girlfriend Paula's apparitions are scantly clad in lingerie, and on more than one occasion, Garcia becomes giddy talking about her body. There's even a sequence where you are running through a giant dreamscape of darkness, and you are forced to run along the curves of her "sensual body".

There's no denying it - Shadows of the Damned is not great when it comes to objectification of women. I'm sure there's a crowd out there that will shout "but it's Japan brah, you just don't get it". I'm once again standing my ground, saying that while I appreciate cultural differences, that is not an excuse. It makes me feel uncomfortable, the same way that Bayonetta makes me feel uncomfortable. That could just be a personal thing, but that's also why I don't watch a lot of anime. A lot of the content just makes me feel uncomfortable.

Yet, when Shadows of the Damned gets serious, I think it really does tell a story where love shines. Through thick and thin, Garcia chases after his love, and he feels remorse for the situation they find themselves in. His profession has placed Paula in this predicament. It feels less like the man saving the woman than Mario Odyssey does, and more like Garcia realises that his circumstances has caused this to happen, and he needs to make it right.

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There's a moment, right near the final sequence of the game, where Garcia finally saves Paula. They sit there, shrouded by the darkness, slowly dying together. It's a simple moment, and given the tone of the BIG HOT BONERS just a few hours before, comes off rather unexpected. It threw me for a minute, and got me thinking - there IS something here, underneath all of this prepubescent childish raving.

The gameplay does little to break the mold; if you imagine the controls of Resident Evil 4 tacked into a game that uses darkness in the same way that Alan Wake did, you are right near the target. The enemy design is interesting, and I can definitely see some of the inspiration leak into Mikami's The Evil Within, but what is truly interesting are the side scrolling SHMUP moments.

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Playing on the Day of the Dead paper mache` motif, the game introduces you to a string puppet style level where you are moving a puppet of Garcia from left to right, shooting the demons, collecting gems, until you make it to the end. It's charming and a welcome change of pace....the first time. As the game progresses, there are more and more of these popping up, and at one stage, it is used to revolve a boss fight with a major character that really has no impact. It started to make me feel like the production went awry somewhere, like the team was running out of cash.

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Which is another crazy thing, EA published this thing. EA put their name on a game that featured giant naked ladies, a BIG HOT BONER, and a swearing Mexican stereotype. Oh how times have changed.

Shadows of the Damned left me conflicted. It has style, and it had the opportunity to be something truly special. Unfortunately it's juvenile, almost a little offensive, but buried underneath that, there's something quite endearing about it. That is no way a defence of it - you will know if you want to go through this journey yourself after reading this article, I'm sure. An interesting creation from two of the biggest Japanese designers at the time, before the renaissance of Dark Souls. I'm not sure I could recommend it, but I'm not entirely sure I could condemn it either.

I'm playing through all of the Suda51 catalogue. The next game on my playlist with be Killer7 on the Gamecube.