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Shadows of the Damned: A trip worth taking

A venerable all-star team of Japanese developers has collaborated to bring us Shadows of the Damned. With talent that includes the minds behind Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and No More Heroes, the game certainly has a lot to live up to.

Grasshopper Manufacture/EA

A venerable all-star team of Japanese developers has collaborated to bring us Shadows of the Damned, one of the oddest games to hit home consoles in some time. With talent that includes the minds behind Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned certainly has a lot to live up to.

Playing a Goichi Suda (Suda 51) game is almost always guaranteed to induce some amount of head-scratching, but just like watching a David Lynch film, part of the fun is having your mind messed with.

What makes the "Grindhouse"-inspired Shadows of the Damned so great, though, is that while aesthetically it comes off as a madman's nightmare, it's also one of the better designed, well-rounded, and satisfying games we've played this year.

It's amazing to see what a bigger budget and support does for an ultra-ambitious developer like Grasshopper Manufacture. Shadows delivers in almost every category, from mind-blowing enemy design to vector-based throwback graphics. The surgically implemented sound design shines through the action, not to mention a remarkably diverse and stylistic score that rivals any Hollywood production. We even appreciate the loading screen's avatar and music for their uniqueness and homage to 2D world maps.

In terms of game play, Shadows controls well above average, save for a few frustrating aiming angles. That aside, there are tons of epic and memorable boss battles that take place with gigantic larger-than-life creatures, or even stranger oddities like a demon with a harmonica grafted into its mouth.

And while the game does come from Japanese developers, there is something special about its seamless westernization that does not feel forced in any way. The dialogue is totally believable; the characters are likeable; and the jokes are actually funny.

Grasshopper Manufacture/EA

Grasshopper Manufacture (the game's developer) has done it once again, with bits and pieces of the game's producers coming through. If you've played and enjoyed Resident Evil 4, you need to experience Shadows of the Damned.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that a mega-corporate entity like EA was willing to roll the dice on Shadows of the Damned, a game that would normally fall well outside the publisher's modus operandi.

We're delighted EA took the chance on Shadows, because even though it's kooky, it's still accessible enough to the mainstream gamer who would not normally be exposed to this type of unbridled creativity.

For an uncensored demo of Shadows of the Damned, be sure to check out this week's episode of preGame.

A big-budget EA "psychological action thriller" from some of the more creative minds in interactive entertainment? It sounds like exactly the kind of thing I'd go for, especially with the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez aesthetic promised by the game's promotional materials.

In the end, the final product actually ends up being an entertaining, very playable game--but one far different from that original pitch. It's not a psychological thriller so much as a straight-up linear action game, drenched in high camp, but filtered through Japanese conceptions of American pop culture--specifically grind-house movies.

One of the more interesting factoids we heard about Shadows of the Damned before its release was that its Latino protagonist was the first-ever in this genre of game (we assume that refers to this thin slice of so-called "survival horror" games, as Rico Rodriguez has been parasailing around the general action genre for a few years in the Just Cause games). That's especially interesting, as an academic journal a couple of years ago pegged representation of Hispanic characters in video games at a paltry 2.7 percent.

Grasshopper Manufacture/EA

We suppose wise-cracking, gun-toting hero Garcia Hotspur technically fits the bill, but he's actually much more representative of another character archetype, the Japanese video game hero (which makes sense, as the game's Japanese creative team also worked on games such as No More Heroes).

Hotspur is presented as a wildly over-the-top character there to take the player on a largely predetermined roller-coaster ride, whereas the largely blank slate characters of American games, from Modern Warfare to Dead Space (in the latter, the protagonist is literally faceless), are designed for the player to imprint themselves on. The end result is that you're effectively watching over the shoulder of someone vastly more interesting (and badass) than yourself, rather than being able to identify with the lead character as a kind of personal avatar (if you've ever wondered why so many action movie heroes are bland and uninteresting, that's why).

The end result is not a Robert Rodriguez grind-house movie, but a very specific Japanese transliteration of that style--violent, profane, full of adolescent sexual snickering--almost an Adult Swim take on action games. If you don't take it too seriously, Shadows of the Damned (isn't that about the most generic title ever?) can be a very cool cultural mash-up, worth playing just for its inventive demonic locations and creatures.

Grasshopper Manufacture/EA

Within the first 10 minutes of playing Shadows of the Damned, I was immediately thankful for its existence. Perhaps not as a spectacular game, but as a work of design, a singular vision: there are few true auteurs working in video games, but Goichi Suda ( aka Suda51, the executive director of this game and CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture), is one of them. Like his No More Heroes Wii games, Shadows of the Damned reels off like a demented genre tribute remixed and reinvented, paired expertly with music and inspired bits of oddness that walk the fine line of absurdity. An effete English-accented demon-gun companion with a wild love of blue gems is only a tiny taste of how weird Shadows of the Damned gets.

While the setting and style of the game are all-too-familiar--Resident Evil 4-meets-Castlevania-with-a-touch-of-Devil-May-Cry--it's the execution of Shadows of the Damned that makes a difference. It's inspired without being institutional. EA's decision to publish this game should be applauded. It may not be a huge hit, but it's full of the type of creativity that could help other genre games find new life.

Shadows of the Damned is available now on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.