Sometimes, I like to imagine what it'd be like if Suda51, the CEO and head-tripping head developer at Grasshopper Manufacture Studios, were ever given the chance to design a real-life amusement park or haunted house. There'd be blood, of course. Probably some inanimate objects talking. And there'd be lots of lucha masks.
Suda51 has already bent our video-game brains and snapped our funny bones with Killer7 and the No More Heroes series (on the Gamecube and Wii, respectively), but his studio's latest efforts tops them all, both in terms of tightly crafted design and sheer what the hell? moments. Meshing David Lynch and Robert Rodriguez vibes, Shadows of the Damned is at once juvenile and mature, a profane and bullet-riddled road trip into a blood-soaked abyss.
Body-tatted demon hunter Garcia Hotspur has a little problem. He's become so good at his job that the forces of evil, led by a triple-headed, trenchcoat-wearing beast named Fleming, have decided to hit him where it hurts: They've kidnapped his girlfriend, Paula, and literally dragged her to hell.
With a wisecracking, flaming skull named Johnson providing running comedy (and backup torch and firepower ability), Hotspur sets off to save her. And what a bizarre place this underworld proves to be -- part Victorian London, part 1930s America, part piles of gore and weirdness. This is a game in which the hero's main gun is called "The Boner." A game in which sushi lamps point the way to safety and winged eyeballs mark your save points. A game in which gates between areas are guarded by demons with the squalling faces of infants. To unlock them and proceed, Hotspur must collect strawberries (!), brains and eyeballs and jam them into the baby-demon's maw.
Underpinning all this goofball chaos is a deviously clever game mechanic that plays around with the concepts of light and darkness. In the underworld, pure darkness is toxic to Hotspur's health. At various points, he'll have to zing a special shot off a faraway lamp (shaped like a animated goat's head, naturally) to shed some golden light on a dire situation -- often while battling off five or six different types of demons who'd like to tear out his tattooed throat. At other points, he'll have to enter and use the darkness to wound demons that are vulnerable to it. The fact that the demons, like annoying 5-year-olds, eventually figure out how to flip the switch back and forth, just adds to the challenge.
And we haven't even touched on the awesome boss battles, each of which challenges you to frantically race through the trial-and-error arsenal of your attacks before you find a weakness and a way to survive. It's be an easier venture if the controls were a tad tighter -- auto-aiming is a nagging issue, and the game camera often decides to join the demon forces in bedeviling you -- but the tech shortcomings don't spoil the proceedings.
If there's an award for Most Bizarre Game at the end of the year, Shadows of the Damned has an early lock on it.