Shadows of the Damned would be the single best downloadable game this year, but unfortunately, it's a retail disc. That, more than anything else, is an objective problem with the game; it's easy, short, has virtually nothing in the way of a post-game or unlockables, and mostly rides on shock value, so a second playthrough has a fraction of the entertainment value of the first. If I'd pulled it off of XBLA for ten bucks, I'd rant and rave to all who'd listen. For a sixty-dollar retail disc, it's just not worth the price of admission.
This is a shame, because Shadows of the Damned is the video game equivalent of one of those all-star supergroup albums, the kind of thing with eight hundred names on the cover which was recorded to help the victims of some natural disaster. Shadows's scenario and design is by Suda 51, the mental patient behind Killer 7 and No More Heroes; the gameplay is by Shinji Mikami, who worked on Resident Evil 4 and Vanquish; and the music and sound are by Akira Yamaoka, who is probably the single largest reason why you've ever heard of the Silent Hill series at all. Without even looking at it or knowing anything about it, you can probably guess that this game has great music, plays remarkably well, and is crazier than a soup sandwich. For the most part, this is all true.
Shadows is Suda 51's love letter to Robert Rodriguez, starring Garcia Hotspur, a Mexican demon hunter who single-handedly invades Hell to rescue his girlfriend. He's accompanied by his buddy Johnson, a talking skull and former demon who transforms into all of Garcia's various firearms, and who serves as Garcia's tour guide through the underworld.
That description is succinct but incredibly insufficient, because Shadows of the Damned does not even have a nodding familiarity with sense. It's not like, say, Alice or something, to cite another recent release, where the entire thing is some kind of rich stew of symbolism and dream logic. It's just batsh--t loco. Goat heads generate light, hard liquor's a healing item, your checkpoint system involves startling a floating demon with poor voluntary bowel control, teeth are used as bullets, light is dangerously volatile, your starting pistol begins as the Boner and gets upgraded later to the "Hot Boner"... I'm not even going to try to encapsulate this game for you. Shadows of the Damned just keeps riding the crazy train as fast as it can and never stops. It's ridiculously profane, often childish, and actually pretty funny as long as you have a high tolerance for dick jokes, toilet humor, black comedy, and severe mood whiplash.
Shadows plays like an unofficial sequel to Resident Evil 4, featuring that game's over-the-shoulder camera and the same emphasis on rapid, precise shooting. You only have three guns, but each has multiple functions and access to a stunning "light shot" that temporarily freezes demons in place, so it doesn't feel limited. Unlike RE4, you can move with your gun readied and you have a quick evasion roll, which goes a long way to make it feel less like you're playing as some kind of defense turret.
If you played RE4, you'll instantly be on familiar ground with Shadows of the Damned, which takes that game's controls to the next logical step. It's easy to pick up, relatively intuitive, and fades into the background very quickly. If there's one bad thing about it, it's that Shadows, much like Dead Space 2, frequently requires you to quickly shoot small vulnerable spots on an enemy in order to do any damage at all, which isn't easy to do with a controller.
There are often workarounds if you experiment a bit, like blowing off all a demon's weak spots at once with the Hot Boner (and writing sentences like that are what keep me reviewing video games), and any fight you have to get into comes with respawning ammunition nearby, but setting up an imprecise control method and then requiring precision is pretty much the game-developer-specific definition of "dick move." Fortunately, Shadows isn't a particularly difficult game; it tosses health and ammunition at you by the bucketload and most of the enemies' weak spots are easy enough to figure out, so most people should blow through normal difficulty with relative ease.
The other big problem with Shadows is that, like a lot of games, it sets up a couple of special stages just to break the flow and introduce something new. There are three or four different levels that involve a chase scene, where getting caught by your pursuer is a one-hit kill, and Act 4 is broken up by three 2D side-scrolling shooter levels. In each case, it's a cute diversion the first time it happens, and by the third time, it's annoying.
The first three acts of Shadows of the Damned are the smooth, playable Resident Evil 5 we didn't get, and on that level, it's a huge success. Act 4 screws up by abruptly introducing a couple of different kinds of gameplay that don't have to be there, and then Act 5 tosses in a bunch of odd puzzles, a maze, and a final boss that isn't difficult so much as time-consuming and obnoxious. For the first six hours, I couldn't put the game down; for the last three, I couldn't wait for it to be over.
When it was over, it was done. There are a couple of gags in the credits to keep you watching, but after that, there's nothing. You can't go back through the game with your upgrades intact; there are no extra weapons or bizarre new gameplay modes; there are no minigames or collectibles. There isn't even that laziest of all possible unlocks, the gallery of concept art.
There is absolutely nothing to keep Shadows of the Damned in your system except for achievements; it's made to be played once, then fondly remembered, like the action movies it's based upon. It's still very much worth checking out, but it's impossible to give an unqualified recommendation.