Preview: Shadows of the Damned
I can’t play horror games in the dark.
This is not an easy admission, particularly when you’ve run a Silent Hill fansite for a decade, but it’s true. I used to be able to play Silent Hill 2 at the dead of night, in an empty house and with my headphones cranked up high. These days I’m lucky if I can play it in the sunshine. Behind a cushion. With half a bottle of JD inside me to deaden my nerves.
Yeah. I know. You don’t need to tell me that I am the very definition of hardcore.
But a preview event’s safe, right? There’s a lot of people, for starters. Lots of screens and controllers and usually a low bubble of conversation in the background. So even though the thought of playing Shadows of the Damned in public is enough to bring me out into a cold sweat, I’m feeling breezy as I trot to the venue in London’s West End. I previewed Dead Space 2 in an effing crypt, for Christ’s sake. Yes, I’m going to play the lovechild of some of horror’s most prolific fathers, but this time I’m going to do it in a nightclub in the middle of the day. How bad can it be? I’m a professional, dammit. I am –
– Christ. Why is it so bloody dark in here?
Swallowing my fear – and before I can chicken out – I slip into a booth and run Shadows of the Damned through its paces … before it can run me out of the room.
There’s a charming self-awareness about Shadows of the Damned. Yes, it’s rammed with glistening carcasses, rotting bodies, fountains of blood and grotesque enemies, but there’s no denying that this game is every bit amusing as it is horrific (even if I’ll never again look at a strawberry in quite the same way). The story? It’s fairly generic. SotD follows protagonist Garcia Hotspur, a well-built but bad-humoured badass tasked in clawing his hot blonde girlfriend back from the depths of the Underworld. How’d she get there? You’ll have to play to find out. But from the moment you step into Hotspur’s ridiculously fancy loft apartment you’ll find yourself on the defensive, forced to mow down line after line of nightmarish foes. Pro tip: let them get a little bit too close to you. Nah, this isn’t a combat tip – I only say this to ensure you get a close up. Trust me, they’re worth it!
Wandering the Underworld is a little like watching a period drama set in eighteenth century London – lots of cobbled streets, wooden carts and barrels, ramshackled terraced houses and the occasional swinging body – but it’s the game’s peculiar motifs that really snag your attention. The, er, interesting lock facades, the, um, different save device, the wisecracking – if shape-shifting – sidekick … whilst all gaming staples, Grasshopper Manufacturer have twisted these conventions enough to bring a slight but undeniable veil of unusuality. Yeah, I just made that word up – but it’s no worse than what GM have made up and implemented in this title. Pinkie promise.
Is it frightening? I guess it depends upon your baseline. Having cultivated my love of horror on a careful diet of Silent Hill and Resident Evil, I would have to admit that no, SotD isn’t as frightening as some titles nestling in Suda’s, Mikami’s and Yamaoka’s individual back catalogues. That said, despite the echoes of games-gone-past in the stapled corpses and glistening flesh, I’m not sure that it’s trying to be; the horror of our protagonist’s environs is surely deliberately tempered by the crisp, witty and occasionally misogynistic script, and for every creepsome moment there comes an accompanying dirty joke or snide one-liner. During my playthrough there were no cheap scares, but rather a gentle descent into the unimaginable and unfathomable – with the occasional blunt and graphic nasty thrown in for good measure.
As you might expect – or, in my case, demand – from Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka, the score and accompanying sound effects are both gorgeous and grim in equal and perfect measures. Complemented by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn – best known for her vocal work on Yamaoka’s Silent Hill soundtracks – there’s more than a hint at Yamaoka’s past, and on more than one occasion you could close your eyes and, going on the sound and music alone, think you’re back in that foggy town. Were we expecting something different for this new IP? Possibly. That doesn’t make the score any less impressive, though.
Left wanting more? Yeah, me too. But as much as I’d love to pool it all here, I think I’d be doing you a disservice by revealing too much. Provided you’re equipped with a strong stomach – and an even stronger appreciation of locker room humour and the occasional penis joke – I think you’re going to love this.
Shadows of the Damned is due for release later this month on the PS3 and Xbox 360.