These days it’s tough for a new video game to stick out either because of the bigger games taking up the spotlight or because people just aren’t interested in new IPs at times. This generation we’ve been lucky enough to see some exceptional IPs launch (Gears of War, Uncharted) but even some of those games have been rather standard in terms of what they offer to the player. Despite being a new IP, Grasshopper Manufacture’s new 3rd person action game Shadows of the Damned has a good chance of sticking out amongst the crowd. Not only does Shadows of the Damned have the creative talent of GhM to help make the project stick out amongst the sea of tired and cliché action games, but it also has the talent of Suda 51, Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamoka behind it.
With an amazing trio of talent and a style that follows the Grasshopper Manufacture tradition of not adhering to the norm, Shadows of the Damned is shaping up to be a fun Summer romp. I was lucky enough to chat with Grasshopper Manufacture Community Manager John Davis to discuss the hellish and action packed experience that Shadows of the Damned offers.
Ian Fisher: Sadly not everyone is a Grasshopper Manufacture uber fan like I am so they may be a bit in the dark as far as the history and evolution ofShadows of the Damned is concerned. Can you give us a brief overview on the development of the project and has the project always roughly been centered around the same themes and characters or did it in fact truly spawn or at least germinate from the ideas conceived for Kurayami?
John Davis: Everyone’s not a GhM fan? We’ve gotta change that! (laugh). Well, this game has a storied history, and I apologize because I’ve only been around for part of this journey. As Suda and Mikami have mentioned in numerous interviews, they came up with the idea for horror game with a light and dark game mechanic a few years ago. Hence the name Kurayami 暗闇, which means darkness in Japanese. Suda also wanted to incorporate some Kafka-esque elements, like the European city and the castle off in the distance. From there the game went through several revisions based on feedback from our team and EA. I think Suda rewrote the scenario five times!
Ian: Grasshopper’s previous projects have all featured some unique gameplay and visuals which really managed to create a game that was wholly original and enjoyable. Part of GhM’s success with its titles has been due to founder Suda 51 being inspired by a multitude of things which directly carried over in games like Killer 7 or No More Heroes. What have been some of the key sources of inspirations (whether its other games or films) for the GhM staff when it came to developing Shadows of the Damned?
John: Well, from the jump we knew to make a game with horror elements, but it took a little time for us to hone the vision. There are a lot of fans of 70s-80s b-horror movies, like Evil Dead, at GhM. As the concept art and the scenario started to come together, we decided that would be the foundation for Damned. Suda is a big fan of Robert Rodriquezand Jim Jarmusch, and their films inspired the project, also.
Ian: Narratively, what sort of tone does Shadows of the Damned have? The game deals with a somewhat heavy and relatable aspect of a hero trying to rescue his one true love, but is the game going to be very dramatic outside of a few wise cracks between Garcia and his ally Johnson or will it have a somewhat tongue-in-cheek vibe to it, similar to No More Heroes?
John: Fans of our games will know that they contain a bit of both elements. Shadows of the Damned definitely has a dramatic flair – everything Garcia does is done with intensity and passion. Unlike Travis, who constantly broke the fourth wall and winked at the player, Garcia is a man who’s seen his world, Paula, ripped away from him. It’s not a video game to him, it’s his life.
I think this is the most ‘mature’ story we’ve had in a game. I use air quotes for mature, because it’s a little difficult for some people to take a game with innuendo out the wahzoo seriously. But Damned has story elements – love, sacrifice, betrayal – that I think many people are going to be able to relate to.
Ian: You may not be able to disclose any information about this but seeing as how it’s one aspect that a lot of GhM fans are fond of I have to at least ask. At this point can you reveal any of the North American voice actors set to appear in SOTD? Can hardcore fans of GhM games perhaps expect a few familiar actors from past games like No More Heroes to make an appearance to portray some of the unique characters in SOTD?
John: We’ve got a great cast for Shadows of the Damned, though only one of our main cast has worked with GhM before. Steve Blum, who’s almost a living legend in VO for games and animation, voiced Dark Star in the original No More Heroes and is Garcia in Damned. Supporting Blum is an excellent cast with Julianne Buescher as Paula, Paul Mercier as Flemming, and Greg Ellis as Johnson.
Ian: When Shadows of the Damned was first unveiled last year at the Tokyo Game Show there was some worry that the GhM was perhaps playing it safe in the design department as things didn’t seem incredibly outlandish. But overtime we’ve seen some really wicked designs out of the screens and trailers that have been released so far which definitely have that GhM vibe to them. What has been the one thing that GhM has been striving for in terms of designing the worlds and characters featured in Shadows of the Damned? Has the development team perhaps tried to add a few familiar design elements to make the game accessible to a wider audience or will we still see the same craziness and punk attitude that we expect out of a Grasshopper Manufacture production, minus a decapitated gimp head of course?
John: When we dropped the reveal trailer last year at TGS we were prepared for some criticism that we’d watered down our style to accommodate EA. If you’re working with a big publisher, you have to expect that your fans are going to be weary of how that relationship is going to affect the company creatively. But as we’ve shown people over the past couple of months, GhM hasn’t gone anywhere, especially creatively, except up. When designing the game, our concept artists had free range to bring this story to life. I think when people pick up Shadows of the Damned, they’ll find all of the wacky punk style that they’ve always loved about GhM. Of course, this game was designed to reach a broader audience, but not at the expense of our style – that’s why EA wanted to work with Suda-san and GhM in the first place.
Ian: Lately all of Grasshopper Manufacture’s games have followed a different format in how gamers experience the journey. With Killer 7 things were completely on-rails and fairly linear. With No More Heroes gamers had a direct journey to experience but had a few side missions and other activities they could partake in. What sort of experience can gamers expect from Shadows of the Damned? Will the game be a fairly linear experience leading up to boss battles or will it be a bit open-ended in what gamers can do at anything at any given moment? And generally what kind of replay value does Shadows of the Damned offer?
John: Shadows of the Damned will be an experience unlike any of the previous GhM games. If I could point out one difference, I would say it’s the polish. GhM games have always had quite quirky game design, and we know that’s one of the things that have endeared us with some of our fans. But our goal with Damned was to bring all of those crazy GhM elements together in a much tighter package.
To get back to your question, Damned isn’t an open world game; there’s a linear story that guides the player through Garcia’s decent into Hell. But the levels in Damned gradually open up as the player gets stronger and more familiar with the environment. And that allows us to do more with gameplay and reward the player for exploring with little Easter eggs and upgrades for Johnson.
Ian: I don’t know how much you can discuss this, but what sort of direction has been taken with the bosses in Shadows of the Damned. You may not be able to go into specifics too much, but GhMhas always been known for doing things a bit out of the box like the battles featured in Killer 7 and obviously the epicness that was to be had in the two NMH games. Can we expect battles in SOTD that are more traditional to go with the gunplay nature of the game, or will the boss scenarios be a bit more unexpected in what players have to do and who they have to defeat?
John: I don’t want to give too much away regarding the boss battles, but they are just as crazy as you’d imagine them to be. All of the boss battles use the light and dark puzzle solving we’ve talked about previously. A great example of this is the fight with George in his beast form. At the beginning of the fight, George jumps on his human-headed horse to do battle with Garcia. The horse occasionally stops and poops out a giant darkness emitting turd, which Garcia has to use to take out George. It’s completely over-the-top and crazy, but it’s those kinds of elements that you won’t find in any other game.
Ian: Generally there seems to be a stigma that Japanese developers are a bit hit and miss when it comes to developing 3rd person action games, particularly those in the shooting genre. We’ve seen some recent games that have been terrific like Vanquish, but others have been a bit disappointing as to what they offered such as Ryu ga Gotoku: Of the End. (Yakuza: Of the End). With this being the first major 3rd person shooter that GhM has developed, what sort of things have you, Suda 51, Shinji Mikami and the rest of the team want to establish and create to make sure the action is as tight and enjoyable as it can be? And on the topic of gunplay, will the game be a complete shooter or can gamers expect a few “relaxing” moments like puzzle solving or perhaps following the GhM tradition of featuring a vehicle segment of some kind a la No More Heroes?
John: As I mentioned before, polish was a big focus for us during development. Mikami-san is a kind of gameplay genius, seriously. During review sessions he’d sit down with the game for about 30mins and make the most astute observation about lighting, enemy placement, controls – really just about anything you can think of. It was really quite amazing to watch him play and listen to his feedback. Thanks to his help, I think players will not only enjoy the GhM style, but really tight gameplay.
There are a few off the wall things going on in the game, too. It wouldn’t be a GhM game without them!
Ian: This may be a tough question, but when you look at SOTD what is the one thing that either impresses you the most or you’re simply the most proud of?
John: You’re right! That’s kind of a tough question for me since I’ve not directly involved in development other than my feedback as a gamer. This was my first big game launch since joining this side of the industry (I previously worked as a freelancer on the editorial side) and I can say, without a doubt, that I’m the most proud of our team. I truly believe that making a AAA title is one of the hardest things to pull off. The team went through a lot of struggles, and the game has exceeded all of our expectations thanks to that hard work.
Ian: Moving forward, what kind of things would you want explore or expand upon if we’re lucky enough to see Shadows of the Damned continue in a sequel.
John: Hmmm, my personal wish for Shadows of the Damned 2? Definitely more transformations for Johnson! I wanna mow down the Damned while riding a sick motorcycle!
For hardcore Grasshopper Manufacture fans the wait for Shadows of the Damned has been a long one but based on what I’ve seen of the game so far it looks like the wait will definitely be worth it. At its core Shadows of the Damned may be the most accessible game GhM has produced, but the game still has the weird style and almost otherworldly approach that makes their games so recognizable and fun.
Huge thanks to John for taking the time out of his schedule to do the interview as its greatly appreciated. If you want to scope out the demon filled journey that Shadows of the Damned offers then you can pick up the game next Tuesday when it’s released for the PS3 and Xbox 360.