Game Review: Shadow Complex
Release: August 19, 2009
Genre: Action Adventure/side scroller
Developer: Chair Entertainment
Available Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
Website: Shadow Complex
The last of the XBLA Summer of games series could well be the best. The hero; Jason is an ordinary guy (trained by his secret service father but that’s beside the point isn’t it?) who, when backpacking with his girlfriend Claire stumbles upon a giant, labyrinthine underground base of a small, covert military force. After the two minutes of plot it’s down to hurling yourself from room to room, creeping through vents and murdering hundreds of soldiers, all the while uncovering an increasingly ludicrous plot, set against the backdrop of a world created by Sci-Fi penman Orson-Scott Card in his book; Empire.
Epic Games and Chair’s Shadow Complex takes the form of a 2.5D side-scrolling platform shooter. The reason for this update in perspective becomes immediately apparent. It’s powered by the Unreal Engine 3 in all it’s shiny beefiness and the addition of angles to this well-worn genre gives a genuine feeling of depth. It feels like a simplified 3D game and if you relax your eyes you can see the curves that have been added to what would otherwise be straightforward, but the final effect lends itself to run-and-gun gameplay in a very accomplished manner.
Ammo is infinite, you only have to manage out your reload times and conserve grenades, so it’s not simply a Contra style bullet-hell. In fact while scrabbling inside air vents you feel more like John McClane (albeit with a Nathan Drake voice and appearance provided by the now-legendary Nolan North). Playing through may remind you of games you’ve played in the past. The obvious Super Metroid and Castlevania SOTN are also (for me at least) accompanied by last year’s Bionic Commando Re-Armed (R.I.P Grin) Out of This World (or Another World), Flashback, Alien 3, Rolling Thunder 2, and finally Prince of Persia. In fact, with a little more emphasis on stealth (which is entirely possible with silent melee kills) this might even feel like the missing 16-Bit incarnation of Metal Gear we never got to experience, what with its walking tanks, expandable armory, laser sights, faceless guards, hiding in the walls and floor and ridiculous plotline. Just to throw one final name into the mix, if this had been the G.I. Joe game instead of the rushed excuse we got this month, then old school Joe fans like myself would have been justifiably thrilled. Just give Jason a Katana for the melee kills and you’ve got everyone’s favorite Arashikage ninja.
I’ve seen controls being brought up as a low point and must confess I’m baffled by this. It takes some getting used to, and aiming is important before you start blasting, but I genuinely felt comfortable with the way Jason handles. Equipped to take on the legions of gun-toting guards with precision and a huge bag of tricks. Flinging a grenade into a party of three chatting guards and watching their bemused reactions before it blows and you charge past has become instinctual, yet never gets old.
The best has been saved for last. The secrets and the competition. The Shadow Complex is vast and many many rooms and hidden items can be passed by if you rush about. The map tells you both where you should be heading (by means of a Dead Space style blue line) and which rooms still have remaining hidden items, as well as which ones you’ve already bagged and which rooms have additional exits you haven’t tried yet. The beauty of this being that a lot of these are inaccessible from the off and can only be acquired on returning with a new skill. This makes backtracking an optional item hunt and a very welcome series of game-lengthening side quests. The competition with friends is so simple that most XBLA titles would do well to adopt its style. Like Geometry Wars and indeed the recently released Trials it has internal score comparisons. Whenever you do something interesting like a stealth kill, a red bar pops up to give your running tally and also casually mention that one of your friends happens to have two more than you. I’m currently engaged in a Legolas/Gimli style contest with Lefty Brown of The Married Gamers podcast for who can silently massacre the most hapless (Cobra) Soldiers.
Final say: I may be biased because I grew up on this sort of immersing shooter in the 16 Bit era and it feels familiar and pleasant, like spending a weekend with an old school friend you haven’t seen in years and who in the meantime has become even more fun to be around, but I also genuinely believe that the folks who weren’t present for that era will get a lot out of this too. It’s the best 1200 points I’ve spent this year, and I can tell I’m going to be replaying this in the coming weeks. There is also likely to be more of this story as Card’s book Empire serves as the backdrop for more upcoming games. Let’s hope they all reflect this quality.