Shadow Complex Review
In 2007, Chair Entertainment—founded by key members of the team who developed the ambitious but ultimately underwhelming Advent Rising--released critical and consumer Xbox Live Arcade favorite Undertow. In 2008 Chair was acquired by Epic Games and, less than two years after releasing their debut title, they've already outdone themselves with Shadow Complex. Their second XBLA entry not only represents the very best digital download to date on the service, but one of this year's finest games, period. That's especially impressive when you consider Complex, a title costing just 1200 Microsoft Points, provides more entertainment than many big budget, wallet-emptying retail releases.
Complex's presentation and gameplay, if you haven't heard, is heavily based on classic 2D titles such as Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Those who've hunted space pirates and fire-spitting beasties in those games will feel right at home in Complex's world, where exploration is emphasized as much as action. First and foremost is the focus on finding new items to unlock previously unreachable areas. In Metroid for example, players, stoked they'd discovered the ability to fire missiles, would anxiously backtrack to areas with locked red doors that could now be opened with their newfound power. Blatantly sporting its homage to Samus Aran on its sleeve, Complex also contains red doors that can only be blasted ajar by missiles.
The similarities don't stop there, though. Hit the “start” button and you'll find a massive layout of interconnecting rooms, some containing item-denoting symbols, that's all but indistinguishable from the maps found in Metroid's and Castlevania's 2D titles. Weapon and gear upgrades, especially “energy tank”-like life-bar extenders, also pay tribute to what many gamers consider one of the medium's greatest titles of all time. Despite the obvious passion to create a modern day version of these classics, Complex significantly separates itself with a top-notch visual presentation - the best XBLA has ever seen, in fact. Much like last year's excellent Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Complex proves truly stunning visuals can be achieved in a 2D title. Although the action unfolds on two planes, the environments are rendered in gorgeous three dimensions. From cascading waterfalls in the outdoor sections to the sci-fi-like details of an underground military installation, Complex continuously pleases the eyes. And the amazing lighting and shadowing tech is on par with what you'd expect from a title with a budget dwarfing Complex's.
The high presentation values also translate to the characters—and their silky smooth animations,weapons, and gear. Just watching your hero pause mid-way through a ladder ascension to cap a few baddies or shine his flashlight on a possible game-progressing clue is a visual treat. Similarly, sneaking around air ducts never looked so good. Even better, once you've acquired some of the cooler toys, like a foam gun that freezes enemies and creates makeshift bridges and platforms, you'll want to unleash them just for the graphical payoff. The battles you'll encounter with mech-like menaces, complemented by impressive explosive effects, are just a sampling of many instances where Complex's marriage of great gameplay and polished presentation come together to collectively send your jaw to the floor.
Despite one-upping Samus Aran's and Simon Belmont's adventures in terms of visual flair, Complex can't quite keep up in some other key areas. The story, for one, is pretty weak. The concept—based on the work of Orson Scott Card— involves a highly-trained and outfitted group of militia wackos hellbent on igniting a civil war. It packs plenty of potential, but it never strives for anything beyond the basics, and the scenes between the protagonist and his girlfriend are sometimes laughable. The story starts with them camping in the woods, but soon sees them facing some unimaginable injustices to themselves and their country. Their reactions, however, would indicate they run into backwoods private military psychos all the time.
Complex also slips a bit in providing that same sense of accomplishment you were stung with every time you defeated a boss or found a new item in the titles it takes its inspiration from. The deflated sense of discovery can be remedied by turning off the hand-holding tips on the map, but I found it difficult not keeping them on knowing they were just a click away. And admittedly, while I certainly appreciate a hearty challenge, exploring aimlessly for hours on end to find the one item I need to progress is not something I enjoy nearly as much as my teenage, Metroid-loving self did. The boss battles, however, are simply inferior to those experienced in the games on which Complex's design is based. Don't get me wrong, they're loads of fun; I mean, c'mon you are blasting rampaging bots with a variety of metal-mangling gear. It's just that they lack the inventiveness or even the strategy required to take down the creatively inspired aliens and demons of the two aforementioned series.
Its minor flaws keep it shy of a perfect score, but they by no means make Shadow Complex anything less than one of the best games I've experienced this year. Its stellar design, eye-popping presentation, addictive gameplay and, of course, that very reasonable price tag, make it an easy purchasing decision for anyone looking for an endlessly engaging experience—you might find yourself playing start to finish in a single sitting. Additionally, despite all the comparisons to classic titles of similar ilk, Complex is accessible to anyone who simply loves games. Its pitch perfect formula worked on the Super NES, and it still holds up today, offering older fans a satisfying chunk of updated nostalgia while giving newcomers a taste of truly great game design.