Review by Vamphaery
"A truly awesome, if somewhat short, revival of a genre that needs more games like this."
Shadow Complex has been compared repeatedly to Metroid, and with good reason. Chair has clearly set out to create an homage to classic, side scrolling action titles that fuse crisp shooting gameplay with exploration and optional powerups to create a sense of non-linearity. The result succeeds beautifully at being simultaneously both nostalgic and fun by today's standards.
Shadow Complex is a side scrolling game. You move left and right using the left analog stick, while aiming with the right analog stick. While the game takes place in 3D rooms and other environments, you cannot leave the 2D plane to travel into the background, and are always traveling in the foreground. Your primary goal is to walk, run, jump, and hover your way across chasms, into secret scrawl spaces or other passages, and navigate the game's large, labyrinthine maze of a map in an effort to shoot and kill enemies, and obtain items and upgrades that grant new abilities or enhancements.
Generally this was all implemented with great precision and polish. Movement feels tight and responsive, despite the occasional loading or frame rate hiccups, which are not frequent or severe enough to disrupt gameplay. The map is a maze of rooms, chambers, and chasms, much of which is inaccessible until you acquire the requisite abilities necessary to traverse them successfully. Because many of these items can only be obtained through extensive exploration and frequently clever puzzle solving, Shadow Complex does a good job of letting you be imaginative and creative, and then rewarding you for it. You can finish the game without getting everything, or do your best to get every last item.
You will gain experience by defeating enemies, exploring the game's map, and playing through the game. Experience levels bestow rewards such as increased stamina, precision, and accuracy, and every ten levels up to level fifty will grant a special ability that can be carried over to subsequent campaigns. This, combined with a few secrets (which have since been unraveled by clever players, should you wish to research them) and leaderboards for overall scores and best times among other stats, provide good replay value. There varying difficulty settings, with the highest, "Insane," removing the standard question mark indicators pointing the way to hidden items on the map, leaving you to grope in the dark for them. Old school at its best for those who want it. Lastly, in addition to main campaign, there is also an extensive series of extra hard challenge rooms for players to tackle, with bronze, silver, gold, and platinum awards bestowed for fast completion times.
Despite being a side scrolling game set on the 2D plane, the game nevertheless allows aiming and shooting into its 3D backgrounds. Combined with the precise yet somewhat sensitive analog aiming, this can result in both over-aiming, and confusion. While it eventually becomes second nature, it is initially difficult to come to grips with for some players.
The main campaign ends quickly if you aren't going for 100% completion, and even then, if you know what you're doing, can conceivably be completed in two hours (this is in fact one of the optional, non-achievement challenges the game gives you.) Even if you don't know what you're doing and go out of your way to take your time, you're looking at roughly ten hours of gameplay in the main campaign. If not for the aforementioned replay value, the game would be disappointingly brief. Many will argue that games of this type have never been long, but it's been years since a major release of a game in this genre has transpired, and with technology having improved to where it has in the intervening period, it would have been nice for the game to have been a lot longer than it was. To be fair, that might have meant the game would have had to be a full retail game at a higher price, and for what you pay, the game is a pretty good deal as it stands now, and certainly not wasted money. This game is worth its asking price.
This is the kind of game we always imagined years ago when playing games like Metroid or Castlevania, looking ahead to the future when graphics would be where they are today. That this kind of game hasn't happened much sooner is something of a perplexing question mark. In any event, this game doesn't disappoint with its visuals.
Characters animate fluidly and pleasingly, weapons fire and explosions are great to behold, and the pre-rendered backgrounds are all lushly detailed and intricately beautiful. This truly is a next gen side scroller as we always imagined it would be years ago.
If there's one thing to detract from the graphics of Shadow Complex however, it is a moderate lack of distinction and variety from one section of its map to the next. Some more distinctiveness in color palette and theme from place to place might have gone a long way toward making the map more easily memorable like so many of the classic maps and levels in the games to which Shadow Complex pays homage.
What is there is beautifully done without question, though.
The game's sound effects are what you'd expect, but they are all well done and satisfying. Everything from footsteps, to gunfire, to water is handled wonderfully. Where the audio lacks most is in its musical soundtrack.
What music there is is appropriately atmospheric and moody - and quite beautiful, actually, from a musical perspective - but there just isn't enough of it, and none of it is particularly memorable. There aren't any themes that stand out or get stuck in your head, and nothing really propels you forward or adds to the mood of the moment (with one notable exception.) Nevertheless, the music does its job and doesn't detract from the game.
The game's plot - such as it is - is based upon the Empire novels of Orson Scott Card. Many players have expressed ethical qualms regarding this due to Card's political views and statements. You needn't worry, however, as what little "plot" there is in the game is virtually nonexistent. Your girlfriend gets captured, you have to go after her, all the while becoming more and more powerful as you work your way toward the final, big, bad boss. It's the same story you've played since Super Mario Brothers. It's still basic to the extreme, but it still works to set the paper thin stage for an otherwise great game. There are occasional allusions to a larger conspiracy and other similar token bits of exposition, but really, it's all so much window dressing. The game is what matters here, as the story might as well not even be present in this case. You'd barely notice if it wasn't.
You may choose to boycott the game based on Card's stances (stances which I personally and vehemently disagree with, though I respect the views of those who do not,) but in the end I prefer to think of this as something positive that has come out of his literary work, which is distinct from the other parts of his life.
When all is said and done, if you love this style of game, or if you think you might enjoy it, you owe it to yourself to play this game. At a time when its genre is all but dead and on life support, Shadow Complex is veritable manna from the heavens. It may be short, but the only reason that's a bad thing is that it's so incredibly fun and well executed.
It's not perfect, but it plays and looks great, and is one of the best games released thus far on Xbox Live Arcade, if not the best game in this reviewer's opinion. Were it longer and more feature-filled, it would easily pass for a full retail title.
If you're the kind of gamer who likes this type of game, Shadow Complex is more than worth your money, especially at the price being asked.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/25/09
Game Release: Shadow Complex (US, 08/19/09)
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