Review by AK_the_Twilight

"Jason Flemming has a complex..."

The Summer of Arcade on Xbox Live wasn't just a reason to avoid the summer heat and download new titles over Xbox Live. It was also a brilliant opportunity for developers to push the boundaries of downloadable titles. With games like ‘Splosion Man and Trials HD, Xbox Live flourished. But long before the Summer of Arcade began, a stealthy title emerged onto the scene from famed Epic Games. Shadow Complex was easily one of the most anticipated original downloadable titles on Xbox Live, and finally the folks at Epic let the massive game loose to the public. Does Shadow Complex break new ground on the downloadable title scene?

The storyline in Shadow Complex follows the mythology of Orson Scott Card's Empire story. Jason Flemming and his girlfriend Claire decide to explore the natural environment of the Pacific Northwest, only to come across a collection of caverns leading to an underground industrial complex. Reluctant to explore, Jason passes off the complex as something not worth investigating, until Claire is captured by foot soldiers and imprisoned. Desperate to save Claire, Jason progresses throughout the complex, earning new abilities along the way and uncovering a secret plot that could change everything. It's not a particular bad story, but the entire connection between Jason and the actual events of the complex feels broken. You never seem to find a real incentive for Jason to explore, aside from his weird girlfriend. In addition, the game has barely any serious connection to Card's works, at least not without digging deeper than expected. It could pass as a decent standalone storyline, but being that is flimsily connects itself to Card's Empire mythology, it really feels like a last-minute storyline alteration. Shadow Complex is best enjoyed when you ignore the story, so it's advised to do just that when you're playing through the complex.

Shadow Complex has long since been classified as a “Metroidvania” game. That is, it tries to be a spiritual successor to exploratory platformers like Super Metroid and Castlevania, and in that it succeeds. The controls are mindfully reminiscent of the Metroidvania archetype, with the abilities of shooting, jumping, running, and such being very accessible. Shoot with the R-Trigger, jump with A, run with X, reload with Y, and so on. The more creative abilities like using secondary weapons with the R-Bumper, beating down enemies with the B button, and the like add a complexity to the game so it doesn't feel dated. A very unique ability is the flashlight, which lets Jason shine light upon the environment. Certain objects will glow with a colored light when shined upon, revealing which type of weapon will destroy them. The flashlight adds depth to the exploration, not unlike Metroid games have done in the past. This does prove a bit annoying when you're stuck and unable to progress in a specific area, but like many strong games in the genre, reaching new areas proves to be very rewarding.

Shadow Complex moves at a good pace and unless you feel like obtaining all of the secrets throughout the complex, there isn't a ton of backtracking. The environments are well-crafted, gameplay-wise, and the flashlight quickly becomes a key ability in finding the best way to attack enemies, solve puzzles, or traverse through corridors. The entire complex is tremendous and intimidating at first, but offers plenty of great gameplay occurrences to keep the player interesting. While Shadow Complex bases itself on its exploratory, Metroidvania elements, the action is actually pretty good as well. Aiming with the right analog stick can feel a bit wonky at times, but as you progress, headshots against the many enemies will become much more frequent with practice. A good mixing of genres takes place with the experience system, which rewards exploration, obtaining upgrades, and taking out enemies with experience. Leveling up increases stats like precision and damage. This unique idea helps improve gameplay, balancing the shooting and exploration while rewarding the player in helpful ways. It's a slightly under-implemented technique and doesn't make a huge amount of difference, but it does improve Shadow Complex's gameplay a bit.

Secondary weapons like grenades prove to be helpful in tight moments, but against the bosses, you'll find them to make the battles much too easy. The fact that the boss design is pretty generic doesn't help much either. Another problem is the obscure shooting sequences where you must man a turret and attacks waves of enemies. These are boring and feel like a poor attempt to diversify the gameplay. But with such great exploratory gameplay, why would you need them in the first place? Regardless of these issues, Shadow Complex is a great revival of the Metroidvania subgenre, offering well-tuned exploration, excellent action, and plenty of entertaining moments throughout.

Like the games it pays tribute to, Shadow Complex is massive and full of hidden upgrades to find. Between health, armor, gold, and weapon upgrades, you're bound to find plenty to go back to. In addition to the pickups, the Proving Grounds are a good inclusion. In the various Proving Grounds, the player must complete the stage with specific equipment and items; times for the Proving Grounds can be uploaded to leaderboards. Still, even with all this content, the 1200 Microsoft Point ($15) price is a bit steep, mostly because the game has its repetitious moments. The content count is stellar, however, and it really shows some effort on the developers' part in making a downloadable title with so many things to accomplish. Shadow Complex is a great game on XBLA and well worth investigating, despite its flaws.

Shadow Complex is a great looking game, at least on a technical level. Enemies fly about with crazy physics antics. The movements have depth and realism, and once you're equipped with the more gravity-defying abilities, it still looks smooth and well-animated. The environments, however, aren't the most aesthetically pleasing, as the gray walls and typical metal corridors may run your patience thin. The more naturalistic areas like the outdoor sequences are better, but they're scarce. Some of the rooms look very creative, but like the outdoor sequences, they are few and far between. The audio is good, with some nice voice acting and hard-hitting sound effects. The presentation isn't the most creative seen in the Xbox Live Arcade library, but it looks and sounds reasonably good without much technical compromise.

Pros
+ Amazing exploratory elements are remarkably deep
+ Excellent graphics and physics engines
+ Plenty of hidden upgrades
+ Combat and experience system merge together well
+ A great revival of a nearly forgotten genre

Cons
- Story is ridiculous
- Bosses are far too easy
- Lacks environmental diversity
- Turret-based shooting sequences are more distracting than inventive

As someone who eagerly awaited Shadow Complex, I must say that I'm a bit disappointed. The terribly simple boss fights, ridiculous story, and lack of graphical diversity do bring the game down from its true potential, which is a letdown. The hefty price tag is also slightly overpriced, despite the good amount of content. However, Shadow Complex stays true to the ways of Metroid and Castlevania, offering a massive world to explore with plenty of hidden secrets to uncover. The combat is solid and the experience system helps keep the overall progression strong, offering diversely-designed situations with plenty of unique elements. The upgrades are fun to use and the entire game does a remarkable job in revitalizing the genre with fresh integration of shooting and accessible exploration. While it doesn't surpass Super Metroid or Castlevania, Shadow Complex makes the genre feel new and does a great job in offering an exploration-based action-platformer for a new generation. If you're willing to pony up 1200 Microsoft Points, Shadow Complex is a good choice, even if it doesn't live up to its tremendous hype.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/08/09

Game Release: Shadow Complex (US, 08/19/09)


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