Review by Kenri

Reviewed: 09/22/10

Shadow Complex simply shines

The low down on the download

The advent of mainstream, entirely digitally distributed games on consoles has created the "$15 test", something I never liked and have recently come to outright despise. You might not consciously know about the "$15 test", but I'm sure you've seen its effects: whenever someone is hyped about an upcoming Xbox Live Arcade title until they learn that it's priced at 1200 points ($15), the game has failed the $15 test; whenever a reviewer states that a game is worth full price ($50-$60) despite being priced at $15, it has passed the $15 test; whenever someone says "based on what I've seen, I think this'll be priced at $15", it shows a concern about whether or not a game will pass its $15 test. This happens constantly regarding downloadable titles; apparently $15 is the magical number at which "change" becomes "money". It's, frankly, obnoxious, because every so often a game will come along, like this one, that will get subjected to the $15 test when there's absolutely no reason to do so. I've done it myself. Other reviewers have done it. God knows message board posters have done it. It gives the impression that a game like this is part of a lesser breed of game, when that couldn't be further from the truth. And, yet, the $15 test persists, because inquiring minds want to know whether this downloadable title is worth their hard-earned $15.

So, I'll just say: yes, it is.

Chair Entertainment's love letter to Super Metroid

From the beginning, Shadow Complex was described as "the next-gen Super Metroid". I never liked this description because I wasn't sure what it meant. "Next-gen" has already seen games like Super Metroid, so to me it came off less as a descriptor of the type of game Shadow Complex is, than as bragging about the reception the game would receive. Which seemed highly, highly arrogant, seeing as how Super Metroid is almost unanimously considered one of the best games of all time, even today, even by people who normally, arbitrarily, devalue any game made over X number of years ago.

The truth is that this was probably unintentional, and the true meaning of the statement can be revealed by the knowledge that Chair Entertainment spent the first part of their time working on Shadow Complex... by playing Super Metroid. For inspiration, I guess. Or maybe just for fun.

The results are varied. The game is quite polished, and clearly takes cues from what Super Metroid did right while mostly avoiding what it did wrong. That said, many elements of Shadow Complex simply come off as derivative. There are red doors. How do you open them? With missiles. Hey, I wonder where I've seen that before? How about the upgrade that lets you run really, really fast, crashing through certain obstacles, as long as you can build up enough speed beforehand to use it? I'm sure they just thought of that independently of the Metroid upgrade that works exactly the same. The fact is that the game didn't need to use crutches like this; it was perfectly capable of standing on its own two feet from the get go, but it elected to lean on Super Metroid's shoulder.

I don't think we're in Zebes anymore

Like Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, and other "Metroidvanias" before it, Shadow Complex's main draw is its massive, sprawling world, made up of interconnected rooms of various sizes, that you must explore piece by piece, using various upgrades to bypass their respective obstacles. Despite a linear progression of "use Item X to bypass Obstacle Y", how you get to that obstacle is fairly non-linear.

As the name implies, the setting is a unreasonably large, mostly underground base, and playing through the game will take you from the surrounding mountains to the base's helipad to its internal factory to its barely developed mines, and everywhere in-between. This works well with the game's plot - which involves stopping an immoral paramilitary force - but ultimately makes exploring the game world less satisfying than its contemporaries. Simply put, games like Castlevania, Super Metroid, Cave Story, and their ilk, offer lush fantasy worlds, and part of the fun is simply marveling at their beauty. Shadow Complex does a very, very good job at making the world it was given to work with interesting, but never quite succeeds on the level of other entries into the genre. Very few of the environments seen in the underground base are genuinely new; long gray corridors, the production line with no OSHA compliance, and spooky underground mines have all been repeated ad nauseum in virtually every first- or third-person shooter on the planet.

The underground base is navigated, true to form, from a 2D perspective, and can at times feel like a side-scrolling platformer. What Shadow Complex does differently is make use of next-gen tech - specifically, despite being played in 2D, the environments are fully 3D. Enemies will frequently attack you from the background, sometimes coming down halls that you will never be able to access. It's a nice touch, and something that prevents you from simply spamming fire ahead of you and destroying everything before it even shows up on-screen.

Speaking of enemies: there's not much to say about them. Human soldiers make up the bulk of your foes, and though there are a number of variations, they all tend to fall under "human foe that shoots at you and sometimes ducks behind cover". The rest of the enemies are robots are various sizes, none of which are very interesting. Even the bosses don't deviate from this formula - and a number of them can be taken out simply by spamming an explosive of your choice, sometimes before they even make it on-screen. For dispatching your foes, you have a number of tools at your disposable. There are grenades, missiles, and the very interesting foam gun - though the latter is used more to create makeshift platforms and navigate your surroundings than in combat. While exploring the base, you should make a point to check every nook and cranny for upgrades: health upgrades, armor upgrades, and max capacity upgrades for the aforementioned subweapons, just to name a few. Your character also has a basic, close-range melee attack, but, as you might expect, it's only useful against minor enemies. Your main way of dealing with enemies is, of course, your primary firearm (which is kind enough to come with infinite ammo). While there are five different guns in the game, each one is a strict upgrade from the previous one, so you'll only have one at any given time. As in a shooter, you simply hold down the right trigger to kill whatever your gun is pointed at. And this is where we reach one of the main game's biggest flaws.

Simply put, Shadow Complex's aiming system is spotty at best. Your character will auto-aim, to an extent, but this is absolutely not reliable in certain situations, forcing you to aim manually. This is done with the right analog stick - simply point at where, on the 2D plane, you want to shoot, and your avatar will aim in that direction. The problems arise when the game's 3D environments come out to play. Pressing the analog stick up controls both "aim up" and "aim into the background", meaning the auto-aim determines which you'll do. This will be the cause of 90% of your deaths in the game, as you struggle to make your character shoot the armed gunman above him rather than the empty hallway in the background.

What somewhat mitigates this fact is a focus on stealth and trickery. Throughout the game, you will come upon encounters with enemies that are, at best, disadvantageous to engage head-on. Luckily, most situations like this feature an alternate way of dealing with your foes, usually before they even notice you. There might be a secret passage overhead - taking this passage might drop you behind enemy lines, giving you an advantage, or allow you to bypass the fight entirely. There are also a number of ways to use the environment to your advantage: commandeer turrets (throwing the game into a third-person view), shoot explosive barrels, cause heavy boxes to fall on anyone unfortunate to be below, activate jets of flame, or shoot a robot clinging to the ceiling, causing it to fall to the ground and explode, taking out nearby enemies. Shadow Complex puts its physics engine to good use, and the results are always satisfying.

The brewing cliche-storm

Jason Fleming (named after both Jason Bourne and Ian Fleming) is out on a date with his girlfriend Claire, hiking in the mountains, when the two get separated. As Jason searches for Claire, he comes upon the entrance to an underground base, and sees Claire being dragged inside by armed soldiers. Being the everyman hero with a military background that he is, he breaks into the base and attempts to rescue her. At first he's armed with nothing and has little equipment, but as he explores the base, he manages to steal enough equipment to get by - including a suit of powered armor, which serves as a justification for his less realistic abilities, such as the double jump. The base itself seems to be under the command of a paramilitary force led by a man named Lucius, who looks like, acts like, and makes plans similar to, a cross between Cobra Commander and Hitler. The short of it is that his organization is planning to launch attacks on New York and San Francisco, as part of a scheme to "liberate" the United States.

This seems like a decent enough idea for a plot, but the problems start piling on in execution. The plot twists are predictable, the dialogue is offensively cheesy, and overall the writing is just bad. Every single part of this game's plot has been done elsewhere, usually in B-grade summer blockbusters - one might be excused for thinking that that was the intent, until they learn that Shadow Complex is the companion game to Orson Scott Card's novel Empire. At which point, any semblance of parody goes out the window and you're forced to conclude that the plot was just handled poorly. Very poorly, if lines like, "Killing's getting easier. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. ...It's good." are any indication.

It's a shame, because otherwise, the game's production values are top-notch. The cheesy lines are delivered about as well as they can be; the game's voice acting is professional all-around and never detracts from the experience. The cutscenes look great, and the in-game graphics stay competitive with those of full price, retail games for the same console. Especially worthy of note are the game's lighting effects: because a flashlight is one of your first upgrades, and needs to be used throughout the game (shining a flashlight on an obstacle reveals, via color coding, which item can be used to destroy it), Chair Entertainment had to make the lighting both functional and believable. They succeeded. Shadow Complex's soundtrack, which is largely confined to a small number of scenes and areas, does its job of enhancing the atmosphere commendably. One can't help but wish the writing was given the same amount of care.

The complex shades of Shadow Complex

As is usual for the genre, the game is fairly short. It can probably be beaten in a few days on your first playthrough, and subsequent playthroughs can be done in a few sittings - or less. Whether this is a flaw or not may vary from person to person; as in Metroid games, Shadow Complex expects you to come back to it time and time again. While collecting 100% of the game's items adds time, trying to finish the game as quickly as possible and/or with as few items as possible is part of the fun of replaying it. The game even supports these playthroughs officially, with achievements and achievement-like "Master Challenges" for beating the game at 100% in under three hours, at under 13%, and even at 4% or less. There are two radically different endings to extend replay value further, though the second is more of a novelty than anything else. You can also amuse yourself by power leveling up to the cap of level 50, though why you'd want to is another matter; new game plus, which amounts to little more than restarting the game at whatever level you were at previously, helps with this, if you're so inclined. There's even a second mode known as the Proving Grounds: small, self-contained platforming challenges, meant to test your skills with the game's assorted upgrades. This, however, is little more than a distraction.

Shadow Complex isn't just a great game in its own right, it's also a fantastic entry into a genre with little representation. If you're a fan of the Metroid series, the newer Castlevania games, Cave Story, or any other Metroidvania title, it's time to give Shadow Complex a try. While it can be derivative at times, it makes up for that twice over through sheer polish and fun. It's a game that you can return to over and over, especially if you're the kind of person who has gotten bored of speedrunning Super Metroid. If, however, you're new to the genre... Shadow Complex is an excellent place to start! The game is beginner friendly, and gamers who are accustomed to first- or third-person shooters can easily jump right in without any of the obfuscation of older entries into the genre. The short of it is that Shadow Complex is simply a game you should play if you like good games. It might just be the best exclusively downloadable title to date.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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

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