Review by horror_spooky

"Metroid...for your 360!"

Xbox Live Arcade is home to plenty of games with outdated graphics, as a result of the cheaper developmental costs to create a game for the service to download. Between the slew of indie games and the XBLA games, it would be a safe wager that the majority of Xbox Live Arcade games just don't look nearly as good as they potentially could. Shadow Complex is an attempt to change this trend, touting visuals on par with major retail releases. Looks aren't everything though; a game has to provide solid and engaging gameplay in order to be worth the Microsoft Points.

So it's a good thing that Shadow Complex does just that! By imitating the successful formula that has cemented Metroid in the annals of gaming history and has provided the best adventures in the Castlevania universe, Shadow Complex is practically excellent by default. In case you are unfamiliar with what has been dubbed the “Metroidvania” formula, it essentially boils down to this: explore area, reach roadblock, find new item, overcome roadblock. It's a great formula and makes for entertaining gameplay.

Shadow Complex doesn't focus as much on exploration and puzzle solving as Metroid and Castlevania do, but it's the game's larger focus on combat that sets it apart from its inspirations. While exploration does play a big part in the game, and there's plenty of backtracking and such, I never once felt lost. In basically every Metroidvania style game I have played before this, there were plenty of times that I would become completely stumped and didn't know where the hell to go for what seemed like forever. The solution was, most of the time, a very obscure one, that required blind luck and random guessing. Shadow Complex never became frustrating like this; it is a linear game when it needs to be and a non-linear exploration game when it needs to be, too.

Players take control of Jason Flemming, who, along with his girlfriend, stumbles upon a secret underground facility while hiking in the mountains. This facility is being run by terrorists with diabolical intentions, and shortly after the game begins, they kidnap Jason's girlfriend! The early sections of the game made me feel like it was going to be realistic, but after I walked off a cliff side and fell 50 feet to the ground, I quickly realized that wasn't the case. The premise of a couple stumbling upon a dangerous terrorist facility buried deep in the mountains is an intriguing one, and the game could have seriously taken a darker path than it does, but the campiness at the beginning of the game that is also present throughout the entirety of the adventure keeps Shadow Complex from becoming too serious. To be honest, the superhuman capabilities of Jason turned me off, and while I became much more accepting of his powers later in the game as new technology was acquired, the atmosphere of the game is broken by the campiness and the unrealistic abilities of the primary protagonist.

The campiness I am talking about is present mainly in the dialogue. Man, it's bad. The dialogue in this game is very poorly written and cheesy. I get that it's an action-oriented title, but the atmosphere that Shadow Complex desperately tries to create is ruined by the awful dialogue. The story also takes a turn for the worse, especially at the end, and I think the game's premise would have been much more intriguing if it was rooted a bit more in reality.

While the dialogue certainly is corny, the voice acting almost makes up for it. The voice acting is well done, just like you'd expect from a first-party Microsoft game, and the background music is intense and exciting. I found that the game is obnoxiously loud at times, a common issue with XBLA games I have discovered, but that is a forgivable issue.

Like I mentioned at the very beginning of this review, the visual quality of Shadow Complex is really impressive. Just like the audio does a great job at presenting an XBLA game like it's a full-fledged retail title, the graphics do so as well. There is often a lot of action going on-screen, and while I did encounter a bit of lag and framerate issues later in the game, the game runs like butter for the most part. There are plenty of gigantic mechanical bosses that are well-designed, and the character models are equally as impressive. While the animation could have used some work and there are definitely visuals glitches and other technical issues, Shadow Complex is a stunning game. The water effects look amazing, especially when bullets rip through them like a scene straight out of Saving Private Ryan. The massive explosions, of which there are many, are startling and gorgeous. Shadow Complex is eye candy and quite possibly the best-looking game on the Xbox Live Arcade service to date.

This excellent presentation would mean nothing without the gameplay to back it up. I have already established that Shadow Complex is a Metroidvania-style game, but that it leans more towards the action side of things. This couldn't be truer. Ammo is infinite and there is a variety of ways to kill the thousands of enemies that will be encountered by the time the credits roll. Players can fire grenades at the feet of their opponents to send them flying across the screen. By shooting explosive barrels, the same effect can be achieved. If a more up-close and personal approach is desired, the B button will unleash a variety of impressive melee attacks where the camera zooms in close to showcase the action. Later in the game when Jason becomes more powerful, enemies can be sent flying hundreds of feet with a single punch, and these melee attacks can also be used to stealthily make it through an area if Jason is low on health.

Shadow Complex makes conventional gameplay mechanics easier and well, better. One prominent example I can think of is saving. While games like Metroid and Castlevania require players to find save rooms, and then approach the saving device, and then wait for the game to save before taking control of Samus or Alucard again, Shadow Complex just requires players to step into the save room. The game then saves automatically, and it happens in a flash. That's what's beautiful about Shadow Complex: there are virtually no loading times! The only time the game loads is when it is booted up and when Jason dies, which, if you're skilled enough, really won't happen all that often.

Like Metroid, there are doors that can only be shot and surpassed with the use of weaponry obtained later on in the game. In Shadow Complex, these doors are color-coded. Orange doors represent ones that can be destroyed with the standard gun, while green doors require a grenade blast to destroy. Purple doors need to be frozen before they can be destroyed, and red doors require missiles. The thing is, Jason needs to shine his flashlight on the doors in order for them to be colored appropriately. While I understand that this is to allow the facility in the game to maintain its metallic look without looking like a Fruity Pebbles factory all the time, there is a strange design decision that makes it all kind of annoying. The flashlight runs of batteries. The recharge time is extremely fast, and that's why it doesn't make any sense. The flashlight running out of batteries doesn't provide a new challenge or anything. The only thing it does is create a slight inconvenience when you miss a secret area because the flashlight turned off by itself.

Another design issue that mars the gameplay somewhat is the fact that Jason is stuck in 2D at all times. The problem with this is that there are oftentimes enemies that appear in the foreground, that are very difficult to shoot at successfully. The trick is to just hold down on the right trigger and hope for the best. While this is an annoying design flaw, it isn't game-breaking, and forgivable considering the ammo well never runs dry.

Shadow Complex is a no-brainer. Anyone that enjoys Metroid or the Metroid-centric Castlevania games will feel right at home. The larger focus on combat makes the experience feel fresh, yet the familiar gameplay mechanics are engrossing. Shadow Complex certainly has kinks that need to be ironed out, but it's easily one of the best games available for the Xbox Live Arcade service.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 04/21/11

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

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