Developer: Chair Entertainment
Type: Open World Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: T 13+ (Contains: Gun Violence, Action Violence, Light Language, scene of Torture)
Platform: X-Box Live Arcade
Price: 1200 Microsoft Points, $15 Amazon.com
Number of Players: One
Similar Games: Super Metroid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Demo Available: Yes
Pop Quiz: You’ve gone spelunking up in Washington State with your new girlfriend when suddenly the unthinkable happens. Your girlfriend is kidnapped and held hostage by a group of left-wing militants, and they are none too happy that you’ve walked in on their little operation! What do you do? If your answer was in any way across the lines of “get a weapon/steal powered armor/get better weapons/save the girl” then Shadow Complex will be right up your alley.
Shadow Complex is an open world action/adventure game in which there are no levels, only the world. From the very start of the game the player is free to traverse wherever they want as long as they can get through the obstacles in their way, most of which require a specific weapon or ability (such as the Foam Gun or Friction Dampener) to get past. At its core, SC plays like a modern update of Metroid, the series that pioneered the open world style. You’ll pick up a new item or ability, and spend the next thirty minutes playing with it like a gleeful child while working your way back through areas you’ve already played finding secrets and routes you couldn’t access before. This backtracking style of gameplay is not for everyone, if you’re a player who hates taking the same route twice, SC may frustrate you in multiple ways as you’ll be backtracking a lot, especially by the end of the game. As you progress, the game starts teaching you to combine items and effects to get past more difficult hazards, so you’ll constantly be learning new tricks, all of which are vital if you wish to find every last item. True to Metroid style, SC can be beaten with far less than the sum total of upgrades, although a large portion of the games fun and charm is had by hunting down these elusively hidden upgrades.
Shadow Complex also adds some new wrinkles to the Metroid style with its own unique attributes. Enemies don’t mindlessly wander, they patrol. Make enough noise or get spotted and they’ll spring into action, calling for backup (which usually comes) and throwing grenades. The system isn’t always perfect (the AI will always react to gunshots, but sometimes fails to notice the human body that just fell down in front of them) but it adds a new dimension to the game. My personal favorite feature is the ability to attack enemies in hand to hand combat. Where other games of this type follow a traditional damage model (touching an enemy almost always hurts you) SC instead opts for a more realistic route. Running into an ordinary enemy (with the exception of the robotic spider-like Bombas) causes no damage. Instead, most enemies will attempt to pistol whip or otherwise hurt you at close range. This courtesy extends to the player as well, simply close in on an enemy and tap B to deliver a series of close combat take-down maneuvers which will incapacitate any opponent. Combined with SC’s reactive AI, these take-downs allow you to sneak around, silently creeping up behind enemy soldiers and quietly knocking them senseless.
One other unique feature I should explain is the RPG like experience you gain with each action. Uncovering the map, taking out opponents, and even taking down enemies in special ways grant you level boosting experience that boosts your accuracy, stamina and precision. Since you can carry over your level from game to game, it makes sense to play through on a more normal difficulty before attempting insane, as a little extra accuracy at long range is critical after a certain point.
Shadow Complex does have its flaws however, and several are glaringly large. First and foremost is the excruciatingly unbalanced difficulty level. For the first half of the game (especially on insane or hardcore) you’ll be sneaking as much as possible, dying quite often and getting blasted by punishingly powerful opponents. However, after a certain point in the game, the switch flips and you become fairly unstoppable. By the end, even on insane difficulty, you are literally invincible and laughing at the endless hordes puny efforts to stop you. The difficulty just abruptly shifts: you go from being pitifully weak, to sort-of weak, to overpowering, to immortal. There is no gradient in between, and SC could have benefitted from efforts to make the difficulty level a little less abruptly shifting.
Some of the enemies and bosses are a toss-up as well. While some of them are amazingly cool, I wish they would have appeared more often as opposed to as scarcely as they did. Not only would it have evened out the difficulty, it would be fun to take them down a few more times. The normal enemies you encounter over the course of the game also are quite similar to each other and lack variety, which is part of the fault for the games difficulty curve. If you could take them out with a pistol, you can definitely take them out with an assault rifle.
A very conspicuous flaw that needs to be called to anyone who plays the games attention is an event near the end of the game (Highlight for details: entering the command center triggers a self destruct) that cuts off a small portion of the map. Any upgrades you missed in that section are no longer obtainable. Say goodbye to getting everything.
Shadow Complex has easy to grasp controls that feel more like a First Person Shooter then the Metroid stylized game it is. However, these controls actually lend themselves very well to SC and are both easy to use and relate to. Sometimes switching sub-weapons can be a bit distracting, but most of the time you’ll be flipping through grenades and foam like a pro. Your control of the main character is also solid, never once did the in-game movement feel slippery or loose as I made my way through the base.
Graphics and Sound:
Graphically Shadow Complex is a wonder to look at. By signing on with Epic Games, Chair Entertainment was able to bring the world of SC to life with the Unreal 3 game engine. With this powerful graphical tool under its hood, SC looks breathtaking, with wonderful lighting effects, heat shimmers, and motion blur. Characters are well rendered and detailed, and facial expressions during the games cut scenes, while not on a stellar level of detail such as the similarly power Gears of War 2, are more than adequate. The lighting is especially pretty, from the flaring sunset near the end of the game to the bluish electrical arcs of live electric wires.
As far as graphics go, those of you who have seen pictures of the game may wonder how the game plays since the graphic engine is 3D. It’s still 2D, you’ll run from left to right, with no movement towards or away the screen on your part. The enemy AI however, does move in three dimensions, but fortunately auto-target will usually follow enemies on the same plane, and the right stick on the gamepad can be used to manually zero in on all targets with a little practice. You will suffer a death here and there at the hands of the auto-target, so be prepared to do some aiming on your own.
The music is unfortunately not up to the standards set by the rest of the game. Rather than have set background music, Shadow Complex occasionally will play small, one-minute clips of music, and with the exception of one song, none of them are memorable. Besides, most of the time you won’t have any music. Instead you’ll get used to hearing gunfire, breathing and silence. If you plan on playing through SC with music, you may want to set up a playlist. Outside of music however, the game sounds fine. Explosions convey a sense of audible ‘oomph!’ while weapons fire, although sounding a little less real, still gives you sense of glee as you fire.
The environments themselves are also quite varied for a game set mostly in caves underneath Washington. You’ll find factories, conveyer belts, underground lakes and waterfalls…the list goes on. Part of the joy of playing Shadow Complex is exploring the various locations as you move through them. The wonder in finding someplace new to explore is a lot of fun. Flipping on your trusty flashlight and exploring some dark corner is great fun, especially since you usually find something cool hidden back there. I ran into a little slowdown near one giant waterfall, but it has since seemed to be confined only to hardcore difficulty, which is a little odd, but nothing that detracts from the game.
Interestingly enough, Shadow Complex’s story takes place during the events of Orson Scott Card’s Empire, running parallel to the events in the book. Knowing this before-hand, I read through the book as I played through the game, and while the book is far from Card’s best work, reading alongside my play through of SC added a whole new dimension to both stories, and served to make the ending of Empire far more ominous. But outside of that, the story of Shadow Complex follows its own gig, and while it’s nothing exceptional or jaw dropping, it’s still a nice addition to the game and serves to move the player forward.
Shadow Complex is a rare gem that deserves its place on top of the X-Box Live Arcade listings. Despite some flaws, the game is gripping and hard to put down, and if you are a fan of the style, I highly recommend grabbing a copy right away. You won’t be disappointed.
-Great Metroid style gameplay
-Large, expansive world
-Successfully brings a 2D gameplay style into a 3D view
-Numerous creative and useful innovations to the genre
-Stat tracking lets you know how many people you've punched
-...until you get bored of being invincible
-Unbalanced difficulty curve as the game progresses
-Chances of 100% completion can be ruined by a cut scene near the end