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Shadow Complex – Game Review

Shadow Complex

Release Date: August 19, 2009
System: Xbox 360
Rating: Teen (Mild Language, Violence)
Price: 1200 MS Points (~$15 US)
Developer: Chair Entertainment/Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft

If you had told me six months ago that a downloadable arcade title was going to be one of the best releases for the Xbox this summer, I’d have laughed at you. Of course, the summer release schedule originally looked a little more impressive than it actually turned out to be, but still. Even with only a couple of premiere titles shipping, an Arcade title as top spot? And not a port of some platinum-clad champion title of old, but an original property? No chance. So imagine my surprise when, ten minutes into playing the free demo of Shadow Complex, I was punching in digits to get my full download.

Adding to the amazement is the game’s genre: it’s a 2D sidescrolling platformer, a genre that had its heyday when this year’s college freshmen were in diapers. In the mold of the classic Metroid and Castlevania titles, it’s a sort of “open-world” platformer, with a massive map meant to be explored piecemeal as you level up your little jumpy dude and find new pieces of equipment that help you bypass various color-coded doors and obstacles. Along the way, you bash, shoot, kick, and explode a variety of enemies, all of whom will respawn in short order after you leave their room.

[ad#longpost]There’s a story, too, but as with most of the games I’ve played in the genre, it doesn’t much matter. You are cast as Jason Fleming, an average joe who just happens to have been trained all his life by his creepy spec ops Dad towards a military career that he ultimately turns down. On a hiking date with his (apparently recent) girlfriend Claire, they stumble across a mysterious underground complex, Claire gets snatched, and Jason gets mad. In his attempt to save Claire, he stumbles across a vast conspiracy to “liberate” the United States by force. This conspiracy is staffed entirely by goons who can’t see across a room or hear a guy in plated metal rocket boots sneaking up behind them, calling the likely success of their takeover into question. Still, they do seem numerous. The game even kindly keeps track of how many you have pummeled, how many you have shot in the head, and how many have screamed as an explosion knocked them off a ledge to fall to their death.

I’d say the writing is probably the weakest part of the game, but there’s so little of it that it seems a bit generous to even say the writing had a part in the game. Nonetheless, it has caused some amount of tizzy, as the game’s developers have a relationship with controversial homophobe Orson Scott Card, whose Empire novels share a setting with the game. Some even talk of boycotting the game because of Card’s involvement, but that strikes me as a bit extreme. It’d be like refusing to watch Doctor Who because Card once wrote a tie-in novel. The actual writer of the game’s limited story/dialogue is one Peter David, who many of you no doubt know from comics work and elsewhere. All that said, you could play the game with the TV muted and wouldn’t miss out on a substantive thing about the game. After my first playthrough, I skip all the cutscenes to get on with the jumping, maiming, and blowing stuff up.

Graphically, the game is stunning. Using a (no doubt modified) Unreal Engine, the game “fakes” a third dimension to the graphics, with a background that occasionally produces foes that appear to be well off in the depth of field. It can be a bit disconcerting at first, but once I got used to it (and stopped trying to move in that direction), it’s pretty cool. All this mucking about with perspective let the team deliver a very graphically polished game in a relatively small footprint (though it still creeps close to 1GB…I bet the early arcade developers held under 100MB are pissed about now). The map itself is the game’s most significant opponent, and it is enormous. Room designs vary from straight-up gunfights to very elaborate puzzles that require the use of your wide arsenal of explosives, grappling hooks, rocket boots, etc. to traverse successfully.

In addition to the game’s campaign mode, there are a variety of “Proving Ground” challenges to beat. These are smallish stand-alone puzzles to test your reflexes and skills with the various equipment used in the game. The early challenges are essentially little more than tutorial modes for the main game, but beyond the first tier, the challenges can get insanely difficult. Achievement hunters will also appreciate the intrinsic challenge set out by a couple of the game’s achievements, particularly the Minimalist approach, which demands that you complete the game with only a tiny fraction of the hero’s gadgets and upgrades available.

Shadow Complex plays like a love letter to a bygone age of gaming. It doesn’t shy away from its obvious influences for a moment, drawing strong connections to its pedigree from the venerable Metroid and Castlevania franchises. Despite being rooted in a genre that had been terminally ill for years, the 2D platformer, it manages to inject a ton of fun into a dragging late-summer release schedule. And all this from a downloadable Arcade title, no less. For a quarter of the cost of a full-on new release title at the game store, you can pick up one of the summer’s best titles.

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