Shadow Complex is an experiment. Developers ChAIR wanted to create a game in the same vein as classics like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but they wanted to evolve the genre by fusing that time-tested gameplay with some new wrinkles and the advancements gaming has made over the past 15 years. Because of the experimental nature–it’s not like there’s any kind of data to track on how well this style of game would do in today’s gaming world–Shadow Complex is an Xbox Live Arcade game, but don’t be fooled by its form of distribution–this is a game that could stand at retail as far as depth and replayability are concerned, and you can get it for just $15 from the comfort of your couch.
You play as Jason Fleming, who is out on a date with a woman he met named Claire. Claire takes him to go for some hiking and spelunking out in an area she says she is familiar with from her earlier years, but things go awry almost immediately as Claire is kidnapped by an unknown organization that has built an underground base. You know, your typical date gone wrong. What Jason doesn’t know is that this organization, just a few minutes earlier in the game, assassinated the Vice President of the United States in order to start a second civil war–the game runs parallel to events in Orson Scott Card’s Empire novel, and also helps setup the sequel, Hidden Empire. They are a bit uptight about people snooping in their business, given what it is they do, so Jason is caught up in the middle of this all because some cutie hit on him at a bar, not because he’s some trained NSA agent like they think he may be.
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Aug. 19, 2009
Like in the games Shadow Complex is inspired from, you start with nothing except the most basic of tools, and find more as you progress through the levels–hiking gear, a pistol, grenades, and eventually, a lightweight cybernetic suit that turns you into a fearless killing machine. The game is also very non-linear, as you will see areas you need to travel to hours down the road almost immediately, but you will have no way of accessing them at that time. You can see these areas by shining your flashlight on them; they will glow a certain color, and you will know which item or ability you need in order to get through the obstacle. Thankfully, your map keeps track of all of that stuff for you, so that you can just go about your business finding alternate paths to Claire in the meantime.
That exploration is the driving force behind the game, as the level design is so fantastic that you can spend hours just running around unlocking upgrades and items and wiping the floor with the baddies in your way. Unlike in Super Metroid though, your character can level up through exploration and killing, so you may even get to a point where you are so strong that you do not need all of the upgrades scattered throughout the game. Your level also sticks with your character even when you begin a new game, so you can get a bit of an assist when trying to beat the game faster or dig deeper into the facility.
In addition to replicating the classic gameplay style almost perfectly, Shadow Complex has a few other things going for it. The backgrounds are 3D, so even though the action is on a 2D plane, you can shoot into the background to take out the enemies coming at you from hallways or from side doors. While games on the SNES could (and did) this kind of thing using Mode 7 in order to simulate 3D, Shadow Complex is capable of using actual 3D thanks to advancements in technology and the use of the Unreal Engine, and it looks and plays great (with a little help from aim assist, for those of you that can’t hit a target with the right thumb stuck). The story is also very good, and adds to the game without intruding on what is ordinarily a very isolated feeling experience. Acclaimed comic book author Peter David (Spiderman, Dark Tower) collaborated with ChAIR on the script and story, and the end result is concise but productive dialogue that gives Shadow Complex the extra personality it needs.
If you want to collect 100% of the items, it should take you about 9-10 hours. That’s the first time, of course, as you will want to play again. And again. There are multiple levels of difficulty, as well as an achievement for speed running the game collecting just 13 percent of the items–figuring out how to be so good and fast at the game that you can beat it without collecting almost anything is half the fun, and gives this game the ability to suck hours and hours out of your life. It’s possible to beat Shadow Complex with just‚ four percent of the items, meaning you need to figure out how to get by with say, just the foam (which can be used to build platforms for you to stand on if you use it right) and the pistol–in addition to your now very high level character. That makes each playthrough of Shadow Complex different than the previous one, and despite your experience with it, it also makes it more difficult for you. Now that is replayability.
In addition to the campaign, there are also leaderboards so you can see how much faster and how much more violent you are than everyone else on Xbox Live Arcade. There is also a Proving Grounds mode, which acts as a tutorial but also acts as Speed Runs 101. You get to use a variety of the items in the game, trying to run through hallways quickly, wall jump effectively, kill large numbers of enemies without taking a scratch, and a many, many other things that will teach you skills you can utilize in the campaign. This challenge mode is a welcome addition, the kind of thing that is missing from many games today, but was so prevalent (and so much fun) generations before.
Blast Factor: Shadow Complex is a throwback to the glory days of the sidescrolling exploration game, and it fuses those elements with some of today’s in order to create a game experience that is both fresh and loads of fun to play and replay. Don’t be fooled by its Xbox Live Arcade status, as it is a deep, difficult and engaging game that will suck you in for hours, and all at a $15 price point. Shadow Complex is a wonderful tribute (and evolution of) the games it was inspired by, but it’s also so good that those oblivious to the past it draws from will still love it too.
Shadow Complex is an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive, and the last of the “Summer of Arcade” titles for the service in 2009. It is available for 1200 Microsoft Points. For more on Shadow Complex, check out our interview with ChAIR.