In the ever-expanding video game industry, developers and publishers constantly go out of their way to try and convince people that their games are unique and different. Therefore, it came as a surprise when Chair Entertainment announced at E3 that the upcoming title, Shadow Complex, was essentially a clone of the older Metroid and Castlevania style games.
They didn’t try and sugar-coat their game with buzz words like “innovative” or “ground breaking”, nor did they say they changed the “Metroid-vania” formula. Chair simply let gamers know exactly what to expect when they paid $15 for Shadow Complex. What they neglected to tell us was that they had actually created one of the best, if not “the best”, Xbox Live Arcade games ever created. Read on to find out why.
Taking place in the near future, Shadow Complex puts you in the shoes of its love struck protagonist Jason Fleming. When the game begins, Jason has just fallen for a beautiful woman named Claire who convinced him to go explore some old forest caves. This lover’s getaway quickly turns disastrous when Claire gets kidnapped by a couple of mysterious soldiers. Armed with only a flashlight and Claire’s climbing gear, you must discover where she’s been taken, and try to rescue her before something horrible happens. Along the way you’ll find yourself right in the middle of a huge terrorist plot to take over the US, starting with San Francisco.
At its core, Shadow Complex never attempts to be anything more than a 21st century replica of Metroid: I’m not inferring that it’s kind of the same, but has a lot of its own unique ideas. I mean the game is extremely blunt in the way it has copied the action/adventure formula that Metroid coined more than two decades ago. Everything from the huge world map with block rooms and color coded doors which can only be opened with specific weapons, to the weapon and armor upgrade system and the level backtracking; it’s all there. Even some of the weapons and armor pieces are direct homages.
Don’t write this off as a carbon copy though. Chair Entertainment brings this formula into the 21st century by incorporating an updated control scheme along with an innovative 2.5D gameplay mechanic. The unique control set up will be the first big difference you’ll notice when you begin playing Shadow Complex. The days of using just a D-pad and the A and B buttons to control Samus are long gone. Thanks to the Xbox 360 controller, Jason can run, jump, and swim in any direction using the left analog stick, while aiming in any other direction using the right analog stick. What’s great is that if you are an old school gamer and want to aim and move with the left stick, that functionality is also built into the game.
Probably the biggest innovation that Shadow Complex introduces to the action/adventure genre is the 2.5D environment gameplay mechanic. This is really where the game shines and is probably what will have you remembering it long after you turn off your console. While the entire game is always played on a 2D plane, all of the environments have 3D backgrounds, which help give the world depth. Lots of other side scrolling games have 3-D backgrounds as well, but when you see enemies appear in the background you either can’t attack them or you can only do so once they move onto the player’s 2D plane.
Shadow Complex goes a step further and actually allows the player to be able to shoot at enemies in the background. This is all possible thanks to an intuitive aiming mechanic which detects the direction Jason is aiming and decides whether he’s doing so at an enemy in the foreground or the background. Amazingly, this works remarkably well, especially when you level up your accuracy rating.
Thanks to all of your weapons having a laser sight, it’s very easy to tell whether you are aiming into the foreground or background. During my play through, the game almost always knew which I was aiming for. There were only a couple of times it assumed wrong and in those situations there were multiple enemies all in the same line of fire. I can easily understand why it was having a hard time knowing where I was aiming.
During the course of the game you are going to have a lot of weapons to try out this new 2.5D game mechanic. When you begin, all you have is your trusty flashlight, which is actually your most important item in the whole game. With the press of the left bumper the flashlight turns on to show hidden passage ways, which are color coded according the weapon required to progress past them. For example, if a door glows yellow when you point your flashlight at it, it means your gun is required to break through it; green requires grenades; purple, the foam gun; red, the rocket launcher; and so on. I don’t want to ruin all the items and weapons in the game, but there are plenty, and some even have upgrades.
Another interesting twist Shadow Complex throws into the “Metroid-vania” formula is an experience leveling up system, which is only really utilized by Castlevania games after Symphony of the Night. Everything you do in the game earns you experience, which in turn increases one of three stats: accuracy, precision, and stamina. While combat is an obvious ringer for earning experience points, you actually get a lot more for exploring and discovering new parts of the map and finding new items. This allows the player to be more of an explorer than a killing machine if they choose to do so.
If killing is your cup of tea, there are other ways to get more experience points than simply shooting enemies. Whenever you use more interesting techniques to kill such as melee attacks or head shots, you get XP multipliers. This encourages the player to think of unique ways to go about dispatching their prey.
Speaking of enemies; there are plenty of them in this game. You’ll get a chance to aim your laser sights at everything from regular machine gun toting grunts, to war hardened veterans carrying gatling guns and grenade launchers. Additionally, no Metroid clone would be complete without an assortment of huge bosses, and Shadow Complex definitely has those in the form of huge robots and menacing helicopters.
During the course of the game you’ll fight your fair share of boss fights and while some of them might be the same bosses, the game always forces you to find different ways to defeat them. For example, near the beginning of the game you’ll use your gun and grenades to take down a spider looking robot. Later on you’ll fight this exact same boss, but you won’t be able to shoot it, and instead will be forced to use the environment to try and drown it. It’s this style of unique boss encounters that keeps the action fresh all the way to the final epic battle.
If exploring a huge world map, collecting lots of weapons, and killing all sorts of enemies isn’t enough to convince you to buy this game, maybe the incredible visuals will help. Thanks to the Unreal 3 engine, Shadow Complex is simply one of the best looking XBLA games available. Every environment, from the lush forest scenes to the dark greasy factory settings and the shiny clean laboratory levels, glisten with a graphical polish that is next to none.
It’s not only the visuals that impress. The audio will have you turning up your stereo as loud as possible to hear every last scream as your enemies fall to their deaths. While your character and your weapons might appear small on the screen, the sounds they make are anything but. Each explosion is filled with a deep bass sound that will rattle your living room until your neighbors call the cops. Every environment has its own unique sounds and typically there is no background music, except in specific circumstances allowing you to really become engrossed in the game. Chair really has a good feel for when to have no audio at all and when to turn things up to the max.
While there are a few glitches with Shadow Complex, they are few and far between. Sometimes the aiming is off due to new 2.5D aiming mechanic, and there can be issues trying to grab a couple of ledges. The difficulty curve is also a little jagged, with some later bosses in the game being way too easy. However, none of these issues detract from the overall package and can be easily overlooked.
Simply put, Shadow Complex is the best downloadable title ever created. As soon as you are done with the 6-9 hour story campaign you will want to jump right back in and do it all over. Thanks to multiple difficulty levels, tons of collectibles and achievements, online leaderboards, and a large collection of “challenge rooms”, there are more than enough reasons to keep coming back. Without a shadow of a doubt it’s the best $15 you will spend this entire year on any game. Now stop reading this review and go buy Shadow Complex. You won’t regret it.
Chair has perfectly captured the look and feel of the classic Metroid-vania style games, yet has managed to give it all a 21st century feel thanks to the Unreal 3 engine and a new 2.5D gameplay mechanic.
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Mix two parts Super Metroid, one part Contra, with a dash of stealth, and you have a gameplay combination that is sure to keep your hands glued to your controller.
While everything on the screen might be small, the sound effects make it all feel larger than life, with a soundtrack that fades in and out at exactly the right moments.
After your first 6-9 hour play through, you'll keep going back to compete against your friends in earning achievements in real-time, climbing the online leader boards, and getting the fastest challenge room times.
Shadow Complex completely revolutionizes the console's downloadable market by setting a new standard for quality that is second to none. Simply put, it is the best original game you can currently buy on XBLA.