An excellent combination of the old and new schools
Nolan North seems particularly fond of portraying the traditional, wise-cracking “everyman” as far as video games are concerned. In Uncharted: Drakes Fortune, he displayed his half-tucked prowess as Nathan Drake. In last year’s Prince of Persia reboot, his very un-prince like character turned out to be a run-of-the-mill thief stumbling into the lair of a dark god. This time around, North portrays Jason Fleming, your every day spy-trained salary man who just happens to stumble into a vast underground network of terrorist facilities controlled by none other than Cobra Commander. Thus begins Shadow Complex.
Shadow Complex is immediately notable for its use of the side-scrolling format in the vain of Metroid and Castlevania. You’ll run along an initially linear path, collecting everything from power-ups to medical kits while also killing whatever enemies are between you and your destination. There’s also quite a lot of jumping involved. Really, for anyone at all acquainted with the old school, it should all sound very familiar and very accessible.
And it is, which is probably one of the game’s strongest points. Shadow Complex goes out of its way to be both accessible, simple and complex at the very same time, all to the benefit of the gameplay. Most of the more complicated abilities and situations aren’t even presented until relatively late into the four-to-five hour running time, leaving the majority of your game time to fast, furious and thrilling action sequences.
The developers didn’t let everything fall in line with that old Metroidvania formula, however. Many of the aspects of modern game design have worked their way into the gameplay. Though you’re essentially limited to a 2D playing field throughout most of the experience, it’s made very clear that the game is, in fact, running on the Unreal Engine. Enemies will often fall into the backdrop, firing at your from locations you can’t possibly explore. Occasionally you’ll run into a sequence where you must utilize a machine gun turret, switching the game to a third-person perspective as you pelt foes with a storm of bullets.
Combat is mostly the standard side-scrolling fare. You can aim yourself, or rely on Jason’s auto-targeting which only seems to work about fifty-percent of the time. Through the early portions of the game, Jason is extremely vulnerable to all manner of attacks, making it relatively easy to find yourself back at your most recent save point. As the game progresses and new power-ups are acquired, Jason becomes a walking one-man army, entirely capable of rocking the terrorist facility to its very core.
There are plenty of obstacles blocking your path throughout the Shadow Complex, most of which are overcome using one of Jason’s varied gadgets. Grenades are the standard combat assistant, but more are acquired as the game goes on, including a grappling hook, a missile launcher, a jump-assisting jetpack and superspeed. Most of these are required in some form to help with destroying doors, ventilation grates, steel hatches and more. Jason’s flashlight helps tremendously, coloring-coding each encountered obstruction to correspond with one of your gadgets.
Shadow Complex is very linear early on, but at a certain point late into the game most of the world opens up allowing for further exploration of content you wouldn’t otherwise see by following the path granted by the in-game mapping system. There are plenty of hidden power-ups to find throughout the game world, and reason enough to do so given Jason’s general vulnerability to attack.
Some of the platforming bits frequently encountered over the course of the game do get a little tedious and frustrating, especially when they begin to involve the thrust pack. Double-jumping doesn’t seem quite as responsive as it should, triple-jumping even less so, and when the grappling hook is thrown into the mix, things begin to feel down right sloppy.
On the visual front, Shadow Complex is competent, but not much of anything beyond that. The few story sequences are angled from a perspective more angled toward the current generation, flipping off the side-scrolling for a short period. Many of the characters are inconsistent in their appearance between these events, especially Claire, Jason’s kidnapped girlfriend, whose nose and cheeks seem to alter between each shot of her. Other than the few faults, you can pretty much expect the flair of the Unreal Engine each time you load up the game.
Shadow Complex takes an old formula and does a lot of really neat stuff with it. The gameplay is traditional while also pulling off a sort of modern vibe, the game’s longevity certainly warrants the price tag, and the narrative is just compelling enough to give you that extra push to the finish. As of yet, no Xbox Live Arcade title has offered this much with its single-player focused design, and ultimately if side-scrolling platformers are your bag, then there’s no reason not to add this one to your library.