Previously in my Super Metroid review, I had made numerous petty swipes at the critically acclaimed Shadow Complex for imitating the master but missing the point. When I wrote that petty cheapshot disguised as a review for an all-time classic, I was but two-thirds of the way finished playing Chair’s downloadable Xbox Live Arcade release. And now that I’ve finished the game, I’m proud to report that I was wrong. Shadow Complex isn’t a cheap Metroid clone. Shadow Complex is a big-budget but misguided Metroid clone.
Shadow Complex takes the subtle atmosphere and unique sense of identity that I loved about Super Metroid, and completely disregards them in favor of the art direction of every other military shooter before it. You play as Nathan Drake’s genetic twin, a generic every-upper-middle-class male model who just happens to have a sordid military past (for no reason other than to explain how an ordinary man can stealth kill armoured terrorists) who’s woman gets kidnapped by a military group hellbent on doing…bad things. This sounds like a hybrid of every other generic video game plot combined with the other half of generic video game plots, which makes it all the more surprising that it’s based on an Orson Scott Card novel. “Empire” serves as the inspiration for Shadow Complex, and my understanding is that the novel is based around Democrats and Republicans starting a civil war. If the book has any kind of political or social meaning or message, then its completely lost here, and Chair would’ve been better served not to reference the author and have one less royalty cheque to write. Does anyone else out there remember the Xbox video game Advent Rising? No? Then you just proved why Orson Scott Card should be banned from any involvement from the video game industry.
I had previously praised Super Metroid for letting the gameworld tell its story, and criticized the game’s one unskippable introduction cutscene. Shadow Complex, on the other hand, tells its inconsequential storyline through many unskippable cutscenes. All the while throwing in an inconclusive ending that teases at a sequel…though I’m not sure if “sequel” means a new game or Mr. Card’s next novel. This game would be a lot better served without the author’s involvement on numerous levels.
You start the game as just a man carrying nothing but his hiking equipment and an Affliction t-shirt, going up against guards with machine guns and giant robotic mechs. You explore the giant facility that is the Shadow Complex (I presume that is the building’s name) and as you go from checkpoint to checkpoint, you pick up new weapons and powerups. You start out with but a petty flashlight and a small handgun, but upgrade into automatic weapons, rockets, fancy armour with double jumps and so forth. There’s a nice progression of power and gradual sense of development into the superpowered military super-soldier of the future, and by the end of the game, you’ll be bawking at the sight of walking spider-tanks trying to halt your progress.
Though you’ll have to deal with a lot of nonsense in regards to the actual combat first. The game is essentially attempting to bring the mentalities of a third person shooter within the confines of a 2-dimensional side scroller. You aim and aim for head-shots with the right stick, and fire your gun and secondary attacks with the right shoulder buttons. What Shadow Complex doesn’t account for is how your view of the screen is a bit more limited in a 2-dimensional scroller, as it is very common for enemies that are out of your sight to open fire. I’m sorry, I’m wrong, this isn’t a 2-dimensional scroller but rather a “2 and a half D” scroller. The half part comes in the form of enemies that can travel to and fro from the background and open fire. Besides how you can’t instant melee-kill enemies that exist on this separate plane (and the difference between what enemies do and don’t exist on your plane can be hard to tell at times), but the game will often fail to shift your character’s aim towards other planes to fire back. The whole 2 ½-D business turns out to be a wash in this game anyways, as the only other use of that background plane is for annoying gun turret sequences.
And while it can be viscerally satisfying to rain bullets on a large group of red-and-white troopers like the American you are, you quickly come to realize that you’ll be doing a lot of that. There often seems to be only two kinds of enemies; soldiers and little robot-thingies that you can punt. There are bosses that include such generic archetypes as the robot spider and the walking robot, but nothing that’ll leave a lasting impression. And it’s all the more annoying that they won’t leave a lasting impression as you’ll have to fight several of the bosses many times over in your quest. The repeating boss fight continues to be one of gaming’s most annoying trend. And for the most part, they’re all destroyed in the Wolfenstein-robot-Hitler fashion of “stand there and pelt them with anything in your arsenal til they fall.”
Speaking of annoying trends, your character levels up with experience. Why? You don’t even get to assign your newly acquired stats to attributes of your choosing. Your character just automatically receives “improved accuracy” and other bonuses you’ll shan’t notice. Why, in a linear action game, does Shadow Complex need an experience system? To make subsequent playthroughs easier? Because every other game has one?
Despite being a hybrid of setting stereotypes seen in modern games (the warehouse, the factory, the military bunker, etc) the Shadow Complex itself may be the most interesting facet of the entire game. It’s hard to not take a look at the map and not want to explore previously inaccessible areas with your newfound abilities. Your Flashlight, purchased at Home Hardware, has the ability to colour in doors and corridors that can potentially be destroyed with various weapons. These weapons include gunfire, grenades, a freezing foam, a rocket launcher and the running charge attack ripped shamelessly from Super Metroid.
For a time, the completionist in you will feel obligated to search every nook and cranny for every hidden upgrade and item. However, one quickly learns that these levels aren’t quite friendly for the backtracker in you. I can’t help but ponder why a thin crate that can be cleared with a grenade can’t be cleared with a rocket. I know the video game logic reason; to prevent backtracking by placing a door in a suspended area where grenades can’t be planted. It’s just that this is VERY annoying when I’m trying to backtrack for powerups. Another example; certain areas have a puzzle that require you to trick an elevator into moving away so you can climb the shaft and access hidden areas. However, the headache in trying to backtrack through one of these less-than-straightforward areas can be rather frustrating. This is a game that desperately needed to look at the “vania” part of “Metroidvania” and adopt the Castlevania warp system.
For those moments when you do decide to play the actual story of the game, well there’s the blue line. This blue line on the map will give you a succinct guide on where you need to go next. This blue line becomes your religion, your salvation, your everything. You can choose to turn the line off if you feel a need to go “old school” but really, why would you? Especially in a game where the path to your next powerup or objective is often very less than obvious (as “where to go next” is often on the opposite end of the map.) But even the blue line will sometimes forsake you in the name of testing your faith. For a spell, the game told me that I was to meet up with my girlfriend but gave me no indication of how to find her. I scoured back and forth all across the map, trying to find either her or the part of the map I needed to be at in order to trigger the magical blue line. After perusing a strategy guide, I found out that there was a well-hidden door that I needed to discover and walk through in order to…trigger the blue line so it could point me back to the opposite end of the map and the rendezvous point. In another instance, I had just picked up a new item, and a door in front of me just opened up. Common video game logic has one assume that the path forward would be through this new passageway. So I walk through, see a series of very difficult, near-instant death blue electrical traps that I attempt to carefully navigate. After losing a lot of health and clearing this brazen challenge, the blue line surfaces to tell me that I had went the wrong way! I was apparently supposed to return on the path I had just walked in order to reach my next objective. Why blue line, why has thou forsaken me?
The best thing I can say about Shadow Complex is that it effectively kills five hours of time. The game gets a decent amount of mileage out of its attempts to mimic the Metroids and Castlevanias of past, and it’s hard to not play the game, take a gander at the map and feel a psychological need to explore. However, the game feels rather imperfect in spots, failing to take in the most important lessons from its digital mentors. It’s certainly one of the visually better-looking downloadable titles available on account of its Unreal Engine fuel, which feels akin to Johnny Knoxville in The Ringer competing at the Special Olympics.
And do you want to know what other games are downloadable titles? Super Metroid on the Wii and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on the other systems. Two games that Shadow Complex imitates in format but neglects to imitate in spirit.
3 ½ stars