A beautiful homage to a genre that's been forgotton for too long
A long while ago, in a time of inferior technology and rustic gameplay elements, the side-scroller reigned supreme. The genre has spawned some of the greatest games of all-time, but like all good things, it went away for a while. Being unable to cope with its absence, Chair crafted Shadow Complex - a quirky, futuristic, side-scrolling shooter. To put it quite simply, it has resurrected the genre in the best way possible.
The long-running Castlevania series and the earlier Metroid titles are usually credited with being the best examples of side-scrolling ingenuity and Shadow Complex pays homage to these games in almost every way. The graph-paper maps, exorbitant amounts of upgrades, ridiculous varieties of platforming puzzles and weapons, it’s all here. Orson Scott Card’s “Empire” was also the basis for the story, giving it instantly more appeal. Speaking about story, the protagonist’s name is Jason Bailey, a normal dude who’s out frolicking with his latest pickup at the bar. Quickly, a seemingly harmless day of cave diving turns into a search and rescue operation from the clutches of a super-terrorist organization called the Restoration.
Okay, so the story isn’t exactly the most detailed narrative on the planet, but this is an arcade game and that’s one of the biggest shockers. The amount of shear depth is startling and the visuals Shadow Complex doles out are seriously better than some big-budget, full-priced games out there. It’s Unreal Engine 3 at its finest. But the gameplay is really what makes the game shine. It’s standard side-scrolling fair with a twist that can only be described as 2.5D. That means enemies can be patrolling in the backgrounds and crates could be just off to the side of where you are walking. You’d think it would make shooting a little tricky but since the game’s aiming works a lot like the shooting in Geometry Wars, you don’t have much of a problem hitting where you want.
My favorite aspect of the classic side-scrolling formula is being rewarded for exploration. Hell, exploring is practically synonymous with the genre. Not only will you inevitably run into some beefy items and exciting upgrades while you light up all those squares on your map, you’ll also receive more experience which is a reward in itself. As you level up you’ll gain additional passive statistics which don’t seem like they do much, but every tenth level you’ll be thrown something immensely satisfying. For instance, if you reach the 20 level the game reveals the entire map for you. It may not help those who are only interested in clearing the game, but it’s a godsend for the completionist out there. And who in their right mind would stop playing the game when you’re that close to getting the shield-dispensing helmet that deflects all manner of projectiles? That’s what I thought.
If you’ve ever played some of the classic side-scrollers, you’d know that towards the end of the show it can become quite a hassle to find certain things. Maybe there’s a secret wall you have to hit to find an item, but it’s uncharted on your map and there’s no clues to its location. Chair has paid attention to old problems like this and labeled absolutely everything. Rooms with items are marked with a “?” and become a simple dot once you’ve taken it. Different floor sections are color-coded and there’s even a blue line (which you can disable) that shows you where you need to go next. The only issue that’s apparent is that sometimes there are multiple items in a single/save room and you won’t be able to see them on the map. It’ll definitely make completionists frown since it’s pretty tough to remember those spots.
Shadow Complex isn’t a long trip (my first clear took around five hours) but it’s such a memorable and fun experience that you’ll definitely go through it multiple times. If you choose to do so you’ll also retain your level and certain goodies you may have found if you took the time to get everything. There’s also a time-trial mode called the Proving Grounds. It’s nothing spectacular but the puzzles are a nice, fun distraction and the awesome leaderboard integration makes it fun to compete with friends.
With Shadow Complex, Chair has given the jump-start the side-scroller genre needs to get back on track. It’s deep, intuitive, and it makes certain full-priced games look like pure garbage. Even if you’re not a classic side-scrolling junkie, there’s something about pushing yourself to explore the depths of the underground facility, something about finding one more upgrade for your suit, getting one more headshot for the leaderboard count. And that’s when you realize it’s fun at its purest level.