ESRB Rating: T
Developer: Chair Entertainment
Review by: Bill Jones
Old-school gaming fans are in for one hell of a treat with Shadow Complex – the sophomore Xbox Live Arcade title from Chair Entertainment (Undertow) – a side-scrolling action-platformer that takes its influences from the likes of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (with a visual style reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid), but reinvents them for a new generation rather than simply rehashing old ideas for a retro cash-in.
Shadow Complex is based on the Orson Scott Card novel Empire. The player controls Jason, who is on a camping trip with his girlfriend, Claire. The two become separated and Claire is abducted by a shady military organization. Armed only with a flashlight to start, Jason goes in search of his love only to find a larger conspiracy unfolding before his eyes, one that could see the whole country, then world, in disarray. Jason continues the search for Claire, but the two realize they must also do something to stop the bigger threat. Jason acquires bigger and more lethal weapons and gadgets, and explores an incredibly large underground base, strategically taking on enemies as he goes.
The player controls Jason on a 2D plane, but he and the environment both have a 3D element that sees shootouts carrying over into the “background.” The action is intense, requiring players to try different approach options and strategically carry out battles using the appropriate weapons and environmental attributes, including sometimes stealthily working a room with cover and close-quarters melee attacks. Players are faced with everything from grunts, to heavily armored baddies, to mechs, all of which are tossed into the innovative climactic battle sequence that really shows off the capabilities of the game.
And yet, with as much combat as there is to be found in Shadow Complex, it is not the focus. The core excitement here is exploring the world Chair Entertainment has created from Card’s work. As the story progresses, more and more of the map is revealed to the player, expanding to be much more than meets the eye upon first encounter.
The map is presented in a grid, with a legend showing nearly every door, item and more. It is possible, and altogether likely, that a player makes it to the end of the first playthrough without even touching every square on the grid, but it becomes evident by the end that all of the passageways become connected into one incredibly giant base. The world design is incredible. While it always keeps in style and tone with the story, there is plenty of variety to be found, and an endless supply of fun to be had in backtracking once objects found later in the story open up more secrets from early in the game. And Chair Entertainment has done an amazing job of playing to this strength, loading the game with plenty of collectibles that actually benefit the character in addition to giving players that coveted 100-percent mark to achieve. The first time through the story comes in at roughly six hours, but the game could easily hit 15 hours with replayability.
If that’s not enough, Chair Entertainment has tossed in three tiers of challenges, ranging from quick time runs through a simple section, to involved puzzles that were reportedly pulled from the original campaign. They are fun in their own right, and add a competitive element to the game for players who will want to achieve the top times and scores.
That said, Shadow Complex does have a few notable drawbacks, the biggest of which is the 3D combat where the player is restricted to 2D movement. It seems like a cool idea, and shows well in an opening sequence where a helicopter appears down an alleyway in the background. The player pushes the right analog stick up, and the player turns to the background and fires upon the chopper, taking it down. It’s a cool concept, but the mechanics have a tendency to get a bit cluttered when they matter most, in big battles with a horde of enemies all over the screen. With no simple enemy toggle, but a sort of aim-lock aide, the laser of the gun may be drawn to an enemy on a slight angle to the back, when one in the foreground (on the 2D plane) is a more immediate threat and could be easily dispatched with a shot to a barrel, but the gun just won’t aim in the right direction. It can be an annoyance, but the situations in which it occurs are fairly rare.
Those 3D issues also make it complicated at times to realize when a player is behind cover that will protect from those shots from the back. The animation delay on dying enemies is sometimes a pain. And it would have been nice to see the story a little more fleshed out. As far as dialogue goes, there is at least one notable line that strikes the heart of cheese like a Michael Bay flick.
But the story is mostly solid, the voice acting engaging and most of the script much better than those few lines. The presentation of the story – oftentimes unfolding through conversations in a room below when a player is sneaking through an airshaft – is clever. The animation moves and cutscenes aren’t quite to the standards of a disc-based game, but impress greatly as an Arcade title.
To that end, Shadow Complex gets it right when it comes to the small details that make a game. The first mech battle isn’t completely over when Jason takes it out of commission, for example. There is still the guy inside who pops open the hatch to take a couple last shots at the protagonist. The combination of items used to acquire collectibles keeps gamers thinking. The small defense robots can be punted. And the final battle of the game – while it comes almost too soon for anyone who really falls in love with world – is absolutely stellar and leaves gamers begging for more from Chair Entertainment.
Shadow Complex is a throwback to a style that gamers who explored Planet Zebes roughly 15 years ago will know and love, while never resting on the previous accomplishments of likeminded titles. It pushes the boundaries for both the genre and Xbox Live Arcade in its level of immersion and innovation. The replayability and overall “bang for the buck” cannot be understated. Its few small indiscretions are nowhere near enough to mar the overall experience. Chair Entertainment gives action-platformer gamers nearly everything they could want and more in Shadow Complex.
For more info, www.xbox.com