As one of E3 ’09’s most-acclaimed games, Shadow Complex hit XBLA with more fanfare than most. With that can come crushing disappointment when a game doesn’t live up to its hype. Fortunately, Shadow Complex isn’t one of those games - it exceeds the hype and provides players with the best-looking Arcade game yet, as well as one of the most enjoyable and longest-lasting ones as well.
Shadow Complex is a pastiche of classic gaming - combining the core gameplay of the side-scrolling Metroids with the silky-smooth animation and platforming of Flashback/Out of This World, while also throwing in a bit of stealth and even a little Bionic Commando. Like the Metroids - you’re free to explore the world at your own pace while acquiring new items to open certain doors and progress further. Sometimes, that exploration will lead you off the beaten path and enable you to unlock items before you’re supposed to be able to, which is quite thrilling when it happens.
There’s also a bit of Flashback/Out of the World thrown in with incredibly-smooth animations and more advanced platforming actions like ledge jumping/hanging , and even some stealth. Thankfully, unlike the Metal Gear and Splinter Cells of the world, it’s mostly optional and doesn’t get frustrating - even when your items are few in number and stats are low early in the game.
The only that truly annoyed me was the lack of transporters anywhere in the massive world. Normally in a game of this type, you would have some kind of teleportation device to help cut down on the time back tracking. Here though, it’s all done manually, which can greatly pad the amount of time needed to beat the game, as well as add to the frustration level since one wrong turn can send you searching for an hour trying to get back to where you want to go. And that’s if you don’t accidentally save the game - which will almost assuredly happen since save points are so plentiful. Definitely having a back up of a major save point on a memory card with this, because that alone can save you some time.
Despite that oversight, Shadow Complex is still a top-notch game. One thing that amazes me about it is that no matter how far you are - whether you’re starting out armed with only a flashlight, or have spent enough time with it where you’ve got a super suit capable of super-speed, jetpack-enabled flight, and the Bionic Commando-esque hookshot integrated into it, the game always controls very well. Jumping is always easy to do, and while aiming does take a while to get used, after about an hour of play, it’ll be second nature. Spending time on the tutorial missions will help you greatly - I recommend at least trying out before playing the full game, as it’ll really help you work out the kinks and get used to things. After you’ve leveled up a bit, the aiming in Shadow Complex is near-perfect. The “move with the left stick, aim with the right stick” format is well-done and allows you to move and aim anywhere, including at foes in the background, with ease. Beyond offering up the usual array of long and short-range weapons players have become accustomed with games like this, there’s also some hand-to-hand combat done with the B button that is new to the genre and adds a new wrinkle to the gameplay that makes combat in the other genre entries seem almost archaic by comparison.
While its core gameplay is highly reminiscent of side-scrolling Metroids or the newer Castlevanias, I found Shadow Complex’s plot to be more engrossing and its very near-futuristic setting and grounded main characters are more appealing to me than the ones featured in those series‘. Here, the main characters are presented as average folks, which makes them easier to relate to. Instead of trying to vanquish an ancient vampire for the 1,000th time or defeat a giant brain, you’re simply a young guy with some combat training trying to save your trapped girlfriend Claire… and stumble upon preventing a modern-day civil war from erupting. The in-game cutscenes regularly show the concern that Jason and Claire have for one another, as well as convey the sheer scope of the mess they’ve found themselves in. What starts as a simple rescue mission turns into a do-or-die situation for the nation‘s leaders with some interesting twists thrown in. The plot isn’t too overbearing - it’s referenced when needed, leaving the bulk of your time spent actually playing the game instead of just watching things unfold.
Graphically, this is easily the most advanced XBLA release yet. The Unreal 3 engine is used wonderfully to craft a world with lush environments full of intricate details. You can make out each rivet in the factory area, or see each leaf in a tree when you’re outdoors. The 3D graphics also don’t get in the way of things too much - although there are times when an object will be in the foreground that prevents you from seeing your character, it wasn’t so bad as to cause damage. It’s just an annoyance that probably could have been resolved by making foreground objects transparent to some degree when that happens. The animation is also excellent - aside from some shortcuts like not animating levers being pulled, it flows smoothly and looks realistic. As a result, it adds another layer of reality to the goings on.
Shadow Complex’s audio is mostly top-notch throughout. The music is amazing - the developers have filled the game with excellent music; mainly slow, melodic classical stuff that is more varied that I expected. Violin music is used at various points and adds a level of eeriness to the game - especially at a point where you flood an area that before was once teeming with life, and after you flood it, the lives are left and you swim through the area now filled with bodies floating and a haunting violin score punctuating the scene.
The sound effects are similarly great - everything sounds just as it should, and the hand-to-hand combat sounds make each punch and kick seem all the more vicious. Similarly, having enemies scream in terror at times also adds something to the presentation. The voice over work is fantastic. There aren’t a lot of characters here, but the ones that are featured all come across as real people because of the voice work - which also makes them much easier to root for or despise as the case may be. The acting is always believable and doesn’t veer into melodrama despite the large scale of the plot making that an easy thing to do.
All in all, Shadow Complex is a finely-crafted game that is sure to please anyone with a fondness for the older Metroids or the newer side-scrolling Castlevanias as this offers up a similar experience, with some of its own touches that help it stand out from the rest. Between the endlessly-explorable world and online leaderboards for campaign/training mode times, and the enjoyable nature of the gameplay, I can see this being a very replayable game.