Alright, first things first: this is a review of the game itself. If you have anything political to say, please reserve those comments for Eddy’s thread from earlier this week.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to the details, shall we? Shadow Complex is an Xbox Live Arcade game created by Chair Entertainment and released August 19th, 2009. It retails for for $15, whatever that translates to in Microsoft magic money. I’m sure most folks have at least heard of it by now. Per Major Nelson’s site, it was the top selling game on XBLA this past week as well as the #8 most played game on Live. That’s pretty impressive. I suppose this review is for those of you still on the fence about buying it.
One of the first things that hits you when you start playing the game is that the visuals are fantastic. It might seem like an odd choice to base a side-scrolling platformer around the Unreal 3 engine, but it turns out to be an inspired decision, both because the game is one of the better looking titles I’ve played recently and because it makes it possible for the 2d world to feel fully three dimensional.
When you walk through a room, you move along a a strict two dimensional plane, but the enemies exist in a three dimensional world. You might see soldiers standing on a platform 20 feet in the background, or hiding slightly forward in the foreground. Bosses might crawl out of the background or swoop down from the sky. The game has a fairly intuitive aiming system that makes this possible – you simply aim near an enemy in the background and your laser sight auto-adjusts.
Another strong first impression is the voice acting and story. The game begins with a short prologue where you control a fully equipped soldier who squares off against a helicopter. It’s a good introduction to some of the gameplay mechanics you will become familiar with later in the game, and sets the stage for the overall conflict.
Once that scene ends, we meet our hero, Jason Flemming, who is about to go hiking in a cave with his girlfriend Claire. They are barely into the cave before she disappears and Jason starts realizing this cave is more than it first seemed to be. It’s actually a giant underground military complex, and Claire has been captured by soldiers who seem to think she is a spy. The story is continued through cut-scenes as well as little in-game moments that play out as Jason makes his way through the complex.
The in-game scenes are an especially nice touch. You will, for example, be sneaking through a ventilation shaft when you overhear soldiers chatting about their plans to overthrow the government, or you’ll walk up on a group making fun of one soldier having trouble with his armor. You can either sit back and wait to see how these scenes play out, or you can jump in, guns blazing, and kill the conversation (and its participants). Jason also occasionally talks to himself, usually to make a sarcastic remark or point out something he wants to come back to later.
Of course, if you are familiar with the Metroid and Castlevania games, you are familiar with the need to return to previous rooms to find secrets once your equipment has been upgraded. When you start the game, you have limited abilities and no map of the complex, but once you’ve spent a few hours running around, you have much more powerful weapons, armor, and special abilities. One of the biggest draws of the game is finding all of the hidden equipment. Some of it is hidden in plain sight, and some of it seems nearly impossible to get at first glance. There are also a few upgrades hidden in such a maddening fashion that I had to resort to a walkthrough find them.
Although it is possible to beat the game quickly – I’ve heard claims of folks beating it in under an hour – the most rewarding way to play it is to explore the full complex and tease out all of the puzzles. I played through the whole game on “normal” difficulty and managed to find 100% of the items and 100% of the map in 11 hours of play time. That’s pretty amazing for a $15 downloadable title, and doesn’t even include the “Proving Grounds” challenge packs, which took me 2-3 hours to beat. There are $60 retail games that don’t offer that much content, and Shadow Complex has the benefit of being so addictive to play that I started a second playthrough a few hours after beating it.
It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, however… I do have a few small quibbles. The enemy AI can be a bit lacking at times. You can walk into a room and point your laser sight and flashlight directly at an soldier and they won’t notice anything. Although there are strategies that you are meant to follow in the boss battles, I was usually able to beat most of the bosses in a pinch by simply hanging out and barraging them with explosives. As I noted above, some of the upgrades are so very well hidden that the only way to find them is to throw grenades at everything and then jump around all over the place, which was a bit frustrating. The game did also have a glitch or two – occasionally it would start up with audio but no video and I had to quit and relaunch.
Even still, I have no qualms about recommending this incredibly addictive game. It’s got a rewarding campaign that includes a number of challenging puzzles, and the price point is very attractive. It might take years for a triple-A retail title to reach the $15 bargain bin. To conclude: I already want more Shadow Complex. I can has DLC?