Shadow Complex is an inspired XBLA romp — inspired in the very sense of the word — by Nintendo’s seminal classic: Super Metroid, released back in 1994 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). It borrows Metroid’s side-scrolling, platform-jumping, enemy-exploding, exploratory game play well; an inspired adaptation then, but one that does little else.
That’s not to say that the game isn’t good. It is. In fact, the game, much like its protagonist, stares into a vast abyss and questions the contemporary gaming industry’s obsession with $60 price tags slapped on games with $60-million budgets that offer little more than 6 hours of mediocre game play. In that sense, it is like an indie movie shaming the Hollywood bigwigs — at 15 dollars of fun, Shadow Complex is the District 9 to Hollywood’s Transformers 2.
For those new to Shadow Complex, the game offers a simple setup: you are thrown into a vast, interconnected cavern with nothing but a bad t-shirt and a torch. As you explore the underground, your repertoire of moves, weapons, and apparel will increase and evolve, in step with your mapping of this ‘Shadow Complex’.
Your motive starts off as a ruse to rescue your girlfriend, but quickly (and perhaps a little too suddenly) takes a turn to saving the world (or, in this case, San Francisco) from the evil machinations of Cobra Commander. None of which matters — as soon as you take control of Jason Flemming, the protagonist, your sole motive is to move left, right, up, down, jump, shoot, explore the complex, explode the baddies. The game succeeds in that this simple game play mechanic is motivation enough for the next dozen or so hours.
Where’s the fun?
The game is actually a side-scrolling affair rendered in two-and-a-half dimensions: think of it as a Mario plat former (or Super Metroid) but with an added depth. You often shoot across a two-dimensional plane, but certain enemies and bosses will rebel against society and pop-up along the z-axis; the game generally auto-aims at these misfits but you might have to intervene during the odd occasion. There is also an element of melee as you can punch and karate chop baddies (sending them flying across screens as you evolve) and kick bullet-spewing, plasma-hurling turrets (also across screens) if you are close enough. Finally, the game takes a page out of Gears Of War and offers a pop-and-shoot mechanic: find cover, duck, pop out of cover at the opportune moment, and take out your foes with well-aimed headshots.
The fun and the real meat of the game, is in the exploration. If you are the type that obsesses over finding out every secret, charting out the last centimeter of a game’s map; then this game will keep you sleepless over nights. The underground complex is vast — it offers varying landscapes from jungles to underground mines, to overarching commercial ‘workplaces’, to tight, claustrophobic air vents. This sprawling complex then, is the true hero of the game; the sole reason to keep going, finding items, unlocking doors, and yes, punching the odd baddy in the face. Out of my way chum, there’s a missile pack behind you.
Shadow Complex does not evolve the Super Metroid formula beyond its 2.5-dimension presentation. Is that a bad thing? Not when you are inspired by perhaps the best 2d action game. It sticks close to Metroid’s formula and the greatness rubs off and transfers well.
The game could have used a bit more evolution though, some more time in the DNA vats of Chair Entertainment, the developers of Shadow Complex. Its music, for one, is truly underwhelming (except for one breath-taking section where the piano is used wonderfully). It also could have offered 2009 a little more to the Metroid formula — traversing the map is tedious at times. Being able to teleport across save points would have been a great benefit to this game. Another point of contention, is that the map of the game — a very vital piece — can sometimes be misleading: You might find yourself plan a romp across the map, carefully charting your progress in your mind, but be stopped mid-way, frustratingly, as you find a wall that was not shown on the map, stopping you in your track. Or when the map shows a locked door but there is no such thing in the actual game. Plus representing a 2.5d world as a 2d map makes for some head-scratching instances of “where is that damn item, it should be right here!” Moments like these make you question the validity of the map; a very bad thing when the map practically serves as the game’s foundation. There are also minor bugs — the rag doll physics that see an enemy fly across the screen will sometimes cause one to spin like a top.
That it succeeds is both a testament to the genre and to the audacity and meticulous planning of Chair Entertainment (the entire game was built on a “massive sheet of graph paper”). As a $15 title that offers well over 15 hours of entertainment, Shadow Complex, is at the very least, a fresh approach to game releases. Hopefully, the game will rejuvenate the genre, and spawn many like it in the years to come.
You owe yourself the pleasure of experiencing this game. If you have an Xbox 360, an internet connection, and 1200 MS points (about $15 or Rs. 730) to spare — download and play the summer highlight of the gaming world (well, apart from ‘Splosion Man).
Xbox 360 : (XBLA title) 1200 MS Points
Developer : Chair Entertainment, Epic Games
Publisher : Microsoft Game Studios
Score : 8.5/10