Review: Shadow Complex (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Shadow Complex
Developer: Chair
Publisher: Epic / Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Action
Release Date: 8/19/09


Some of the first video games that are the fondest in my memory are 2D side scrolling games. Games like Super Mario Brothers and Contra that had you scroll from stage to stage with a boss at the end of each. Metroid and Castlevania evolved the genre, with sequels that utilized massive maps that required exploration. This of course coined the terms “Metroidvania” and “Castleroid”. The XBOX Live Arcade is no stranger to side scrolling games, with popular games like Castle Crashers and Braid being pretty successful hits, and even recently with TMNT: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled coming out as part of the summer of arcade. Another part of that promotion is Shadow Complex and it has carried a lot of hype since its big reveal at E3 this year. This game is only twelve hundred Microsoft Points, or about fifteen dollars, and it won nine “Best of E3” awards, but can it live up to the hype?

Let’s Review

Story/Modes

This game follows a simple action formula. Boy meets girl at a bar. Boy and girl go hiking together. Girl gets kidnapped by a right wing faction with its sights set on another American Civil War. Of course boy, madly in love with the floozy he met the night before, has to use his special training to fight his way to rescue. Ah, what a boy will do for a girl who shared her company with him for one night… his father would be so proud. All kidding aside, this game has the potential for a great story but it is hard to find.

This games campaign is based off a book called Empire written by Orson Scott Card. Empire is a fictional novel about a second civil war in America, but this time between right and left, and with today’s modern politics you can see the possibilities. Basically a right wing organization called the Progressive Restoration is involved in a military coup to correct the current existing government. I have not read the book yet so I can’t really elaborate more than that, however, after playing this game you can bet that it is on my radar to pick it up soon. Ah, marketing a book with video games does work. Anyways, the story of Shadow Complex is set in the events leading up to what happens in Empire. So it is more of a prequel. However it is ALSO intended to set up the sequel to the novel called Hidden Empire due out later this year.

In the main story of Shadow Complex, our hero Jason Fleming, armed with a trusty flashlight, goes searching for Claire, a girl he met the night before. She was kidnapped by the Progressive Restoration and he must enter the Shadow Complex and find her. As he goes along he will learn of a plot by the Restoration to liberate San Francisco and the Chicago Cubs. Sorry, had to throw the Cubs in there, as some of the soldiers jokingly mention relocating the team. Anyways, what they are trying to accomplish by liberating San Francisco I had no clue about. The story, like I said before, has potential but I never really understood what they were trying to accomplish. I played through the campaign twice and the only reason I truly know what the Progressive restoration is all about is because I looked up a plot summary to Empire on Wikipedia. The writers really dropped the ball here; they have great story from a novel and they could have added so much depth, and this really just killed the ending for me. This is another reason I want to read the book, as I desire more knowledge, and maybe that was the intent of the game. One thing I did find amusing is that there is an alternate ending where boy leaves girl behind and high tails it out of the complex, but I won’t say any more than that as you will have to see it for yourself.

Besides the main campaign, the game also has a mode called proving grounds. These are just small timed challenges, each of which utilize the different abilities of your character. One of the interesting things about this mode is they remove all of the color, to give it a sort of simulator effect. A lot of the later challenges are harder than anything I encountered in the main campaign, and keep in mind I have only played it on normal, and that is only 2nd most challenging of four difficulty levels. There is no online mode, and with the way this game plays I just don’t see how it would been playable online. Even two player Contra style would have been hard.

Story/Modes Rating: Enjoyable

Graphics

Shadow Complex utilizes the Unreal engine that many Gears of War fans are so familiar with. Even though it is a 2D side scrolling game, all of the environments are rendered in 3D. This makes for one amazing looking game. This is definitely above what you would expect from an XBLA game. This game definitely utilizes a lot more color than Gears, which is apparent every time you step outdoors. There are many other environments like mineshafts, mech factories, and even underwater caverns. The water effects in this game are stunning. Swimming is quite enjoyable and it is really cool to swim in a recently flooded chamber with the bodies of your enemies floating around you.

The cutscenes are nothing special graphically, but they get the job done. After all, this is an XBLA game; you can’t expect epic cinematic cut scenes. Some of them seem a little choppy, however. All of the cut scenes are able to be skipped via the pause menu, so if you find them slowing down the game, just skip them. This is really helpful during multiple campaign runs, as there is no need to hear the story over and over again.

The proving grounds have some unique graphics as they are pretty much devoid of color, unlike the campaign. Most of the textures and all of the characters are just plain white with shading. The only objects that have color are things you can interact with in the environment, like ledges to hang on and heat that will burn you to a crisp. This graphical style with no color gives it a strong simulator effect. It allows you to focus more on your actions rather than the beautiful 3D backgrounds that are present through the campaign.

Now, something that was more amusing than annoying is that a lot of times, the character models would phase into the textures. It is great when your hero is crawling through a vent with no head; how the heck can he see where he’s going? Like I said, it was more amusing than annoying, and not enough of a bother to knock it down too much. Another flaw is that there were some periodic slowdown issues in the game. They seemed to most frequently occur when using any kind of turret. The turrets are some of the most enjoyable parts of game, as they put you into a first person shooter mode, but because you are manning a turret there are usually more enemies. More enemies means more work for that Unreal engine and it just can’t seem to keep up. Overall it doesn’t take away from gameplay too much, though.

Graphics Rating: Great

Sound

As far as the music goes in Shadow Complex, it is the pretty much standard orchestral music you would expect in a action/thriller movie. It crescendos during boss battles to add to the fight, and also gets kind of eerie sounding when you need to be quiet and stealthy. Most of the times the score is pretty quiet and hard to notice in the background, and it actually blends quite well with the game. The song during the credits, however, was a little too much, as it was some sort of sappy rock ballad. If you are going to use an actual artist for the end credits, pick someone most people have heard of.

Well, onto the sound effects. One thing I noticed that I think needs mentioning is the effect of swimming underwater. The second you go underwater, everything has a muffled sound that gets softer as you dive deeper. And guess what: it gets louder as you approach the surface. It adds a very realistic effect to the swimming, and it also helps you know when you are getting close to the surface. Gunfire and grenades have a very unique sound underwater as well.

The voice acting is nothing special. The character of Claire sounds oddly happy while being tortured by Restoration. She must be one of those kind of girls. See what happens when your hero picks up some random girl at a bar? The main baddy sounds like Cobra Commander and looks like him too. You know this game might have made for a good G.I. Joe title… just saying. The main character, Jason Fleming, has occasional lines thrown in throughout the gameplay, like when you first get grenades he mentions something about going back to areas you previously couldn’t get through. This is pretty helpful and at least relevant. As you explore, you walk into numerous conversations between the soldiers of the Restoration, and sometimes when you kill them they will scream in terror. If you get them to scream often enough, hey, you may get an achievement. Overall the sound in Shadow Complex is pretty much what I expected it to be.

Sound Rating: Great

Gameplay

Shadow Complex is massive for an XBLA title, and this game is all about the upgrades. As you are exploring this massive complex, you are also building your arsenal along the way. Like I said before, you start out with just a flashlight, which is probably one of the most beneficial items in the game. This is because it allows you to discover how to open certain doors. When your flashlight shines on an object, its color tells you how to get through the door or obstacle. The colors are yellow for gunfire, green for grenade, purple for foam, red for missile, and blue for hyper speed. So remember to keep your flashlight on. Grenades, foam, and missiles are secondary weapons that you can pick up throughout the game. I hope by now you know what grenades and missiles do, and the foam is very useful for freezing your enemies, making bridges, and allowing grenades to stick to certain areas. The last secondary item is the hook, which basically turns the main character into the Bionic Commando. For those that are not familiar with that game, the hook basically allows you to hook onto any surface and pull yourself towards it. These four secondary abilities are switched by pressing left or right on your D-Pad. There is an option in the menu that allows you to change each direction the D-Pad into a different weapon, which makes sense to me, as there are four secondary weapons and four directions on the D-Pad. For the grenades, foam, and missiles there are numerous upgrades hidden throughout the complex, which allow you to maximize your payload all the way to infinite ammo if you find them all. The hooks are always unlimited.

There are also several armor upgrades. The first you will find is my favorite. Now, have I mentioned that I like swimming in this game? Well, I do, and the first armor upgrade, conveniently, is an underwater breathing device that allows you to swim forever underwater without drowning. You also get two thruster upgrades that allow you to double and then triple jump, and soon enough you will be jumping and swinging all over the stages like a flying monkey. You get some pretty cool power armor for better protection, as well as jumping up and smashing down on your enemies. The hyper speed boots are a terrific upgrade as they allow you to run on walls, ceilings, and bust through certain areas as long you can build up enough momentum. Lastly there is a helmet that is so cool I won’t even tell you what it does, as it’s possibly the hardest upgrade to unlock.

There are other types of items to find in the complex, such as health upgrades, which boost your maximum hit points, and armor upgrades, which increase your defense. There are also gold bars and passkeys which unlock secrets in the game. Overall there are one hundred and twelve items to find in Shadow Complex, and it can take a while and a lot of backtracking to find them all. Trust me, I know, as I went after all of them, and it definitely took me a while. My first run through the campaign took me about seven hours and my second run about eight just so I could collect all the items. There are, however, some who have claimed to have beaten the game in under an hour. due to an exploit within the complex.

One thing that I noticed that was a pain about this game early on was the aiming. There are many times when enemies are in the background of the 3D environments, and because you can only go left or right, it’s not like you can just walk back to them and pop them in the head. You move with the left stick and aim with the right, and as a result, sometimes you have move to get that right angle to hit a target in the background. This is frustrating at first, but you do get used to it. The aiming when using the turrets, however, is a blast. There is nothing like mowing down your enemies in spray of bullets. Well, that and it’s the only time this switches the gameplay into first person shooter mode. Granted, you are stationary for this, but it is still pretty cool.

There are no set stages in Shadow Complex, as it is pretty much just one giant complex you move throughout. Therefore, the bosses are scattered all over the map, and they range from giant mechs to power armored soldiers. There are plenty of save rooms as well, which are usually full of health and ammo. The map will point out where all of the save points are, as well as where the items are located. Keep in mind, it will only show you what section an item is in, not its exact location. Early in the game you can only see sections you have been in or ones exposed through data terminals. When you get far enough away from one section, if you go back, the enemies in that room will respawn, with the exception of bosses. This will make backtracking to find items fun rather than just running from empty room to empty room.

Gameplay Rating: Classic

Replayability

Shadow Complex only allows you one saved game, which means if you start a new campaign, it overwrites the previous one. It would have been nice to have at least a couple of saves, as only thing that carries over is your experience level. Speaking of, at certain experience levels you will unlock benefits. At level four, which you should hit after defeating the first boss fight, you will unlock a gamer pic for your Xbox profile, for example. As another example, once you achieve level twenty, the whole map of the complex will be revealed to you, along with item locations. Usually this will happen on your second run through, which will make it easier to find all of the items. This game also has two achievements involving beating the game two different ways and one for reaching level fifty, which would require you to beat the campaign about three to five times, depending on what difficulty level you use. There are also a few bonus awards, which are like achievements, that encourage playing the campaign differently; one is for ditching the floozy, for example, since she likes the torture anyways.

The game also keeps tracks of all sorts of stats and compares them with your other friends playing the game. Some these are viewed on the leaderboards from the menu and others are viewed in game. For example, if I get a headshot, a tally will pop up with my total lifetime headshots and those of my friends on Xbox Live. This also works for times you make the enemy scream, melee attackd, and kicking bombas (short exploding robots). If you are competitive with your Live friends this could be pretty fun, especially when playing the game simultaneously. Otherwise there are no other Live features. I personally feel there is no need for multiplayer in this game, and found playing through the campaign a second time was pretty enjoyable. So for a fifteen dollar arcade game I could definitely say you will get some play out this game. However once you have beaten the campaign once or twice, there is not much more to do unless you desire all of the two hundred points worth of Gamer Score the game gives you.

Replayability Rating: Above Average

Balance

This is where Shadow Complex has some major flaws. Most if not all of the bosses are exploitable. There were some bosses where, if I got them off screen and just shot in their direction, their health would go down and I wouldn’t take any damage. Others I could just stand on top of and drop grenades on. Any time you use a turret, you are pretty much invincible, and without spoiling to much, they are used a bit towards the end of the game, which made the whole last part of the game a breeze.

Most of the challenge in the game is figuring out how to get to some of the items, which involves a lot of trial and error. This game forces you to utilize all of your abilities to get all of the items, but only a few for bosses. Granted, there are numerous ways to take down the bosses, but direct combat always seemed best. I would like to have liked to see a little more strategy involved, as one boss did have you use two abilities to take it down, and it was by far my favorite battle in the game.

Balance Rating: Below Average

Originality

When it comes to side scrolling games, a lot of this has been done before. Shadow Complex, though, does have some original elements. Shooting things in the background of the 3D environment, for instance, was interesting, and while I am sure this has been done before, it was pretty new to me. This is probably one of the more graphically enhanced side scrolling games I have played, and it really has a feel of playing something totally new. With all the RPG’s and first person shooters I play, it was refreshing to play something totally different for a change. Even though it is different from what I currently play, it is also familiar and a bit nostalgic.

While this game is not bringing anything revolutionary to the genre, it is bringing it to a next generation console, and it has the ability to keep up with full retail titles. It has amazing graphics and fantastic yet classic gameplay. This is not the kind of game you would expect to download from Xbox Live Arcade.

Originality Rating: Good

Addictiveness

Shadow Complex is something I found to be hard to put down. Once I started, I went through two full sessions of the campaign and most of the proving grounds. This game would have been far more addicting if a lot of my friends were playing and I could compete with their scores, but as it is it still held my interest. With all of the stats it keeps track of, that would made this game far more enjoyable, as I would have kept going back to try and compete with a frien’ds headshot count. Being that I only had one other friend playing this, I kept seeing their small score stay the same and mine get higher and higher.

This game is easily one that can played for few hours at a time. Going from room to room is a blast, even if you’re lost. You will feel like something is being accomplished with the constant leveling and item finding. This drives you to find more, and hence, play more. After finding all the items and basically becoming invincible, however, the wandering from room to room is not as much fun. So for the casual, non-competitive player, you would probably just do the campaign once and be done with it

Addictiveness Rating: Enjoyable

Appeal Factor

It is hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t find Shadow Complex to be an enjoyable game. It would definitely appeal to the old school gamer looking for a nostalgic 2D side scrolling experience. Gamers with a lot of shooters under their belts might find the targeting a little cumbersome at first, but eventually you can pick up. The leveling and the upgrades will appeal to RPG fans, to a point. The gameplay in this game is pretty simple to pick up and enjoyable to play, the swimming especially.

So I wish I could tell you to rent this game, but as it’s a download only, you should definitely check out the demo. Heck, a year from now you’ll probably still have to buy it at full price. If you’ve got money to burn, buy this game, as it’s definitely worth fifteen dollars. I played for about 15 hours, all tallied, so that’s one dollar an hour, and most movie theaters charge more for my entertainment.

Appeal Factor: Great

Miscellaneous

The real question that comes to mind is, are you ready to spend fifteen bucks for Shadow Complex? You probably are willing to spend fifteen dollars on a classic game in the used bin with no remorse, but when you buy that fifteen dollar game, you can play it, beat it, trade or loan it to a friend. Now that I am done with Shadow Complex and don’t really feel compelled to go through another campaign run, what do I do with this 800+ MB game on my hard drive? I can’t return it. I can’t sell it. In the end, I guess it’ll sit there until I delete it. Pushing games this way is great for the game companies, but is it great for the consumer? A fellow DHGF writer, Chris Bowen, brings up the issue with downloadable games in his Unbranding the Sheep article, and the point rings true for me.

So you could wait a year and see if it hits the Deal of the Week, but more than likely it will remain fifteen dollars for a long time. Not a lot of games can retain their value like that, and if they could, I would have far less games. This is trend that is likely to continue with consoles, and whether that’s good or bad depends really on you. I have a few friends that haven’t spent a dime on DLC or XBLA games, though granted, they don’t have Rock Band. Myself, I have no problem spending a few bucks on XBLA games if I think I will get value out of them, which I did with this game.

Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre

The Scores
Story: Enjoyable
Graphics: Great
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Below Average
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Enjoyable
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary:

The beautiful 3D backgrounds and fun gameplay more than make up for Shadow Complex’s weak story. The developers have rejuvenated the 2D side scrolling game for this next generation console, and this game will remind you of many classics like Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. For completionists there is definitely some replay value as you explore, looking for all the items. The only online feature is the leaderboards, which you can use to compete with your friends’ scores and times. While the fifteen dollar price tag is high for an XBLA game, it is low considering the amount of gameplay time you will get. I would recommend you to rent this game at the very least, but as you can’t, you should download the trial at least and see if it is a fit for you.

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