Lessons learned from games vary from person to person. In the case with yours truly and Epic Games’ Shadow Complex, I now know to never take a lady friend to a remote wooded area. That obviously sounds silly and borderline childish given the plot surrounds main character Jason Fleming stuck with the undesired task of stopping a sect of political revolutionaries, but that’s why the Xbox Live Arcade download is so special. It carries a serious overtone, but underneath is a blanket of light-hearted and corny humor that I could snuggle with any day. Yes, I said snuggle. But of course the intense Super Metroid-like (as if you didn’t see that reference coming) action doesn’t hurt matters either.
Yet before shooting anybody, I noticed what everyone else likely does upon starting the game…it looks freaking awesome! Shadow Complex is the first 2.5D game, download or retail, that runs on Epic Games’ very own Unreal Engine, and my goodness does it represent. The visuals aren’t perfect [like so many expect current-gen shooters to look], but the blemishes bear no lasting effect. The character models are exquisite, despite odd texture flickering during cutscenes, animations are supreme, despite some obviously unintentional though humorous jittering (I saw an enemy do ‘the worm’ for a couple minutes on a staircase), and the special effects are simply breath-taking for this being a $15 (1200 MS Points) title. The only major flaw is a very noticeable drop in frame rate when there are more than four active enemies on-screen, meaning guns are going off, and explosives are, well…..exploding. Shadow Complex easily ranks in the top five best-looking XBLA games alongside Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Trials HD and what have you.
But you know just as well as I do that eye candy can only take a game so far, which makes this author [and probably every other SC player] thankful that Chair Entertainment’s baby is without a doubt Super Metroid for this generation. While unfortunate that the lack of convenient accessibility throughout the underground base makes backtracking a pain in the butt sometimes, hunting down all the hidden goodies couldn’t possibly be more addictive. Jason starts off with a lowly pistol at level 1 and it’s your job to help him acquire everything and gain experience so as to become stronger. It definitely doesn’t hurt that he’s ex-military either. Despite previously separating himself from our nation's armed forces, Fleming reluctantly reawakens those instincts and training in order to survive "The Restoration".
How Shadow Complex controls also couldn't be simpler, which isn't a surprise given the game's 2D nature. The left analog stick commands Jason's horizontal movement while the right takes care of pointing his weapon. A laser sight is attached to each gun obtained to help you pick off enemies with relative ease. A projectile launcher makes its presence known as well, allowing you to lob grenades, launch missiles and even toss an immobilizing foam at foes. Firing bullets requires the standard 360 right trigger pull, and the bumper lets those aforementioned specialties loose. The left bumper turns your flashlight on and off, and the trigger executes a duck, then eventually a ground slam attack. The light attachment is a nifty tool in Shadow Complex because it not only illuminates dark areas (duh), but also serves as a pseudo-scanning device. Very similar in execution to the Metroid franchise, Shadow Complex employs doors and environmental objects that must be opened/destroyed by a specific weapon or gadget. Beaming your light at said obstacles makes evident what you need to eventually push through, though your map displays the same color-coding. I can clearly see all sorts of fans of Nintendo's own bounty-hunting series filling up one saliva bucket after another.
Generic soldiers aren't all that you kill in this rogue facility full of surprises however; Jason also faces off with mini-boss and big boss battles. This is where Shadow Complex borrows a bit from Kojima Productions' Metal Gear Solid property, because mechs are noticeably abound, and they comprise 95% of these fights. They're not quite as endearing as the conflicts Solid Snake has faced throughout his exciting history, but how could you do anything but smile after launching that last grenade or missile at an oversized opponent…only to witness a spectacular "BOOM!" on-screen. If you have an HDTV and complementing surround system to play the game with, you're in for a treat.
Still, more often than not, Mr. Fleming moves from room to room gunning down minions of the man behind the whole operation. Especially cool is that many sections of the base provide opportunities for environmental kills. Green-highlighted gas vents are happy to accept your grenades just so you can watch unsuspecting guards burn to a crisp on the other end of the pipe. Explosive barrels sit in abundance, calling out for a little lead penetration, or even little brother explosive (the grenade) to showcase an impressive fireworks display. I recommend exploiting such situations to their fullest too, because aiming your gun into the background isn't the most cooperative mechanic designed. It's an auto lock-on feature that I think would have been better off as player-manipulated. After all, is anyone but a hardcore shooter/Metroid fan going to download this game? Aim assist must cease and desist! Nevertheless, while weapons and the environment are fine and dandy, melee attacks serve as the Shadow Complex guilty pleasure. There are even achievements tied to pressing B when prompted nearby human enemies, wall crawling bombers, and even hearing victims scream as they plummet to the depths. There's just something about literally vocalizing "Falcon Puuuunch!" every time Jason winds up his fist to send an adversary absolutely flying that cracks you up. Who cares about sounding like a fool?
From an audio standpoint, Shadow Complex doesn't disappoint. I honestly didn't notice the music a whole lot unless I consciously paid attention outside of the frenetic action...but it sounded fine when I did. Sorry readers, I don't know if Chair Entertainment delivered an epic Super Metroid-like soundtrack. What you can appreciate though is the incredible sound effects! Every gunshot, explosion, outcry of death, etc, will satisfy from start to finish…and again, even more with an HD audio setup. Yet what impressed me the most is the voice work. The script wouldn't fill up an RPG mind you, but all of Jason's wise-cracking and the Restoration soldiers' overly dramatic dialogue fit the atmosphere of this action-intensive experience surprisingly well. (Uncharted anyone?)
I logged about eight hours to punish the final boss the first time, so the main campaign ranges between six and ten depending. Thankfully the game auto-saves [as it does every time you enter a room marked by a star on your map] before the last battle begins, so you can always head backwards and scavenge for missed hidden items. If that doesn't tickle your fancy at the time however, the Proving Grounds challenges are there to be conquered. There are three packs to work through, and they slowly build in complexity and difficulty, which is to be expected. Based on your finish time in each scenario, players can win the lowest reward, a bronze medal, to the champion-identifying Platinum …and yes, completing them all adds to your Gamer Score.
Shadow Complex has forever etched itself in our industry's rich history due to an unforgettable blend of classic and new ideas. Chair Entertainment has convincingly set the standard of all future download games, and not necessarily just those featured on Xbox Live Arcade. It's even amazing how the game thrives without online cooperative or competitive multiplayer. Heck, I consider the $15 asking price a travesty, because Shadow Complex is easily worth twice the cash. This game better sit in the top five XBLA games sold for a long time to come, or else gamers have some explaining to do!