During the course of XBox’s 2nd annual “Summer of Arcade,” it was anticipated that Epic Games’ Shadow Complex would be the shining gem amongst the games available on XBox Live Arcade. Billed as “Metroidvania” because it combined the exploration, item and weapon upgrading, and overall style of the 2-D classic Metroid and Castlevania series, Shadow Complex was supposed to be a throwback without a “been there, done that” feel to it. After two nights of playing Shadow Complex, I’m hooked, and can safely say that Epic Games has knocked this one out of the park. Keep reading for the full review.
Let’s get the story out of the way first. It doesn’t suck, and it isn’t boring. It just so happens that it’s the least interesting thing about Shadow Complex, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. You play as Jason, a man who clearly has some background in fighting and stealth. Jason and his girlfriend go to explore a cave in the woods and along the way, Jason’s girlfriend is kidnapped. Jason, equipped with only a flashlight (oh, but it’s much more than a flashlight), searches the cave, only to discover that there’s a vast, guarded facility beneath his feet. And so begins Shadow Complex.
Now to the gameplay. Like its influences Metroid and Castlevania, Shadow Complex’s gameplay is 2-D, although I suppose it could be considered “2.5-D,” as Jason is able to shoot enemies that reside in a plane different than his. You can aim Jason’s firearm using the right analog stick, and a laser sight sticks to whatever is going to get pumped full of lead. It makes shooting enemies more of a skill and less of a guessing game, as after just a little while, my aim improved tremendously. In fact, after playing around just a bit, I found the controls to be smooth and fluid. Whether Jason is sprinting, crouching, jumping and firing, wall-jumping, climbing, etc., the controls are easy enough to make for fun, non-frustrating gameplay.
You have to be careful to explore every aspect of your environment, as a “door” may not always be the correct passage to use in order to progress in the game. Air ducts and vents are often the way to travel, and many barriers can be destroyed to expose new passages. However, some barriers can be destroyed only be weapons or items that you’ve yet to discover, hence the substantial amount of backtracking involved in Shadow Complex. The flashlight you start the game with is really more of a scanner, and barriers that can be destroyed using certain weapons or items will change into a certain color when the flashlight is aimed at them; the barrier’s color will indicate exactly what weapon or item is needed to destroy it.
In addition to grenades, Jason can equip (or rather, upgrade to) scuba masks, jet packs, and other items to help him overcome obstacles. It’s this design that makes Shadow Complex so reminiscent of Metroid; grenades and jet packs have replaced missiles and the high jump boot. I’m hoping there’s a Screw Attack equivalent eventually.
By pressing the “back” button, you can access a map at any time. This map will show you not only where you’re supposed to go, but where you’ve been, along with marking rooms that may have hidden items and, perhaps most important of all, save points. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been ready to stop playing, only to say to myself, “Just one more save point.”
When engaging enemies – which, so far, have been humans, some super-soldiers, and some ED-209-esque machines – Jason can seek cover by crouching behind crates or other objects (a la Gears of War), although this may not always protect him. What’s best, though, is that each gun Jason finds has unlimited ammo. There is a small lag time when Jason has to reload a clip, but the bullets never run out, so firing at everything like a mad man isn’t always a terrible strategy. Samus’ ice beam and wave beam were unlimited, so why not a submachine gun, too? And really, there’s just no better feeling than discovering a new firearms. I damn near leaped through the roof when I found my Carbine.
And it’s not just weapons that can be upgraded. There are grenade packs, which enable you to carry more grenades (you start at 6), as well as health upgrades, which are like Energy Tanks from Metroid. I’ve collected three thus far, so my maximum health went from 100 to 400. There are also armor upgrades and other upgrades I’m yet to find, but it’s nice to make your character more powerful, regardless of how it’s done. Even cooler, Shadow Complex actually has a leveling-up system, complete with experience points and increased abilities resulting from moving up a level.
I really can’t recommend this game highly enough. Any fan of Metroid or Castlevania (and really, who isn’t a fan of those games?) should love it. It’s hard to believe that this is a downloadable game. The bar for XBox Live Arcade games has been raised quite a bit, and it’s all due to the addictive, nostalgia-inducing-yet-fresh-and-original Shadow Complex. Download this game immediately!