Shadow Complex Review

By Adam Sessler - Posted Aug 17, 2009

Is it a small downloadable game with the production values of a retail title? Is it a big expensive game hiding in an anachronistic format to exemplify the downloadable model for future game sales? Shadow Complex on Xbox Live Arcade is nothing short of a curiosity in how to frame its achievements.

The Pros
  • Exceptional controls and level design.
  • Classic gameplay without the classic problems.
The Cons
  • Cranky people won't get it.

Is it a small downloadable game with the production values of a retail title?  Is it a big expensive game hiding in an anachronistic format to exemplify the downloadable model for future game sales?    Shadow Complex on Xbox Live Arcade is nothing short of a curiosity in how to frame its achievements.  The one thing that is indisputable is that this game is a ridiculous amount of fun to play.

In Shadow Complex you play Jason, he’s an every-dude.  He’s with his girl Claire and they’re going to explore some caves.   Within 45 seconds, Claire’s been kidnapped by some strange high-tech military types and brought into a secret compound inside the hills.  From this point on, you not only try to save the girl and learn more about the dastardly plots against America, but slowly transform from bro to badass.  The story is told crisply through several unobtrusive cutscenes and maintains a pleasant tongue-in-cheek tone that never weighs down the proceedings.

“Back in my day…”

To be fair, it’s nice to have a good story, but Shadow Complex is all about the gameplay, the gloriously simple, addictive gameplay.  Chair Entertainment has been open about SC as its homage to “Metroid-vania” games, those 2D masterpieces that combined running, jumping, shooting and exploring; its treatment of each element within the game is pitch-perfect..  If there was one game that Shadow Complex honors the most, it is Super Metroid, as the game follows the convention of opening up the map through the acquisition of new weapons and items. Plus, it puts a heavier emphasis on accessing every nook and cranny rather than focusing on the complexities of combat.  This decision only works to the player’s benefit, as the various rooms that compose the astonishingly large map feel like individual playgrounds that invite you to find the hidden items and exits.  Woe be it to the compulsive “find-it-all” player, as the clever spatial puzzles that lie behind the placement of SCs goodies can occupy you for quite some time, adding many hours to an already-remarkable length.

Shadow Complex Review

Not that Shadow Complex is so slavishly devoted to the action platformers of yore that it also replicates their sadistic and unforgiving difficulty and opacity.  Here you have a map that alerts you as to where you next objective is -- optional for those with something to prove -- and as you pass through rooms, you will be notified if you missed a hidden item.  What’s clear from this decision is how Shadow Complex focuses on the pleasures of this classic game formula and intends to share them with people of varying skills and patience.  Nothing in the game is impossible to accomplish and rarely did it feel like there was only one way to succeed.  The jumping and aiming mechanics are exceptionally solid which, combined with the frequent save points, invite experimentation rather than punish the player for failure. 

Ka-Pow

Shadow Complex does have its fair share of combat, there are many proto-fascist goons to eliminate in their underground hide-out and, as the game progresses, many fun toys to eliminate them with.  As is standard in 2D side-scrolling games, shooting and aiming are fairly perfunctory but deeply satisfying, thanks in no small part to some well-implemented controller rumble.  It would’ve been easy for Chair to limit the experience to the same “assembly line of death” seen in the classic games that inspired SC, but Jason can aim at enemies in the background of the two-dimensional frame. It really gives the gunplay an extra level of drama.

Shadow Complex Review

When you add in how gorgeous the game is -- a fantastic display of Unreal Engine 3 grafted onto a 2D template -- to the rest of the game’s accomplishments, Shadow Complex might be the most deceptive game of the year.  It plays so well, looks so good and offers so few obstacles to enjoyment that the elegant crafting of the game disappears behind the veneer of breezy simplicity.   It’s a subtle deconstruction of the core elements of excellent game design and should not be missed.