Shadow Complex Preview: To Get Past Metroid

It would take more than a double-jump, grappling hook and a screw attack to reach the lofty goal of being a new generation's 2D Metroid or Castlevania. But that's what Shadow Complex could hope to be.

I've spent two hours and twenty minutes this morning with the game, a game made with great love for its predecessors. And no, of course it's not as brilliant as Super Metroid — what has the cleverness, the pacing, the geographic diversity, the unusual mix of power-ups? But it's clearly a game built on the same values. It's a game made to be played like it's a map being traced with a finger, followed closely, fueled by the excitement of where to explore next and where to come back to later.

Here's how it is shaping up so far…

What Is It?
Shadow Complex is an Xbox Live Arcade game set for release when it's steamy outside, an August alternative to the heat. It is a side-scrolling adventure game in the style of 2D Metroids and Castlevanias, but rendered with a 3D engine. As with its inspirations, it is a game about exploring, finding power-ups and using newly enhanced abilities to reach previously inaccessible areas of the map. This one's all about a guy fighting his way through an enormous underground sci-fi military base and, so far, trying to keep his girlfriend alive. It comes from Chair Entertainment and parent company Epic Games, chiefly designed by Donald Mustard with oversight from Gears of War alpha-developer Cliff Bleszinski. It's a 1200-point game, costing $15 and the build I downloaded, which appears to be final, is close to 900 MB.

What We Saw
I was supplied with code of the game that appears complete. I played the first two hours and twenty minutes, discovering 32% of the game's expansive 2D-map and finding 20% of its mostly-hidden power-ups.

How Far Along Is It?
The game appears to be done, but because it's a downloadable, it's probably eligible for more last-minute tweaking than most.

Shadow Complex Preview: To Get Past Metroid

What Needs Improvement?
Too Much Nostalgia: One of the themes of Kotaku's coverage this week has been developers' love of past influences and the extent to which that love can be applied too thickly. Shadow Complex's first hour is almost a sequence of homages to sequences from Super Metroid, Empire Strikes Back and other boys-will-be-boys action-packed inspirations. Evoking the past so much is risky, especially given that this game's chief interactive predecessor is considered one of the greatest games of all time. That the early action in the game is more conventional and its environmental puzzles less interesting than Super Metroid's initially sets Shadow Complex needlessly back. It's only when Shadow Complex starts getting past the early homages and starts showing off its own ideas that it demonstrates its worth. (That first hour isn't helped with its Uncharted homage. Yes, you have the voice-actor, but did you also need to dress your guy in the half-tucked shirt?)

Ledge-Grabbing: The controls are mostly good but compromised in one common way: it's hard to sometimes know whether you're going to drop from a ledge or just hang from it, whether you're able to pull yourself up from a ledge or whether you're going to be stuck. A smoother scheme there would be nice. Otherwise, exploration is a breeze. Finding the hidden nooks and crannies is, as always, great fun.

Blind Enemies: It was good for Metroids to be set on worlds full of dumb monsters and Castlevanias to have dullards as foes. It's less convincing to see Shadow Complex's military-base guards and super-soldiers not recognize our hero when he's standing in the same room, just because he's a little too far away but standing in plain view.

Shadow Complex Preview: To Get Past Metroid

What Should Stay The Same?
An Identity Of Its Own: A couple of moments in the first two hours show what Shadow Complex can do that its predecessors never did. I won't spoil them, but just know that they take advantage of the modern technology being used in the game. And that tech helps this game a lot. This is a Metroid/Castlevania-style game with audio cues, lots of smart use of vocals, and great graphical depth. It's one in which 3D lighting and the hero's flashlight can make hunting for weakened hatches and ducts a more visually interesting endeavor. I did not get far enough into the game to find Shadow Complex's more unconventional gadgets, which will surely distinguish the game even more from others in its genre. Where I'm at, it's a game of machine guns and grenades — a different set of armament than you'd see in a Castlevania, to be sure — but not yet one that allows the action to be consistently clever. The good news is: the game appears to be getting there the further I play.

Pacing: One of Bleszinski's favorite hallmarks of good game design is good pacing. That's evident early as Shadow Complex moves smoothly from one exciting firefight to the discovery of an interesting new environment and then back to an interesting combat scene, punctuated with the discovery of a new gun or the hints of a new hidden power-up to crawl around and find, maybe hidden under an elevator or above the cafeteria full of guards.

Depth-Perception: The game's made in 3D but played in 2D. And that's used to great effect almost every minute of the first two hours. You'll think you've shot the last guard in the room when a door in what should have just been the boring background graphics of the level opens and a phalanx of troops rush in for the kill. It looks great and is fun, particularly because you can shoot into the background. You may only be able to move in 2D, but your gun does 3D. It's Shadow Complex's strongest quality and one that will make it tough to ever return to flatter games in this genre.

Final Thoughts
As I said up top, Shadow Complex could never hope to be as good as the best Metroid and Castlevania games, and I don't think its developers expected it to be. What I've played so far — past an opening a little too in love with the past — shows signs of how this genre can move forward. I haven't even mentioned the XP system which adds a little RPG character growth for every discovered room, every kill — and a multiplier for more if the kills are done creatively.

Shadow Complex is looking like a strong new entry in a style of game that too few developers seem interested in trying to make. Maybe other developers are intimidated. The bravado evident in the well-paced action so far shows that these guys most certainly were not.