Chair Entertainment's Shadow Complex is a rare entry in the genre trail-blazed by Nintendo's Metroid, the side-scrolling action-adventure-explore formula later successfully aped by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
In Shadow Complex, our hero is Jason Fleming, a hiker who starts ill-equipped on his girlfriend-saving quest with little more than a flashlight and a fancy belt buckle. After stumbling upon a massive underground facility housing a rogue military force, it's clear that Fleming is in way over his head. But like Metroids past, Fleming gains new abilities and new weapons through equipment upgrades, granting him access to areas of the base where he'll find new abilities and even more powerful weapons.
Shadow Complex could quite possibly be the perfect balance of 2D gameplay and 3D presentation in high-definition that Metroid and Castlevania fans have demanded, but not yet received. Actually, you know what? It is.
The Sincerest Form Of Flattery: Shadow Complex borrows from the best, but stands capably on its own in the "Metroidvania" school. There are direct relationships between some of Shadow Complex's and Metroid's upgrades—Fleming's foam gun and Samus Aran's ice beam, for example—but Chair has brilliantly reinvented some, helping to differentiate the weapons in its Xbox Live Arcade title from the games that influenced it. Shadow Complex actually trumps some of Metroid's power-up staples, offering a triple-jump(!) and eliminating the need for a morph ball to enter confined space. Yes, Fleming can crouch and walk at the same time.
Turn On Your Flashlight: Shadow Complex is charitable enough to make scanning for secrets painless. Fleming's flashlight illuminates in an instant just what you'll need to bypass certain doors and air ducts. If they glow red, they'll require missiles. Purple doors require a foam shot. Green doors can only be destroyed with grenades. The flashlight makes scanning your surroundings effortless, something Shadow Complex completionists will likely applaud Chair for, if they've ever grown weary of switching on Samus' visor or slicing every brick in sight as Alucard.
100% Pure Love: There are over a hundred items—from gold bars to armor upgrades to health expansions—to discover and collect in Shadow Complex. The design behind keeping these items well hidden is brilliant, as some are genuinely tricky to find, even when you have a clear marker on the map showing you where a power up is squirreled away. This kind of exploration and studying one's surroundings is the kind of thing that keeps me up until 3 AM, going for "just one more save point." In my first play through, I only managed to find 99% of the items. Three still elude me, something I'll remedy in my second play through.
2D, Meet 3D: Shadow Complex looks gorgeous, particularly when the player ventures into the less industrialized areas or spends any time underwater. The environmental design manages to be varied enough so that even room after room of barracks and factory floors are recognizable. The addition of a Z-axis, letting players fire into the screen and beyond the 2D plane is a neat trick, but it's the twin-stick evolution of the Metroidvania formula that's far more enjoyable.
Power Levels On The 10s: What Shadow Complex borrows from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and the Koji Igarashi-directed games that followed it is the experience leveling system. You'll earn XP from killing enemies and uncovering new areas of the map, eventually boosting your stats, like stamina and accuracy. Chair makes this system interesting in two ways. First, if you chain together a series of non-standardized attacks—melee attacks, headshots, etc.—you'll receive an experience bonus multiplier for each kill, encouraging the player to be creative, while also making the action more frenetic. Second, at levels on the multiple of ten, Jason will get specialized bonuses, including a health boost and... somethings we won't spoil for you.
Proving Grounds: When you've burned through the main campaign enough times to do everything—finish it with 100% of the items, then with 13% of the items, then in under three hours on the hardest difficulty—you can enjoy the Proving Grounds. This is where Chair seems to have borrowed a bit from Portal, offering up a few dozen time-attack style challenges, putting your equipment skills to the test. Most are fun, some are sadistic.
Boost: By the end of Shadow Complex, you're a total bad-ass, raining infinite missile hellfire down upon whatever mech or armored soldier stands between you and the next door. And it feels good. Triple-jumping and hookshotting your way to almost anywhere is a pleasure. But honestly, it's the fact that we can slide down and up ladders that may be most satisfying. Thanks for that, Chair.
The Technicalities: For as good as Shadow Complex is from a gameplay standpoint, it suffers slightly—ever so slightly—from the occasional frustrating technical snafu. I've faced clearly demolished doors that wouldn't let me walk or swim through them. I've had the camera lock onto a spot during a scripted moment and get permanently stuck there. Beyond those bugs, the game's frame rate and dynamic lighting can take a little too long to catch up sometimes. And only one save slot? We're supposed to get three!
Shadow Complex has reset the bar for what we can expect from an Xbox Live Arcade title. It also happens to ranks among the best 2D Metroids and Castlevanias, thanks to its strong map and upgrade design. While outstanding graphically, it lacks in some of the visual and character charm offered by its forebears, partly because of its photorealistic near-future setting. There's also not much meat to the story—not like there ever really is in these games, but when yours is based on a series of books, it's worth flagging—or much all that appealing about Fleming himself.
But these negatives are the most minor of concerns. Shadow Complex is easily one of the best games I've played all year, appealing perfectly to my own Metroidvania collection addiction and priced well below the amount of carefully crafted content it offers. I can't emphasize just how much of a pleasure it was to play through this game and how earnestly I'm looking forward to returning to it.
Shadow Complex was developed by Chair Entertainment and Epic Games, published by Microsoft Game Studios for Xbox Live Arcade on August 19. Retails for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15 USD). Played single player campaign to completion on Normal difficulty, completed half of Proving Grounds challenges.
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