Shadow Complex might just set the bar for high quality Xbox Live Arcade games. Based on Empire a book written by Ender’s Game’s author, Orson Scott Card, Shadow Complex is a clone of a game you don’t see cloned very often, Metroid and does it well.
The game’s design is often referred to as being heavily influenced by Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and it shows, almost too much. Much of the game’s elements feel like a re-skinning of Metroid Fusion or Metroid Zero Mission. This doesn’t make it a bad game, just not overly original. That’s not to say the game doesn’t have it’s unique elements, there just aren’t many.
Shadow Complex does boast a some great graphics for an Xbox Live arcade game. Much of the game takes place in a perspective that doesn’t show a great amount of the character model’s detail, but the environments with in the game are nicely detailed. When the game does go in for a close up on a character or enemy you see some great detail that you wouldn’t expect on models that are usually seen from afar. Shadow Complex is easily one of the best looking 3D Xbox Live Arcade games to be released to date, which isn’t incredibly surprising considering the publisher and co-developer is Epic games.
The gameplay is very similar to side-scrolling action games, but it is far from just poorly constructed clone game. The main focus in the game is the shooting, which is very well crafted and quite a unique experience considering the genre. Unlike most side-scrolling games, Shadow Complex uses the 2D point of view more as a vague guideline than gospel. People or items in the background for the most part aren’t just there for show.
Let me explain this a bit. The game allows you to shoot on the typical vertical plane in these games, but it allows for more than just that. Along with the normal use of the vertical plane, the game also allows you to shoot into the background where enemies or explosives might be. This is is where Shadow Complex goes from being Metroid, to where it becomes it’s own game. This added depth allows for combat that is entirely unique to this game with in the genre.
Even beyond that is the added control over your guns. The controls for the combat pretty simple. The basics are right trigger to shoot, right analog to aim, left trigger to crouch. Aiming isn’t just a general direction of straight in front, straight up, and diagonal, it’s where you aim with the right analog stick. The targeting system takes this aiming system and uses it for the 3D environments as well.
Aiming is simple, and very precise, even when shooting someone who is in the background crouching behind a wall or box. So much so that pin-point headshots are actually possible in the game, which can become sloppier later in the game when you lose the full-auto rifles for a shotgun.
The use of these two gameplay elements make for a game that, while at it’s core is not completely unique, does make for an entirely unique experience within the genre’s roots. The thought that the special weapons or power-ups are very similar to Metroid’s is an afterthought because of the great gameplay that comes from this wholly unique experience.
The game has a fairly strange progressive difficulty. Usually I expect a game to start easy, grow more difficult the stronger you get. Shadow Complex instead starts difficult and grows easier the further you get. The weapon and armor upgrades turn the entirely human character into a super soldier that is actually almost impossible to kill at the end of the game. The bosses in the game just reflect this even more.
The first boss you face is a behemoth with an armor that can easily kill you if you’re not careful. You have a pistol, a handful of grenades, and no armor. It’s difficult and requires some careful timing to do some serious damage to him. Later in the game you are faced with enemies who have some weak points, but aren’t required to hit to beat the boss.
It’s often easier just to punish the enemy with a wave of explosives and projectiles than get into the proper position or hit the perfect spot. The boss fights, especially the final one, seem a bit uninspired considering the history the genre has. All of that can be changed if you choose not to go after all of the upgrades and hidden extras though.
The most disappointing element in the game is probably the most surprising one, the story. Shadow Complex is based on a book by a brilliant writer, so one would hope that it would show in the story, but it doesn’t. The game’s story is barely coherent and hardly even there. The characters and setting more than a bit cliched.
I would think the incoherent story is because it’s supposed to run along side Empire’s storyline, but to write a story for a game where you need to know details from a book is absurd. Card has two series that run along each other with several sequels, and not one of them was written with the idea that you need to have read the several other books to completely understand any book in the series, and yet this game does just the opposite. It’s a damn shame considering the last time Card was involved in a game(Advent Rising), his involvement was the best part of it.
In large, Shadow Complex is a great addition to the side-scrolling action genre. Despite it’s slightly boring bosses and disappointing story, it’s a great game. The game has great graphics, very solid gameplay, offers numerous difficulties and challenges to make for plenty of replay value. The title is a return to Epic’s old roots like Jill of the Jungle and Jazz the Jackrabbit, and it’s fairly obvious they haven’t forgotten how to make a good game in this genre. For a 15 dollar title, Shadow Complex offers a quality seen only in some full price titles. I highly suggest picking up this game if you have an Xbox 360.