Shadow Complex
by Polly

When I finally made the leap into "next gen gaming" a few years back, there wasn't even a slight tinge of regret in me. I mean hell, most games today are multi-platform anyway, and at the time the PS3 just had far more exclusives such as Folklore, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Valkyria Chronicles that spoke to me more than Halo and whatever the hell else Microsoft could lay claim to at the time did. That was until Shadow Complex hit my radar.

"Heavily-inspired by Super Metroid," they said. "More action than your typical Metroid-vania," they said. "Well shit," I thought to myself, "I fucking LOVE Super Metroid, and I've always thought that the game could have used just a smidge more action!" That's right kiddies, I italicize and even use punctuation in thoughts to myself, but that's beside the point! I wanted this game NOW! Only problem was that it was being paraded around by Epic, whose lips were firmly glued to Microsoft's teat at the time, meaning that one god damn game I wanted to play would only be appearing on that one console I didn't want to buy. It bugged me enough over the next couple of years so much that I'd actually thought about buying the game on a friend's Live account and just borrowing their 360 for a week or two, but I was stupid and two years later decided it was a better idea to buy a $50 Wii game and borrow a friend's Wii instead. Boy, that turned out fucking great, let me tell ya...

Anyway, an XBox 360 recently landed in my possession finally granting me the keys to the Shadow Complex kingdom. Is Shadow Complex the crazy next generation Super Metroid-style game I've been craving for ages? Well, I'm not gonna spoil it for ya here! And you can't skip to the end and find out either because I don't use a scoring system anymore. Just face it. You're stuck. Here with me and my stupid words! So, let's find out together!

Shadow Complex's story follows Nolan North, a Nolan North who does a lot of Nolan North-type things, such as being Nolan North. Throughout Shadow Complex's rich and engrossing storyline, Nolan North will shoot guns as Nolan North, collect power-ups as Nolan North to become a much stronger and capable Nolan North, and of course, it wouldn't be a Nolan North game if Nolan North didn't have a lot of conversations JUST LIKE Nolan North, complete with zippy Nolan North'esque one-liners and that "down to earth everyman with an edge" presence that only Nolan North can provide. It's tough to pick just one instance of Nolan North's performance as Nolan North to exemplify just how powerful and engaging Shadow Complex's story can be, but I believe that in the end, Nolan North's struggles are our own and will strike a deep emotional chord within all of us. Nolan North's story is one that will no doubt resound through future generations of videogame narrative, its impact inspiring generations of storytellers to come.

With such a strong plot, setting, and characters things are already off to a great start! Now, what if I told you that Shadow Complex was running on the mighty power of the Unreal Engine too? Huh? Huh? Yep, you just shit your pants, didn't you? Go ahead and grab yourself some new sweatpants. Go on, I'll wait. I SAID GO!

All better? Good. Now I can tell you that Shadow Complex's visual presentation isn't quite as great as screenshots may make it seem. It's not terrible, mind you. The in-game models for soldiers and other infantry-based enemies are nicely done and animate well enough in an over-the-top Bionic Commando: Re-Armed'esque fashion, the mechanical designs look nice and adequately futuristic, and the outside jungle area surrounding the base you're stuck inside for 90% of the game really look better than what you'd expect from a downloadable game. The 90% of time you spend inside the complex however isn't quite as exciting. Grey room after grey room and grey air vent after grey air vent are all on call to saturate and bore your poor eye sockets, with subtle variations on those themes provided by some colored lighting effects here and there. I understand why the game looks the way it does. It does take place in a boring militaristic compound after all, but it doesn't make for much to look at. Even Nolan North's suit of powered armor is white and grey, which can make finding him amid some of the on-screen chaos a bit of a chore at times, especially when the camera pulls really far out for larger rooms.

Shadow Complex also suffers from a bit of an erratic frame rate. Given the power of the console it's running on and even being locked at 30 frames per-second, the engine simply can't seem to handle more than one or two enemies firing at poor Nolan without dropping frames like crazy, creating a choppy and inconsistent experience that can make aiming a bit of a pain. Nearly every room in the game also has its own level of pre-set zoom, meaning transitioning from area to area always requires making sure you haven't lost track of Nolan in the process. More of a personal gripe than an outright fault, I suppose, but I still found it to be quite annoying in a few areas that felt either far too zoomed out or pulled in way too close to the action.

Oh, oh, oh, I should also use this time to mention that Shadow Complex has music! Some of it goes "hmm hmm hmmmmm bum bum bumm bum bummmm" and this other tune goes "dun dundundundun dunnnnnnnn dun dun hmmm hmmmm bummmm bummm," ya know, action movie type music. It's music that's totally in this game while you play it sometimes. Mostly a lot of atmospheric stuff, though. Then there's gun and rocket sounds that go "BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM" and "BOOOOOOM", and a helicopter that goes "whoopwhoopwhoopwhoop"! The sound design really gets across just how much like weapons the weapons in the game really sound! Most importantly, Nolan North's voice is crystal clear and that is just so fantastic. Yep. Shadow Complex has some sound, man! And it sure is sound'ish!

The game plays exactly like you'd expect a 2.5D action-platformer to.....well, scratch that. Shadow Complex plays and feels almost nothing like you'd expect a game like this to. I mean, sure, you've got your running, jumping, and shooting, but almost all of that works in ways that will seem a bit strange at first...and likely throughout the duration of the game.

Rather than handling like any 2D platformer you may have played before, Shadow Complex actually controls a lot like a modern first-person shooter, and maybe even more so like Flash games of recent years that opt for keyboard movement controls with mouse aiming controls. You use the left stick to move and the right stick for precise aiming, which is aided by a laser sight. The right trigger and bumper are designated to firing your main weapon and special weapons respectively, and the left trigger is strangely mapped to...crouching?

Wrapping your head around the game's awkward control scheme isn't an insurmountable task, it just feels very strange and out of the way a lot of the time. Aiming with the right stick also tends to get wonky as the game bombards you with enemies not only on your 2D plane, but enemies will also be placed and run at you from the background as well. Issues with the mechanic begin to quickly show themselves when trying to fend off enemies on both planes because enemies in the background take priority when aiming, so that guy standing right in front of poor Nolan North could be serving up a nice hot lead salad while he's still trying to draw a bead on some random no-threat enemy in the background. This can be frustrating in early parts of the game where maintaining health can be a big issue, and on harder difficulties it can become an even bigger mess since damage numbers are ridiculously inflated.

Control issues aside, Shadow Complex is pretty much what you'd expect of the genre. In fact, other than the fancy coat of paint and modernized setting, maybe it's a little too much of what you already expect.

We know the drill by now: Start off underpowered and weak being unable to access much of anything, grab a few power-ups, do more exploring to find more power-ups, open even more of the map. Shadow Complex makes no bones about sticking to the formula, nor does it make any bones about its linear set of collectables being pretty much spot on with many of those found in Metroid. A linear set of main weapons with limitless ammo? Check. High Jump boots that allow for double and triple jumps? Check. Missiles? Check. An Ice Missile-type foam that freezes enemies and creates platforms? Check. A flash light that illuminates hidden passages? Check. Grappling Hook? Check. Speed Boost that lets you burn through enemies and immovable obstacles? Check. There's not a whole lot of variation here beyond the Speed Booster's ability to let you run up walls and across water, and Grenades interacting with certain objects to create deadly traps for enemies to run into.

In fact, starting out, it almost seems like the game is taking a different approach to the genre, with early sections of the complex featuring some really clever ways of getting around enemies without confronting them directly. This idea loses steam quickly, however, and most of the time you'll stick to gunning down enemy soldiers with your standard weapon or rushing in for a quick melee kill. There's really not a whole lot of reason to ever use your newly acquired abilities to fight your way out of situations unless it's bombarding a boss with grenades or missiles because the standard enemies lack any variety or a need for skill in order to dispatch them. Your new toys are used mostly for finding your way into yet another air duct rather than anything coming close to real fun.

Of course, the real goal of the game is to grab 100% of the items scattered around the base which come in the form of Health packs, Missile expansions, and you know how this is all going to go down. But again, it never really feels worth trying to track all these expansions down since there's just not a whole hell of a lot of needing them since they'll be so rarely used. There's also an experience and level up system which grants small stat bonuses per level and large bonuses every ten levels, such as the ability to see the entire map and infinite special weapon ammo. It's nice that they tried, but again, I'm having trouble figuring out why the system is even here beyond having an Achievement for reaching the max level.

Shadow Complex tries, and largely fails in its attempts to modernize the "Metroid-vania" style of game. It mucks around with a lot of parts of the formula that really didn't need changing and doesn't really do enough to be its own game. The control scheme decisions are downright baffling to me, the enemy variety is far too small, and honestly Nolan North's powers could have used some more originality rather than being almost outright copies of Samus Aran's arsenal. It's by no means a bad game, and would definitely be worth a price tag of $5-10 if you ever saw it on sale and wanted something decent to play, but it's nothing you should feel the need to be in a hurry to add to your library. Ya know...two years after it came out.

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