Late to the Party: Shadow Complex

As of this typing I think I’m most of the way through Shadow Complex, which I bought for $5 shortly after first buying an Xbox in 2010. Compared to most of what I’ve played this generation, downloadable or not, I’m kind of shocked at how much design went into this game.

I think everyone aware of Shadow Complex understands it’s an unabashed homage to Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. If there’s a reason why you don’t see very many of those types of games, it’s because they require a semblance of actual level design – very tight level design in fact, more than exists in most of today’s AAA games.

Right now I’m at the part of the game where Shadow Complex has let me re-enter all the areas to find any remaining upgrades before likely continuing onto the endgame, and just pouring over the map at all the question marks representing hidden items is mind-boggling. I’ve already spent enough time on this game to finish the campaign of your average shooter these days, and I could probably spend just as much time again trying to get 100% map and item completion. Remember, I spent $5 on this console game.  The full price is $10.

Even games like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed with their massive worlds, miss that feeling of having to boost through these two rooms in order to reach this hidden one over here that you can only reach at this specific time. It’s just not the same as randomly finding the 33rd out of 100 seemingly randomly-placed orbs, both for the gamer and probably the designer. Even Batman Arkham Asylum didn’t feel nearly as intricate as Shadow Complex does.

That said, Shadow Complex feels A LOT like Metroid. Not just in level design, but it borrows a lot of that game’s weapons and mechanics too. Castlevania – from which Shadow Complex might have borrowed its leveling system, at least has its own entire set of weapons and abilities. The one unique thing I do feel in Shadow Complex is that it has probably the most tactical combat I’ve encountered in a 2D game. I like being able to play it more methodically than Meroid, smartly positioning myself and using each environment to the best advantage against enemies, especially on Hardcore mode which very often requires it.

The only place where I think Shadow Complex feels “typical” of today is its story and presentation. It kinda feels like “what if they made Gears of War or Uncharted 18 years ago?” I mean, the protagonist is basically Nathan Drake, and he’s running through grey hallways in the Unreal 3 engine shooting up mooks to stop a military conspiracy. Maybe it’s just because I haven’t read much into Orson-Scott Card.

I feel like considering the guy who headed up this game idolizes Super Metroid so much, it misses that game’s atmospheric element. Arguably the most amazing thing about Super Metroid is how subtly it was able to tell a narrative without words – only through its environment and on-screen events, in 1994, but I’m not gonna damn Shadow Complex for using cut scenes. Another thing though is the differentiation between areas. I kinda had a hard time telling when I’d switched to a new area in this game, whereas Metroid gave each one a distinct air, and Castlevania displays an area’s name whenever you enter it.

It’s probably unfair to measure Shadow Complex to the giant that is Super Metroid however, despite successfully cribbing so much from it. The fact that we can even get this kind of game shows that good things are coming out of today’s gaming economy.


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