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Shadow Complex Review (360 – XBLA)

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In these times it seems ironic and certainly risky, that a Western developer would take liberal inspiration from Japanese made 2D platforming shooter stalwarts Metroid and Castlevania for their latest effort when the audiences for those games are not only difficult to please, but fast dwindling also. Thankfully however, Chair Entertainment in partnership with Gears Of War developer Epic Games have taken the gamble and in doing so have produced one of the finest titles in Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade software library to date.

Wearing its classic inspirations proudly on its sleeves, Shadow Complex places the player in no doubt as to what type of game it is. Sure, the gameplay mechanics are linked together by a threadbare plot about a shadowy government faction trying to blow up the US or some such drivel, but its the timeless formulae of platforming, item upgrading and backtracking for new areas that defines Shadow Complex.

After an action packed prologue which gives players the merest taste of the weaponry and gadgetry to come, the player is then thrust into the shoes of an average Joe, traipsing through the Canadian Rockies with his fiancée as they stumble upon a cave entrance which leads into the vast subterranean complex where the bulk of the game takes place.

One thing that I have to make abundantly clear here however is this; Shadow Complex is neck and neck with Battlefield 1943 as the most visually staggering game to be released on XBLA at a budget price point. It seems the most obvious benefit of having ‘Uncle Epic’ help produce the game was that developer Chair Entertainment would also be able to leverage their (still) impressive Unreal Engine 3 tech in the game to produce some pretty sweet visuals; and sweet they are. Light sources ignite from mussel flashes and explosions, character models are all impressively detailed and move fluidly, massive arachnid robots move with startling grace and menace all the while boasting the minutest of mechanical details. It truly is a staggering visual display and one which should be raising eyebrows of developers who put out lesser efforts at retail pricepoints.

As it subscribes to the design edict of Nintendo’s Metroid and Konami’s Castlevania series’ respectively, the gameplay in Shadow Complex, is simple yet rewarding. Staying true to its inspirations, the game plays out on a 2D plane, allowing the player to jump to other platforms, shoot, crawl and use special abilities to get to areas that were previously inaccessible. To break up the experience, there are sections where the player can take control of a turret and mow down oncoming enemies from the background. Additionally, the player themselves may also shoot and toss grenades at enemies in the background, although it is notably less precise than taking aim at foes on the same axis as yourself.

3D aiming issues aside, the main character controls well with a number of acrobatic actions such as wall to wall chain jumping, hanging fire and close combat manoeuvres all proving intuitive and easy to pull off.

Anybody who has played any of the Castlevania or Metroid titles will realise that the hook of these titles lie in being able to upgrade your arsenal and the acquisition of items that allow you access to areas that were inaccessible when you first came across them. Shadow Complex follows this genre convention, dangling the figurative ‘carrot on a stick’ as a players seek to upgrade that jetpack so they can reach a ledge or a grappling hook which would allow access to a previously unreachable overhang. Where Shadow Complex trips up slightly, is that it gives the player too much power too quickly. Ironically, newer weapons are no longer sought for their ability to kill enemies, since the player is more than capable of killling most foes in the game with lesser weaponry; instead they are merely used to help the player progress past certain barriers, as some may only be destroyed by a grenade, rocket, plasma shot and so forth. While a minor flaw, the weapons still remain fun to use in combat, with the awesome ‘friction-dampener’ and ‘foam-gun’ proving to be notable highlights.

Still, the classic addictive hook of exploration and loot remains and those of us with obsessive disorders will absolutely have to find every ammo upgrade, gold bar and health maximiser to satiate ourselves. Like every other game in the genre, Shadow Complex boasts boss battles. Such encounters though are not strong points for the title as the bosses themselves often tend to be fought more than once and whilst are visually impressive, they remain uninspired, unchallenging affairs.

Paying homage to their classical muse, Chair Entertainment have worked an RPG-style levelling system into Shadow Complex. With each level reached with valuable ‘XP’ obtained from killing bad guys, comes the promise of better accuracy and more health. Whilst the health benefits appear pragmatic and tangible, the accuracy ones do not as I could still shoot just as well at level 5 as I could at level 25.

Shadow Complex is not a long game, the game clocks in at between five and seven hours for an initial play through. It’s lure of course, lies in repeated playthroughs to see everything, collect everything and reach that 50th level.

As the sum of it’s parts, Shadow Complex is not the best in the genre (that honour would go to Castlevania: Synphony of the Night), but Chair Entertainment have nailed all the basic, fundamental aspects of what makes these often forgotten games satisfying and enjoyable, topping it off with a lush, often beguiling visual veneer.

With a sequel surely in the pipeline after some well-deserved monstrous commercial success in the last four months, I am giddy with excitement to see where Chair Entertainment and Epic Games will take this labour of love next.

Highly recommended.

Overall Score: 8.7

Written by bitsnark

January 5, 2010 at 5:20 pm

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