Every now and again, a game that wasn’t even close to being on your radar comes out and completely surprises you. Shadow Complex by Chair Entertainment is one of those rare titles that comes out of left field and entertains from beginning to end. Well, maybe not from the very beginning, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
As Jason Flemming, you will run, jump, hover, grapple, and slam your way through a breakaway faction within the US that plans to launch a series of attacks throughout the country. Known as “Progressive Restoration,” the faction wants to bring the country to the brink of chaos and ride in as the saviors. Being the unlikely hero, who just happens to be from a military family and able to quickly acclimate to any and all weaponry and armor, Jason stumbles across their subterranean complex while searching for his girlfriend, Claire. What follows is a fantastic hybrid of Super Metroid and Flashback that brings back a lot of the great elements of past platformers while avoiding many of the pitfalls – with mechs to boot.
A 2D action platformer set in a 3D world, Shadow Complex allows you to navigate obstacles within your plane while also taking care of enemies on another. The best way to describe the combat is to think of the SNK title Nam-1975 or the second level in the original Contra, where you shoot into the background plane from the foreground. This approach allows you to fire at people directly in front of you but also at enemies that happen to be hiding on the other side of the room, or in a platform in the background. The controls can take a little while to get used to, and the opening sequence of a kitted-out soldier in a firefight doesn’t help much, but the game proper does a good job into easing you into things; soon you’ll be laying waste to soldiers coming at you head-on, from above, behind, and the background.
The game isn’t all action, however; far from it. I think it’s safe to say that Super Metroid was a huge inspiration to Chair, as the game shares many, many similarities: levels are broken down into ‘rooms’ with heavy backtracking, a suped-up beginning, a light (flashlight in this case) to highlight interactive objects, collecting weapons that are required to advance (re: missiles to open red doors), and a grappling hook used to navigate. Flashback also rears its head in the form of Jason’s movements, with fluid animation and the ability to duck behind objects, grab onto ledges, and leap over chasms. Shadow Complex is able to carry such a lofty load thanks to responsive controls, solid level design, a wide array of weaponry, an experience system that enhances Jason’s abilities, and a great pace. What Chair accomplished is no small feat, considering the pedigree of the titles Shadow Complex brings to mind.
Equally important and entertaining are the exploration and combat. Progressing through the complex, through a maze of shafts, hallways, and causeways, leads to new and more dangerous weapons. Your basic weapon has unlimited ammo, and it slowly upgrades over time as you find better items: you start with a pistol and end up firing energy rounds. Your aim is aided by a slight assist as well as a laser sighting that allows you to know exactly where your rounds will go before opening fire. Many of the weapons are what you would expect, from grenades to rocket launchers, but there is also foam that short-circuits equipment, the aforementioned grappling hook, and armor accessories that allow you to pummel the ground, double-jump, as well as run on ceilings and through structures. Hand-to-hand combat is engaged by pressing the “B” button near an enemy, which runs a quick cutscene of you pummeling the foe. By the end of the game, you feel like you’re controlling a character from Crackdown, knocking people across rooms and boosting all over the place. Areas that were once off-limits, indicated by color-coded highlights, are slowly opened up as new weapons and moves are discovered that match the colors of the obstacles. For instance, once you get the rocket launcher, you know you can get into all previously inaccessible areas barred by red objects. Just as you get used to what you’ve been using, the game throws some new goodies your way, and the sense of discovery begins anew.
As good as it is, Shadow Complex does stumble some. One thing I found particularly striking was how everyman hero Jason looks eerily similar to Nathan Drake from Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, right down to the half-tuck for which Drake catches so much flack. But it’s more like he’s Drake’s less interesting younger brother, and one of the biggest problems with Shadow Complex are its characters. With the right writing, the breakaway civil war scenario can work, and was done well most recently with the television show Jericho. Here, however, it doesn’t have much of an impact because Jason, Claire, and the faction members are all bland. The designs of the characters aren’t necessarily bad, and the soldiers and mechs look quite nice, but their personalities are nonexistent, and they can be flat-out brain-dead. I was actually surprised by how dumb some of the soldiers were, with me firing at them a few feet away while they just stood around; other times, soldiers would be firing away when they got the slightest hint that I was in the vicinity. The boss fights were also a bit of a downer, serving more to display how to use a new power or weapon than to provide a real challenge. For your first time through, go with the normal difficulty, but then crank it up for your next go around. And yes, you will be playing again.
Despite whatever faults Shadow Complex possesses, it is still a very entertaining and incredibly addictive title. I beat the game my first time in about seven hours, but that was with only a little over half of the items gathered – canisters that increase the amount of armor and ammo you can carry – with around 75% of the map explored. The second time through is just as good as the first, if not better at some points, because now you have the controls down and can quickly bypass many encounters by taking alternate routes or going head-on with your suped-up character; while you might lose all of your weapons when you start a new game, you keep all of the experience and enhancements you received during your first playthrough. If you want to try a perfect run your first time, then you can train in the proving grounds, a series of obstacles that require the use of your powers, with your stats posted on online leaderboards. I chose to save the challenges until after I beat the game, but they serve as tough-love primers so you won’t be too sloppy in the beginning. With a highly replayable campaign and the proving grounds, Shadow Complex is a really complete package.
Shadow Complex is one of those titles that both redefines and exemplifies what a download-only title can be. It not only plays great, delivering a satisfying feeling of exploration and excitement, but it looks and sounds great too. The end result is that, as you watch the credits run, you realize you just had a great time. A handful of minor quibbles aside, it’s a steal at $15.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)