Game Impressions: Shadow Complex

August 24, 2009



One of the most highly anticipated games this summer has been Shadow Complex.  Part of XBLA’s Summer of Arcade 2009, Shadow Complex has been hailed as a game that “reset(s) the bar for what we can expect from an Xbox Live Arcade title” (Kotaku).  It has also been called “one of the best gaming experiences of this generation” (CAG) and “one of the best games yet in 2009.” (IGN)  Whenever a game gets this kind of press, my BS radar goes off.  Things are always “the best” until next week, just like stores have “the lowest price ever” until next week’s sale.  So does Shadow Complex live up to the hype?


Shadow Complex begins rather unconventionally.  You start as an unknown agent in a super-powerful weapon/armor suit, who disobeys his orders and attempts in vain to protect the vice president before being subdued.  The setting shifts to the forest, where Jason Flemming and his girlfriend Claire are hiking through the woods.  You come across an underground complex where Claire gets captured, and you (as Jason) must save her and solve the mystery of what’s going on at this complex.

The game has been described as 2.5D Metroidvania, which is an apt description.  In the style of Metroid or Castlevania, the game is largely a side scrolling action platformer.  Speed running, wall jumping, powerups, hidden areas, room-by-room map… Shadow Complex has them all.  You start as basic as you can get, with a simple jump and a flashlight.  You quickly find Claire’s backback and begin collecting items and abilities.


In typical fashion, as you progress you can more abilities, which in turn opens up previously unaccessible areas.  A boost upgrade will let you jump to a higher level than you could get to previously.  A hook lets you grab onto vertical surfaces or swing across ceilings. And the flashlight is your greatest asset, as it makes finding secret areas easier than bombing every surface or swiping at every wall.  When it shines over a secret wall or vent or door, the object’s surface lights up a certain color depending on what you need to get through it.  Yellow items can be shot, green require grenades, purple use foam, red for missles, and blue for hyperspeed.  At first I thought this was a bit gimicky and a bit of needless hand-holding, but it soon became natural and a welcome change to the old style guessing game.

As your character levels up, your stamina becomes greater and your accuracy more precise.  You gradually gain the ability to use grenades or missiles, etc, and by finding those items hidden throughout the map, you increase the quantity you can carry.  Health and armor powerups raise both of those stats.  You gain access to a power suit such as you saw at the beginning of the game, and can get upgrades for it.  Finding all the passkeys scattered throughout the map gains you access to the ultimate suit upgrade.  You can also find gold bars, and finding them all gives you access to gold versions of all your guns.  Special shoes will let you walk on walls and ceilings, and a scuba device will let you swim underwater with unlimited air.

For stat lovers and completionists, this game is a dream.  The game will even compare your stats with those on your firends list during play, which is pretty cool.  The Proving Grounds extra has leaderboards for every level, so you can compete for the best score.


If anything fails in the game, it’s the 2.5D aspect.  While the game is mostly in a 2D plane, there are occasions when enemies appear within the depth of the field.  The game compensates by auto-targetting, but it’s not always very good, and I’m not sure it brought all that much to the table.  It does bring some depth to the game, though, and the visuals are gorgeous.

I did experience one in-game glitch.  Near the beginning, there’s a cutscene that plays when you reach one room, showing Claire being interrogated by her kidnappers.  When I got to the room, the cutscene never triggered.  I obviously didn’t know there should be a cutscene there, and the glitch left me wandering around a relatively small map area trying to figure out what to do next.  I finally left the couch and went over to the computer and found a video of the first part of the game, and saw that there was a cutscene there that wasn’t working for me.  I restarted from the last save room and when to that area again, and the cutscene played out and I could continue.  I’ve read of similar small glitches that might indicate that the game could have been a little more polished.


There is quite a bit of replayability with Shadow Complex.  Once you finish the campaign, you can go back and play it again, losing all your items but retaining your character’s level.  There are achievements for leveling your character to 50, and for progressing through the campaign with less than 13% of the items.  It’s also said you can get through it with only 4% of the items by finding secrets that “break” the game and allow you access to things before you should be able to get them.  Also, Proving Grounds is a separate series of challenge levels you can play through, for those who enjoy the frustration and just can’t get enough.


The Controversy

There is a huge online debate brewing with regards to the game and novelist Orson Scott Card.  Orson Scott Card is widely known for his Ender’s Game novels, and the game is loosely based on Card’s novel entitled Empire.  Orson Scott Card is also known for his anti-gay-rights stance.  A devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints, Card hold’s to their belief that homosexuality is a sin, and he’s not shy to say so.

Since the game is based on his novel, and he stands to profit by an sales from it, some people have chosen to boycott the game and not purchase it, and much has been written about it online.   I shy away from politicizing my website, because no matter what stance you take, the chances are you alienated half of your potential readership.  Unless you are a political blog or something and that’s your goal, I tend to think it’s a bad idea.  But I have a few thoughts with regards to this controversy and Shadow Complex.

I purposefully avoided mentioning until this section that the game was based on an Orson Scott Card novel.  Many articles and reviews start off with this fact, but the truth of the matter is that, were it not mentioned in the last paragraph of text at the end of the credit roll after completing the game, I would never have known it by playing the game.  It’s not called “Orson Scott Card’s Shadow Complex” or anything like that.  And while I have not read the novel Empire, the synopses I’ve seen would seem to indicate that the story is very loosely based on it.    There is no real agenda being pushed by the game, and no anti-gay sentiments in the game.  If there were, I might be inclined to participate in the boycott.  But there isn’t.  The game’s script wasn’t even written by Card (it was by Star Trek novelist and comic book writer Peter David).  If the game were based on a story by a different novelist, there would be nothing in the game to make a controversy around.

And as much as Orson Scott Card stands to benefit from sales of the game, so too do the dozens of employees of Chair Entertainment who made a fabulous game.  I would say that number of people that stand to benefit from the game outweighs Orson Scott Card’s benefit.  In the end, it’s every gamer’s right to decide what to buy and not buy, for whatever reason they choose.  And it’s also Orson Scott Card’s right to express his political and religious beliefs.


I usually take my time with these types of games, as the completest in me wants to explore every nook and cranny, find every item and get every powerup.  I finished the game in a whoppingly slow 13 hours 48 minutes 7 seconds.  But I finished it with 100% of items found, which took some time.   (I used this Shadow Complex Map I found online for a couple of the trickier items.)   I was level 20 and scored a total of 6,153,635 points.

I found Shadow Complex to be an excellent game.  The graphics and presentation were as good as if not better than most XBLA titles.  The gameplay was in-depth, and with the style of the Metroids and Castlevania, just plain addictively fun.  It’s well worth $15… I’d say it could easily have gotten twice that as a disc-based release.  Reminds me a little of Portal, in that it’s a little game that captures the hearts of the gamers over the big titles.  One of the best XBLA games?  Yes.  One of the best games I’ve played this year?  Yes.


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