The hype-train was bulleting along. Shadow Complex was supposed to be the biggest game to hit Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) ever. It was supposed to redefine the way gamers think about downloadable content (DLC). It was supposed to be the blissful offspring of next-gen capabilities mated with old-school sensibilities. It was supposed to be one of the most addicting, very best games of the year. It seems that Shadow Complex has delivered on all of its promises. Reviews have been almost unanimously positive, with numerous sources bestowing perfect or near-perfect scores on this Metroidvania-styled game. But is all this praise just the result of everyone viewing Shadow Complex through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia? Or am I just a member of the seemingly tiny minority that don't think the game is all that it is hyped to be? That's what I'll be exploring in this review. Read on.
I'll freely admit that I bought into the hype for Shadow Complex. I read on numerous gaming websites about how cool the concept of putting a new twist on the old 2-D, side-scrolling action games featuring a hefty amount of exploration and item-collecting that all started with Nintendo's Metroid was. I admit that this did indeed sound cool. And while I was never a huge fan of the Metroid games, I did discover and greatly enjoy Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on XBLA, another classic example in this genre.
And I understand what effect nostalgia can have. I saw G.I.JOE: The Rise of Cobra and wrote a positive (if not outright glowing) review of the movie that glossed over all of its flaws and weak points (there were plenty) and justified it by freely admitting that I was a huge fan of the old cartoon and toys and this movie was playing a nostalgic tune on my heartstrings.
Do reviewers who've given Shadow Complex scores of 9.4/10 or 5/5 need to do the same? I won't go so far as to argue that. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. It just seems that mine doesn't align with most gamers on this one. Let's look at various aspects of Shadow Complex and why I personally don't think it's as great as the hype claims.
The Story -
I don't even need to argue this point. Though Shadow Complex is set in the fictional world of the Empire novels by Orson Scott Card (which I am unfamiliar with so I have no idea if this is a cool thing or not), even the reviewers who are praising the game admit the story is a weakness of the game. But the argument goes that the story doesn't matter. There just needs to be a reason to get the protagonist into the labyrinthine complex. Whether it's a guy who just happens to have extensive military training and his girlfriend literally stumbling into the complex on a hiking trip, or a bounty hunter sent to stop space pirates from breeding a race of life force-draining aliens, the story doesn't matter.
That statement is debatable, but the story of Shadow Complex is definitely weak. It's revealed at the game's end that the setup to get the protagonist inside the complex isn't as contrived as it initially appears, but that does nothing to help the advance of the tenuous plot. There are moments in the game where I was questioning decisions made by our hero, and at least one moment in particular where I found the logic of the big, scary villain laughable. Maybe the story doesn't matter, but couldn't the developers have worked just a little harder to give us something better?
The Gameplay -
So now that the story of Shadow Complex has been soundly thrown out the window, let's get to the game's supposedly biggest strength. Review after review have praised Shadow Complex's innovation on the classic "Metroidvania" design, have lauded how addictive and fun it is to play. Specifically I've read how once you beat the game, you'll want to play through several more times. You'll want to try a "fast playthrough" where you see how quickly you can beat it, you'll want to complete the "100% playthrough" where you find every single item and upgrade in the game and explore every last inch of the map, and then there are the game's Proving Grounds where you do, well, whatever it is you do there. Personally, I've never gone into the Proving Grounds to see what the big deal is. I've beaten the main story of the game, but I didn't do it with any regard to completion time nor have I come even close to a 100% playthrough. Honestly, I don't see myself playing it much anymore, and I don't really see where the innovation is coming into play (no pun intended).
The big deal, or so I've read is that Shadow Complex isn't a 2-D sidescrolling adventure, it's 2.5D. True you can only move in two dimensions (left/right and up/down), but the game world has depth. There's a Z plane (to borrow a math term) that goes back into your TV screen. Though you can't move back into the recesses of the game world in this Z plane, there is a great deal of stuff going on back there. What you have to worry about most are the enemies that will be back at some point in that Z plane. They can shoot at you from back there, and you can shoot back at them.
This is supposed to be one of the biggest innovations of the game. Whereas the old Metroid games were truly 2-D with nondescript backgrounds, current technologies and graphics capabilities have allowed for this new feature. This is supposed to be awesome. But is it really?
This "innovation" is actually one of the other few complaints other reviewers have voiced regarding Shadow Complex. The aiming mechanic that allows you to target enemies in the "background" of the game world is cumbersome, difficult to get used to, and at times unresponsive. To make matters worse, while you are likely to have trouble targeting enemies in the background, they have no trouble targeting you. What this equals in my mind is frustration, not innovation. And that's not the only one.
Shadow Complex (like the Metroid games before it) features a huge map with large portions completely inaccessible until you find the right item/upgrade. Some doors can only be blown up with grenades. Other doors require missiles to destroy. If you have neither you're not getting past them. While some reviewers have met these obstacles with a sense of "cool, I can't wait to find a way past that," I've often met them with a sense of frustration. On more than one occasion I found myself in a series of rooms with doors I couldn't yet open, seemingly trapped until my umpteenth scouring of the same rooms yielded a serendipitous discovery of a ventilation shaft or some other tight passageway I missed in my dozen previous searches. This isn't something I find exciting. This is not my idea of fun. And if this is also part of what is supposed to be innovative, frankly I'd like to call shenanigans on that claim.
Presenting the player with a huge map that requires extensive backtracking to explore previously inaccessible areas is nothing new. There's nothing in Shadow Complex that wasn't done decades ago in the Metroid games. Sure, the graphics and sound are better, but in terms of pure gameplay this is the same old song and dance. Maybe this is where all the praise is coming from. Nostalgia. Take that old classic, slap on a fresh coat of paint, and take it out for a spin.
If you were a fan of the old Metroid games, you probably think I'm nuts. You probably love Shadow Complex. I'm not denying it can be fun. And even if you only play through the game once, it's still worth the $15 download price. But is this a great game in its own right?
We may just have to agree to disagree on that point.
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