Shadow Complex

The recent release of Shadow Complex confirms for me the suspicion I’ve had for awhile now – that the best thing to happen to gaming in the past four years was not the release of the Nintendo Wii. Though Nintendo’s cash cow has earned the scorn of many hardcore gamers, it’s been great for sparking innovation and bringing a boatload of casual players back to consoles. But to me, it’s the current generation’s downloadable content providers – Xbox Live Arcade, the Playstation Network, and (to a much lesser extent) the Wii’s Virtual Console that’s had the most positive impact on the industry.

While initially a gaming ghetto filled with retro ports and throwaway quickies, XBLA and PSN have become a showcase for some of the best indie and quirky, creative, and simply fantastic projects in the gaming industry. Exhibit A is Shadow Complex a new Live Arcade game available for 1200 points ($15) that has the production values and polish of something that you would pick up at a retail store for $60.

Created by Epic Games’ Chair Entertainment, Shadow Complex is a 2-D third-person shooter that borrows quite liberally from Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Like those classic sidescrolling titles, Shadow Complex‘s combat is entertaining and satisfying, while the must-find-everything style of exploration is addictive. Add the occasional exciting flirtation with the third dimension, as well as leaderboards and virtual-reality challenges, and you are a couple nagging flaws from an instant classic.

One of the those aforementioned flaws is the story – which is based on Orson Scott Card’s laughably over-the-top Empire novels about a radical leftist army calling itself the Progressive Restoration. This group is so mad at conservatives that they’ve assumedly gotten tired of just sitting around watching Rachael Maddow on MSNBC and protesting Republicans on Facebook and decided to fire up a sophisticated high-tech weapon system in order to make an elaborate coup attempt on the U.S. Government. In other words, it sounds like a wild tale that Glenn Beck might concoct to whip Fox News viewers into a frenzy. I’m not too familiar with the source books, but the plot of Shadow Complex makes Tom Clancy seem like Al Gore in comparison.

Ultimately, however, Shadow Complex shares the plot of almost every other action movie and video game ever made: a lone man who unwillingly finds himself battling an evil multi-billion dollar army from the inside and rescue his woman in the process.

But who cares about the story really when the game’s action is so damned cool? Jason Fleming, the story’s everyman protagonist, starts out with just a flashlight and his wits when he stumbles upon a cave containing the Restoration’s goons. Over the course of the game, Fleming slowly transforms into a gun toting, super powered cyborg badass.

At first the upgrades are small – a boost for a double jump and damage reduction – but soon you find more powerful armor pieces and weapons, like a breathing apparatus for underwater diving and a hook shot to overcome obstacles Spider-Man-style. The Friction Dampener is probably the most fun; it enables you to run at warp-like speed so you can human bulldoze your way through blue colored obstacles.

As in the Metroid and Castlevania series, item gathering is one of Shadow Complex’s biggest hooks. The deeper into the depths of the base that you explore, the more goodies that you find and the more previously inaccessible areas become available to run around in. You’ll eventually find yourself feverishly scouring the grid-like map for unexplored areas and rooms with question marks to locate every item and weapon. There’s lots of tedious backtracking involved to get everything, but it’s not required and gamers with short attention spans can rush to the end of the game in a few hours.

For nearly one-fourth the price of a regular retail game, Shadow Complex is an outright steal. There’s gorgeous graphics, rewarding exploration and gameplay that feels like breath of fresh air even though it’s borrowed from a bygone era.

RATING 8 / 10