It’s essentially impossible to enter into a conversation about Shadow Complex — the just-released Xbox Live Arcade game from Epic subsidiary Chair Entertainment — without conjuring either or both two earlier classic franchises, Nintendo’s Metroid series, or Konami’s PlayStation re-invention Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and, for once, it’s not simply lazy comparison, so much as overt, love-letter homage.
And because of it, you have to admit to (or, I will, anyway) at least a small amount of cultural bias — that the game’s surprise debut at Microsoft’s E3 conference brought with it at least a tinge of underlying skepticism, a nagging back brain thought that, “so, the Americans think they can do ‘metroid-vania’, now, do they? Right, good luck with that.”
As it turns out, our luck was the last thing Chair needed: Shadow Complex is, put simply, perhaps the best reinvention of the exploratory sub-genre since Nintendo and Konami’s own subsequent episodes, and certainly the best console iteration to sit next to their more diminutive Game Boy Advance refinements.
It’s not as if Chair was entirely unfamiliar with how to approach 2D territory in modern day dress: their 2007 Xbox Live Arcade debut Undertow was a drastic about-face from the team’s original Xbox third-person adventure Advent Rising — a would-be blockbuster trilogy that failed to gain momentum in the marketplace — and the former’s more limited ambition to simply create a finely tuned underwater arena battler made it all the more successful.
Shadow Complex surely re-ups that ambition, but retains the more limited scope that 2D allows, and lets the vantage point do what it still does best: give you greater fidelity and cohesive richness in a more controlled environment than you would in a sprawling 3D landscape.
Which isn’t to say that the complex, by which I mean the actual subterranean military base itself, is by any means limited — it’s a sprawling, multi-faceted training, mining, and factory facility housing hundreds of recruits — and is expertly constructed by Chair to give the maximum impact of infiltrating a functional institution, straight down to peering in as an observer to the day-to-day routines of its dining hall and barracks (before, in one of the game’s most sobering twists, casually and semi-unwittingly devastating them).
If that seems an inordinate amount of focus put on something so simple as a game’s setting and vantage, it’s only because it’s precisely what sets the game apart. However notable its steadily empowering progressive flow, twin-stick mechanics (another nod to cult classics like Abuse), screen-filling/over-spilling enemy boss designs, brilliantly and ludicrously concocted flashlight-as-scanning-device, and surprisingly potent sound design (which does deserve special note), it’s pushing yourself into and through every claustrophobic service-tunnel and air-duct nook of the complex itself that serves as its greatest reward.
Also deserving of special note, though, is the technology behind those nooks: for as much as the industry has called attention to Unreal Engine’s relative inflexibility at allowing much breathing room for innovation outside standard first-person shooter design (and conceding, of course, that as an Epic subsidiary Chair has its own set of in-house advantages), its use here as a faux-tile-based level editor and 2D engine gives the game some particularly dramatic and undeniably gorgeous set-pieces, especially when you re-emerge above ground and work through the woods, caves and falls that conceal the base itself.
And so that leaves the one area where the game fails to live up to its own sense of wonder: its storyline, about which the best you can say is that it gives the player a tabula rasa on which to build your own adventure. Main character Jason Fleming and his motivations are as two-dimensional as the game in which he’s placed (his shining moment is his stifled ‘what the f–’ when frozen in weaponized foam, which itself seems to be a callback to Symphony of the Night), and the doomsday-seeking enemies he’s pitted against could be cut and pasted into any sci-fi scenario without much fore- or after-thought.
That could be a blessing in disguise, though, when a player’s natural response on meeting his foe for the blowout finale — a militant tyrant who promises we’re just moments away from global crisis — is to hold up a single finger, run the other direction, and continue to spend the next several hours searching for those last bits of hidden power-up kit scattered around the base and making sure you’ve left no ventilation grate un-exposed.
That said, though, there is nothing short of not actually owning an Xbox 360 that should prevent you from experiencing the game — it’s the smartest and most pleasant surprise to come out of Epic since their own early PC 2D roots, has all the retro-modernizing spirit of the best of the indies, and is instantly a new standard bearer classic amongst console downloadables.