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Shadow Complex (Xbox 360) artwork

Shadow Complex (Xbox 360) review

"When you're not battling some metallic behemoth—most of the time, then—you're usually trying to get some gear that will allow you to survive the next brawl. That means seeking out weaponry wherever you can find it, whether that be at the far end of a furnace vent or in a small cranny on the opposite side of an underwater passage. There are plenty of goodies to collect if you're just patient enough to go through the same areas a few times as new supplies increase the distance you can jump, the speed with which you move and the explosive power of your sub-weapons. If you make sure to grab everything (or even if you don't), you shouldn't have any sort of trouble reaching the end of the adventure in one piece."

If the movie "Jaws" ensured that people would be reluctant to go near the water again, then Shadow Complex is the video game that will finally scare us away from hiking. As the story begins, a colonel is running along through the streets of a present-day city, hunting down what appears to be a terrorist group. As he makes his way through the urban environment, he takes out one gun-toting goon after another and even guns down a helicopter that tries to pepper him with bullets. Just when it seems that he's done some good, the news arrives: despite the colonel's best efforts, someone has killed the vice president.

Fade to black, then cut to a beautiful valley, somewhere not far from San Francisco. Jason--a nobody--and Claire--the girl he's only just recently met and would like to get to know better--are taking a peaceful hike near some caves when they get separated at the bottom of a steep embankment. Distressed, Jason follows his new flame deeper underground, where he is just in time to see her get carried away by heavily armored soldiers. Clearly, the two of them have stumbled across something significant.

Those opening moments do a good job of establishing a dark mystery, but from that point on they're the exception and not the rule. As players journey deeper into the cavern, the story is told through the landscape and the enemies that Jason encounters, not by way of an abundance of cutscenes. Occasionally, scripted exposition will break in and establish a new motivation to keep digging, but otherwise Shadow Complex is precisely what it should be: the tale of one man's journey to save the woman he could someday grow to love, to wrestle his inner demons and perhaps to protect the modern world as we know it.

While the people at Chair Entertainment and Epic Games could have told the story in any number of ways, they chose to go with something akin to Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. As with both of those classics, there's a huge map and a lot of backtracking to look forward to as numerous passageways reveal their secrets and new gear grants additional abilities to the reluctant hero.

There are some key differences, however, and these allow Shadow Complex to expertly straddle the line between derivative and innovative. Thanks to the power of current-generation hardware, enemies aren't limited to attacks mounted from the foreground. They'll dash from passageways in the background, snipe from distant railings or take cover behind crates. To defeat those resourceful adversaries, Jason will need to aim his gun, which is equipped with a laser sight. This mechanic allows for head shots and ensures that the game doesn't devolve into just a run 'n gun with occasional exploration, though it's certainly possible to dash toward an enemy, leap into the air and fire a few quick shots to turn the witless opponent into a corpse.

Boss battles, though infrequent, also benefit from complexity. When you're going up against a massive mech and you're not wearing a lot more than jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, it stands to reason that you'd get torn to ribbons by a burst of fire. There's a way around that. When you're stuck in a waterlogged shaft with a spidery robot capable of sending a barrage of missiles your way, your head makes a better weapon than your puny machine gun. And when you're running around a large platform and a machine is rolling around it like a buzz saw... you stand near the right side and just fire a missile whenever it passes by without worrying about taking damage. Ah, well. Not every fight can be a nail biter.

Fights aren't what games like Super Metroid were all about, anyway. Those adventures were about exploration, and so is Shadow Complex. When you're not battling some metallic behemoth--most of the time, then--you're usually trying to get some gear that will allow you to survive the next brawl. That means seeking out weaponry wherever you can find it, whether that be at the far end of a furnace vent or in a small cranny on the opposite side of an underwater passage. There are plenty of goodies to collect if you're just patient enough to go through the same areas a few times as new supplies increase the distance you can jump, the speed with which you move and the explosive power of your sub-weapons. If you make sure to grab everything (or even if you don't), you shouldn't have any sort of trouble reaching the end of the adventure in one piece.

Thanks to a few in-game cues, finding all of that loot is seldom a chore. At key junctures, blue lines will appear on your map tracing the route that you should take to reach your next destination, sort of like you might recall from the computer terminals if you played through Metroid Fusion. As you explore, question marks will appear to note the presence of an item you couldn't acquire at the time, plus dots are noted on the map when a room held a secret that you've already discovered. When you reach the rooms themselves, secrets have a tendency to glow just brightly enough that they stand out from the shadows or metal, particularly if you shine a light in their direction. They'll even reflect a certain color so you can get a feel for the technique that's required to remove any obstacles. There are a few brain teasers throughout the game, but usually you won't have much trouble if you take the time to stop and weigh your options.

Of course, some gamers won't appreciate the developers' efforts to keep things accessible. They'll want something more challenging. For those folks, there is a pleasing selection of achievements. Sure, there are some that reward you for kicking enough enemies, or for collecting enough headshots or even just clearing the game. Those are expected, but they're joined by calls to work through the whole adventure in less than two hours, or to collect only a bare minimum of gear. Those might not sound particularly rough, but give them a try and see how far you get.

Along the same lines, there's also a "Proving Grounds" mode that presents the player with a selection of obstacle courses. One requires you to leap along platforms without bumping into spidery machines that line the floor and ceiling. Another asks you to toss grenades into distant holes to trigger switches that will create a bridge so that you can cross a dangerous gap. These challenges are all timed and points are awarded upon completion, with your best records saved so that you can show off to friends who maybe haven't fared as well as you have. The potential for a little bit of friendly rivalry should be enough to keep some players busy long after they've seen the closing credits.

Generally, the games that are available for download through a service such as Xbox Live Arcade feel limited. They can sometimes be a lot of fun, but the sense when you're done playing them is that they offer the sort of experience that could never exist nowadays without the inexpensive digital medium. Shadow Complex, while certainly a throwback to older games, is different. Chair Entertainment and Epic Games have produced something magical, an old school adventure that feels more satisfying than many over-hyped titles that arrive on the local store shelf with three or four times the price tag. Don't miss it!


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (September 06, 2009)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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JANUS2 posted September 07, 2009:

I enjoyed Shadow Complex, but on normal difficulty the amount of hand-holding is ridiculous. Based on the views you've expressed in the past and your comments in this review I understand why this isn't a problem for you, but the amount of help you're given on the default difficulty is just insulting. Not only is there a big blue line that tells you exactly which route to take, but every single secret is marked on the map with a question mark. Then when you reach the correct room you're told exactly where the secret is and what weapon you need to use to reveal it.

I know that insane mode is there for people like me who like their exploration based adventures to actually require a bit of exploration, but I find it depressing that Chair didn't have the guts to make casual gamers actually work for 100% completion. The achievements aren't really a consolation either because there's a fairly obvious and intentional sequence break that cuts out two thirds of adventure.
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zippdementia posted September 07, 2009:

I only saw this game played by a friend and yet I, too, thought it deserved a 10. Amazing job that I can only pray one day makes its way onto the PSN.
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Lewis posted September 07, 2009:

Thoughts on it funding a vicious bigot?
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honestgamer posted September 07, 2009:

Definition of 'bigot' as defined by Miriam Webster:

a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

My short answer to your question, Lewis, is that I don't consider Orson Scott Card a bigot and therefore have no problem purchasing games and books that benefited from his involvement. I can of course understand why someone who feels differently might choose a different response and perhaps encourage others to do the same.

The word 'bigot' is a convenient label that gets thrown around in a lot of places where it doesn't actually apply, to the point where the vehemence that often inspires its use is sadly ironic. In asking your question, you're touching on an issue that I don't feel can adequately be addressed without turning into a monstrous debate over politics, semantics and ethics that have only the thinnest connection to Shadow Complex or my review of that game. Emotions consistently run high during such discussions, there's often name calling and just about no one likely to participate is actually trying to understand the opposing viewpoint (all things that go against the forum guidelines and their general spirit). I see that as a topic that should be studiously avoided a site that at its core is really just about video games. Surely, that's a broad enough topic as it is?
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zigfried posted September 07, 2009:

I think everyone has divisive aspects to their character, especially where religious beliefs are involved. Fame tends to bring those aspects into public view. It's fine if people choose to boycott Shadow Complex to prevent a single cent from going to Card. It's fine if people choose to buy Shadow Complex specifically to support Card.

I personally see no difference between the two actions.

Whether or not people purchase the game won't have any meaningful impact on Card; it's just a way for people to display their personal political views at the expense of an entire team's vision. He was a small piece of the design, and the divisive views that have been called into question don't play a role in the game itself.

I have no problem with people raising the alarms; providing information so that developers and consumers make informed decisions is a good thing. I do take issue with the notion that I'm morally obligated to boycott it.

I haven't bought the game yet, but being told that I shouldn't buy Shadow Complex makes it pretty tempting ;)

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EmP posted September 07, 2009:

And here's Lewis with the buzzkill!

It's not like the game was based around whatever unpopular views you PC kids are striking out against these days, nor will a noteable percentage of the funds find their way into his pocket to fund terrorism of puppy kicking, or whatever. It's a (seemingly) good game and, if it sells well, it will allow the developer to make more good games in the future.
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JANUS2 posted September 07, 2009:

Don't care.

Seriously, the controversy surrounding Shadow Complex is beyond stupid. First of all, the game has almost nothing to do with him. The story is irrelevant and the few scenes of dialogue were written by a different writer. You can't boycott it based on content because there's nothing offensive, so we get this "don't fund a bigot" stance. Well great, let's not fund a bigot and let's also hurt the developers in the process. What if the sound effects man was anti-gay? Would we all be refusing to buy the game then?

Yeah, Orson Scott Card has conservative beliefs that I don't personally agree with, but the game does not attempt to defend, promote or glorify these beliefs in any way because it had nothing to do with him. To me it seems like people have tried to turn this game into something that it isn't in order to attack Card.
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JANUS2 posted September 07, 2009:

"I haven't bought the game yet, but being told that I shouldn't, does make it pretty tempting"

Just make sure you play it on insane.
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zigfried posted September 07, 2009:

Yeah JANUS2, I saw some gameplay footage and totally get what you're talking about with the hand-holding.

Aside from removing all of the onscreen cues, is insane mode that much harder otherwise? Because I'm not really looking for a game that goes out of its way to brutally murder me, I would just like a game with some moderate challenge that doesn't coddle me.

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EmP posted September 07, 2009:

It should be noted that I have outspoken views on orphans, who I belive are an unwanted burden on my tax payments, and should be offered up as alturnative fuel. Because I have these unpopular views, should this site as a whole, being a beast made of uncountable individuals, suffer and not be viewed at all?

The answer is: only if you are a twit.
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JANUS2 posted September 07, 2009:

Insane mode can be very tough early on because you don't have much health and you lose it very quickly, but by the end of the game you'll have turned into an unstoppable super soldier (which is a lot of fun). There's actually a difficulty level between normal and insane. I haven't played it so I don't know how much hand-holding it does, but I do know that you can turn off the blue line if you want to.
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Lewis posted September 07, 2009:

Man! My comment was tongue-in-cheek - I expected a sly wink if any response at all. The internet doesn't allow you to say things with a smile, does it?

It is a really interesting one, though, and I'm glad it's spurred on the discussion. I'm intrigued by Jason not thinking that's an apt description of the man, though.

My tuppence: I wouldn't boycot the game. I intend to buy it very soon, as I hear it's excellent. What would put me off buying it more than Card's peripheral involvement was an incredibly unprofessional comment on Christian's (completely objective and reporterly) article on the situation over at Gamasutra, in which the game's writer was pretty fucking out of order in what he said to Christian about his work - really accusative and rude, basically, and then angrily attacking those who were choosing to boycot the game. On a purely personal level - because the comment was right there in front of me, because it was on a website I write for, because I understand Christian was just doing his job, and doing it well, as the article was brilliant, fair and unbiased - I found that more offensive than my more distant reaction to Card's political views.

That said, I do think Card is a completely hateful person, eager to spread his own narrow-minded ideologies across the globe with little or no consideration for anyone else's views. This is a man who advocates a ban on same sex marriage, is a member of an organisation who frequently scaremonger the more ignorant population into believing homosexuality is some sort of curse that's going to corrupt everyone's morals and ethics, is a denier of global warming, and - though this is just our personal views contradicting, rather than him being a dick - an avid supporter of the Republican Party and its War on Terror.

So no, this is not the sort of man I'd want to support. Then again, I've heard plenty of people say Shadow Complex is their favourite game of the year, so I'm eager for a piece of the action. And Chair is a small development house whom I'd love to support - and while I'd say it was perhaps a little naive to license Card's universe without thinking of the implications, which seems to be the case, I wouldn't want them to lose money for that.

What has irked me in certain places - not here, obv - is the reactionary silencing a number of people are trying to impose. Kneejerk "it's just a game - buy it and enjoy it, or shut up" or "politics and videogames aren't related, so it's not relevant" comments that completely beggar belief. Like Resident Evil 5's portrayal of native central African people, or District 9's depiction of the Nigerian gangs, it might not be the work trying to advocate an abhorrent political view, but it is relevant, because people are choosing to boycot the game, people are upset, and people are asking questions.

EDIT: Actually, Jason did go for the "not relevant" thing a bit, though I understand his reasoning in not wanting the discussion to spiral out of control. But it is relevant. If we understand that a big part of videogaming is the culture that surrounds it - and I'm sure we do, since we're all here talking on a community driven site - then I don't think these peripheral issues can be overlooked.

I'll abide by any rules, though, natch.
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wolfqueen001 posted September 07, 2009:

Yeah, guys. EmP's a terrible person. He also thinks prostitutes aren't people and that hippies should be interned and executed.
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zigfried posted September 07, 2009:

Damn Lewis, you type fast.

I read that article when it was first posted, but the writer's response wasn't there at the time. Didn't they praise the writer or producer or something? I really didn't expect anyone connected with the game to respond badly (although I do think the article falls into the trap of "creating news", especially since a game that was far more personal for Card -- Advent Rising -- never received this backlash)

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JANUS2 posted September 07, 2009:

The thing is, it IS just a game. The story doesn't express any political message at all and is completely irrelevant anyway. Unlike Resident Evil 5 there's nothing controversial in the game to connect it to the real world controversy. And Card can't really be said to be part of the culture that surrounds the game because he had nothing to do with it (unlike Advent Rising which he wrote). Who are we boycotting here? Chair have taken Card's universe and done their own thing with it. The culture that surrounds this game is their love for Super Metroid and old spy films. Punishing an entire development team for Card's unrelated beliefs therefore seems extreme and narrow minded.
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Suskie posted September 08, 2009:

Man! My comment was tongue-in-cheek - I expected a sly wink if any response at all.

Ha. Yeah. Right.

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