In retrospect, what’s most surprising about Shadow Complex is that it’s taken this long. That’s not a shot at developers Chair and Epic, who have produced a game of almost staggering quality on what is probably a relatively standard development schedule. It’s a critique against the game industry’s collective assumption that 2-D gameplay became obsolete with the advent of 3-D graphics. Since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, adventure platformers have pretty much been relegated to mobile developers and indie revivalists; meanwhile, AAA studios have been forced to shoehorn their gameplay concepts into three dimensions in the interest of getting funding. Over a decade later, Shadow Complex proves in no uncertain terms that the industry has some making up to do.
Set in the same universe as Orson Scott Card‘s 2006 novel Empire, Shadow Complex tells the story of Jason Fleming (voiced by Uncharted‘s Nolan North), a not-quite ordinary guy who stumbles into a high-tech weapons facility while on a spelunking trip with his girlfriend Claire. As Jason delves deeper into the complex to liberate her from her shadowy captors (see what I did there?), he learns of the organization’s plans to incite a civil war and overthrow the U.S. Government. Aided only by his wits – and later, a near indestructible exoskeleton that can effortlessly climb any surface and sprint at Mach 2 – Jason must travel through the compound in search of the group’s leader and put a stop to his plans before it’s too late.
While it’s a notch above standard videogame fare, perhaps the best thing about Shadow Complex‘s plot is that it knows when to get out of the way. More engrossing than the overarching narrative are the smaller moments, many of which occur in-game rather than resorting to cut scenes: brief exchanges between Jason and Claire, bits of overheard conversation from unwitting soldiers, first encounters with new boss enemies, etc. It takes guts to relegate crucial plot elements to the background, but by trusting players to piece together the story on their own, Chair and Epic have created a 2-D world with more depth than all but the most intricate first-person shooters.
That subtlety extends to the game’s visual presentation. While you may be stuck in two dimensions, that game’s camera fluidly moves to give you the ideal perspective of both the action and the scenery. It’s perhaps the most obvious mark of Epic’s guiding hand – with the Gears series, the veteran developer proved that videogames can surpass Hollywood cinematography in audience engagement with the right camera techniques, and in Shadow Complex, they’re on full display. In tight corridors, the camera pans in to nudge you even closer to claustrophobia; on the world’s surface, it opens up to give you a panoramic look at the (surprisingly scenic) terrain. Unlike many games told from a third-person perspective, Shadow Complex‘s camera is less a problem to be solved and more of an artistic tool at the developers’ disposal.
It’s a good thing the developers lingered on these details, because this is a world you’ll want to explore rather than simply rush past on your way to the end credits. There are item upgrades in what feels like nearly every room of Shadow Complex‘s expansive environment, and while many of them simply up your ammo capacity, others are more substantial. You can complete the game without ever earning the final upgrade to your suit, a helmet that makes you invulnerable to enemy fire as long as you don’t exceed a set movement speed. And should you choose to start over after making it past the game’s climactic finale, you’re not starting from scratch; ingeniously, the developers split Shadow Complex‘s advancement system into XP-based character upgrades and item-based suit upgrades, so you’ll already have a head start in your second – or third, or fourth – play-through.
A couple niggling issues mar an otherwise pitch-perfect gaming experience. Despite possessing technology that would make Master Chief (even more) green with envy, you’re stuck with a flashlight that dies every couple minutes. Aside from giving it a few moments to recharge, there’s no compelling reason to leave the flashlight off – Shadow Complex‘s enemies are almost totally oblivious to light, allowing you to sneak up on a group with your flashlight out without prematurely alerting them to your presence. It’s a minor oversight that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in a less fully realized world, but here, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Likewise, Shadow Complex maintains the often punishing save system of its predecessors in the genre. While some players may welcome the added challenge, other will find themselves needlessly frustrated when a single mistake results in instantaneous death – and 15 minutes of lost progress. There are enough reasons to re-examine previously explored terrain in Shadow Complex – a slap on the wrist from the developers shouldn’t be among them.
Weighed against the game’s accomplishments, however, these complaints are trivial. There are more moments of glee, surprise and, in at least one instance, downright awe in Shadow Complex‘s five-hour runtime than in a year’s worth of hastily assembled FPSs. I hope it serves as a lesson to publishers looking for a surefire way into gamers’ pocketbooks: You can render all the 3-D environments you want, but it takes a developer with an eye for detail to impart a game with real depth.
Bottom Line: Shadow Complexis a skilled revival of a dormant genre, a 2-D world of near limitless detail and, most importantly, one of the best games of the year to date.
Recommendation: Buy it. Shadow Complex justifies its modest $15 price tag with its presentation alone, and even if you’re not a fan of Metroid or Castlevania, this is a world you’ll likely be drawn into.
Jordan Deam is thankful the review code he received for Shadow Complex absolved him from choosing whether to indirectly fund Cliff Blesinski’s brazenly anti-Locust politics.