This week sees the release of Shadow Complex for the Xbox Live Arcade developed by Chair Entertainment with help from Epic Games (since it uses the Unreal Engine 3 after all.) It’s been highly anticipated for a while now and is part of the much-promoted Xbox Live “Summer of Arcade” avalanche of top tier releases. Its been a relatively dry year for game releases, with downloadable games generally being the most interesting things out there as most retail titles have been waiting for Q4 or have been delayed until 2010. With such a lack of fresh meat, theres lots of room for a game like Shadow Complex to strut it’s stuff. We’ve already seen the multi-player-only Battlefield 1943 gain huge sales in this industry climate. Now its Shadow Complex’s turn to attempt the same with a purely single player experience.
This is an interesting game specifically because it doesn’t do anything new. It does things which are old but with contemporary flare. Lately most games have been mostly recycling themselves, especially as sequels or remakes. There isn’t a massive amount of innovation or risk taking originality going on in the industry these days. It’s easier to play it safe and just tweak the same game that you released 12 months ago with some new graphical filters. What Shadow Complex does is takes 1980s game-play and applies the same principles resulting in a game which plays like a cross between Metroid, Contra, Prince of Persia and Impossible Mission yet with sharp, dynamic presentation. Peter David’s script is not as typically cheesy as you’d expect in these games either, running parallel to Orson Scott Card’s novel ‘Empire‘ with the game presented as a companion to the novel’s sequel ‘Hidden Empire.’
One of the major problems with this game, however, is that unlike it’s 1980′s influences, its surprisingly easy. The save system is location based – if you enter a ‘save room’ it automatically and instantly saves your progress. These rooms are common enough so that you rarely find yourself frustrated having to re-traverse the same areas of the map just to overcome one obstacle. Playing through one the second most difficult setting, progress is still pretty steady. It would be nice if the game presented a challenge similar to those games it so heavily draws inspiration from. Theres some value in frustration. That being said, the replayability is still there regardless, since the game incorporates a live leaderboard system, constantly informing you of how much better your friends are than you. When you get a head-shot on an evil henchman, you are notified how many more head-shots your friends have accomplished. This, of course, makes the game much more competitive in nature and drives you to re-play simply for oneupmanship.
It blends all of these influences really well and Donald Mustard did a fantastic job with the creative direction to give it a slick appearance. It is a fairly open world, with new avenues unlocked by gaining new abilities, much like Metroid, rewarding exploration and experimentation. Similar to Contra, it can be best described as 2.5D where gameplay is largely 2D in nature with some instances of 3D interaction. Impressively the environments are well designed too. The level design is quite superb and some of the best in any 2D platformer to date (and that’s saying something!) The layouts seem somewhat logical and natural – rather than being designed purely as a game-obstacle and the lighting in the game really gives it a strong, coloruful presentation without repetition being terribly evident. In short, the environment is seamless and beautiful with lots of variety.
The sound is pretty solid too. It surprisingly does not get repetitive or annoying like with most games and even in terms of music there is very limited and subtle music involved. The sound effects have some finesse and manage to be well articulated yet not distracting. Often with these games, the sounds can get stale really quickly. There is usually only 3 or 4 different sounds that enemies will make. Your character will always make the same grunts and expressions. The music is typically looped to death. In Shadow Complex none of that happens.
With this game, the experience of everyone involved really shines through. Despite this sounding like gushing, the high production values and attention to detail are evident with every step. Even the controls are responsive and intuitive (though the control diagram leaves a lot to be desired). The game’s pacing is quick enough to not get tiresome, yet slow enough to allow for a decent learning curve. Really every aspect of the game seems well thought out and assembled perfectly. It’s hard to come up with significant criticisms of this game, especially considering low price of 1200 MSP (about $17 CAD) and the game is solid in scale, concept, execution and attention to detail. Its not a perfect game (no game ever is) but problems with the game are very minor and so it’s easy to recommend this game as possibly the best Xbox Live Arcade games to date.